Hobbling the News: A Study of Loss of Freedom of Information As a Presumptive Right for Public-interest Journalists in Aotearoa New Zealand

Treadwell, Greg
Rupar, Verica
Matheson, Donald
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Public-interest journalism is widely acknowledged as critical in any attempt at sustaining actually-existing democracy and is reliant on access to State-held information for its effectiveness. The success of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Official Information Act 1982 contributed to domestic and international constructions of the nation as among the most politically transparent on Earth. Early narratives, partially heroic in character and woven primarily by policy and legal scholars, helped sophisticate early understanding of the notably liberal disclosure law. However, they came to stand in stark contrast to the powerful stories of norm-based newsroom culture, in which public-interest journalists making freedom-of-information (FOI) requests bemoaned an impenetrable wall of officialdom. Set against a literature that validates its context, inquiry and method, this thesis explores those practice-based accounts of FOI failures and their implications for public-interest journalism, and ultimately political transparency, in Aotearoa New Zealand. It reconstructs FOI as a human right, defines its role in democracy theory and traverses the distance between theory and actually-existing FOI. The research employs field theory in its approach to FOI as a site of inter-field contestation, revealing that beyond the constitutional niceties of disclosure principles, agents of the omnipotent field of political power maintain their status through, in part, the suppression of those principles. Those agents of the previously autonomous public administrative field, in relative terms, are subsumed into the field of power to act in its principal agents’ interests. The instruments of power that allow the agency of State officials to become dominant over the agency of skilled and experienced public-interest journalists become visible through the investigation. A thematic analysis of rich data generated from transcripts of 18 semi-structured interviews lies at the heart of the empirical and phenomenological research. This analysis is triangulated with historical document analysis to establish the political thinking behind the establishment of one of the world’s first and most celebrated FOI regimes, and supported through the deep understanding offered by a case study of FOI failure. Through this approach, this doctoral research considers the struggles of accountability journalism and acts of State secrecy against the background of neoliberalisation of economic and social structures that began two years after the establishment of the nation’s FOI regime in 1982. The corrective mechanism of disclosure laws operates to some extent but the publicising of information politically harmful to the Government is significantly restricted and FOI failures are, over time, normalised. The research also uses theories of neoliberal hegemony to reveal an opacity growing over State expenditure through the corporatisation and privatisation of State services and finds public-interest journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, without significant legislative change, has few options beyond its dysfunctional relationship with the agents of a reluctant State.

Freedom of information , Public-interest journalism , Press freedom , Transparency , Official Information Act 1982
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