Safety, trust and transparency

Transparency and accountability are the hallmarks of democracy.

But, even in a democracy, power can corrupt; therefore the job of journalists is to hold those in authority to account, by questioning actions, seeking the rationale behind them, and exposing any abuses of power.

The actions of those in central and local government, police and the judiciary should be highly scrutinised, as they are our elected or appointed representatives, charged with working for the community good, and for making and upholding the laws that govern us.

The Official Information Act is supposed to give the public and journalists the means to obtain information of public interest in a timely manner, and the role of the ombudsman provides a vital backup.

There is a slow, steady and insidious eroding of transparency in too many areas, however.

Smokescreens, part-truths, secrets, semantics, brain fades, fudgings, refusals to comment, commercial sensitivities, redacted documents, and the shutting down of discussion about issues of interest and concern have become too frequent in officialdom.

The simplest query cannot be answered without lodging a request under the OIA, whose 20-day deadline is routinely ignored.

The erosion of public broadcasting values has not helped.

And it is concerning to see those exposing any form of ''dirty politics'' publicly vilified.

It is pleasing Police Commissioner Mike Bush has apologised and committed to reviewing the policy whereby academics' research involving police must be approved before release and amended if it is negative, and academics blacklisted if they do not comply.

How the policy was ever deemed ''fit for purpose'' in a democracy beggars belief.

Totally unwelcome, however, has been the police response to a journalist's investigation into gun laws, whereby she was able to buy a rifle online with no valid firearms licence by forging police details.

While there will be many who argue her approach was confrontational, and crimes were committed in order to expose the issue, the subsequent reaction - a criminal investigation including a police search of her house - seems totally unwarranted.

There are disturbing similarities with the police raid on journalist Nicky Hager's house.

The intent of the story was to highlight the loophole that allowed the purchase, and to inform the public the police had been told of the problem previously but not acted on it.

There was clearly a public safety interest.

The fact police promptly reviewed and remedied the loophole speaks for itself.

The lack of respect for journalists, the information often withheld from the public, and the attitudes of some in authority when significant information is revealed is concerning.

These type of incidents serve only to reinforce the belief those in power are working to serve and protect themselves above the public.

Trust is fundamental to any individual or government, transparency essential for any democracy, and robust oversight mechanisms and a free and active press equally crucial.

When police acknowledge things like they have a racially ''unconscious bias'' that may have contributed to the large numbers of Maori and Pacific people in court and in prison, New Zealanders should be worried. When journalists' homes are raided, New Zealanders should be worried.

When politicians refuse to answer the most basic questions about matters of public importance, New Zealanders should be worried.

The Government has just ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

Our international reputation is good, and any apologies, policy amendments and promises to do better are welcome.

But so is timely, honest, open and respectful communication and sharing of public information in the first place that clearly demonstrates authorities have nothing to hide.

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