New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had the wrong end of the wrong stick in his legal bid to flush out the whistleblower over his seven year overpayment of national superannuation.

He postured away for three months in the courts but yesterday abandoned his action against two journalists (me and Newshub’s Lloyd Burr), signalled he’ll give up against the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development and asked the High Court to cancel his hearing date against six National Party former ministers and staff.

Somewhere deep in his mind the Minister of Racing found it possible to call all this a victory and claim he will undertake a ‘second phase’ against his political opponents because they’ve allegedly told him through court affidavits more than he wanted to know.

Don’t bet your racing industry largesse on it. He could well push on with a court action against Bill English, Steven Joyce, Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett, Wayne Eagleson and Clark Hennessy.

But if his claim about the ‘new’  information from National is as accurate as his claim that we journalists provided the information his court action had sought, then he would be indulging in fake news.

Peters, via his idiosyncratic old legal ally Brian Henry, sought journalists’ notes, meeting notes, discussions with fellow journalists, phone, text and electronic records relating to the story which broke in August last year that he had taken much more money from the state for his super than that to which a person in his personal situation was entitled.

He got all-but-nothing of the above: one scrawled page of a few disconnected and opaque words from another journalist at Newshub attached to their affidavit, which advanced his cause not a jot. He did, however, get set right about his claims of a vast political-media conspiracy against him. 

The two media affidavits under oath refused to provide any material which could, incrementally or substantially, lead to the identification of the source of the information about his super windfall.

They told Peters, 72, he was misguided and making claims that were just not true.

The political affidavits also delivered Peters little. He claims otherwise now but saving face requires that bluster. Claim after claim he had made in his own affidavit and statement of claim was rebutted clearly under oath. For example, people who Peters claimed spoke of the matter in advance of media inquiries to him have sworn that they had not known about his overpayments until the day of his own public outing of his ‘mistake’. Others swore they mentioned it to no one after having been briefed.

The action was a ‘pre-commencement discovery’ application to help him establish who he might later take action against under the Privacy Act. But the only person established to have breached his privacy is Peters himself – who in an act of political prebuttal issued a press statement talking about his ‘mistake’ and how he had quietly tidied it away with MSD officials.

Newsroom’s information was from an anonymous source, as was Newshub’s and at least one other news organisation which did not pursue the matter. That source told us she/he was disturbed by the political vilification of Greens leader Metiria Turei for over-claiming welfare payments when someone like Peters could have also taken more than his entitlement without any public accountability. Peters, of course, being the self-appointed guardian of superannuation and the interests of the old.

Peters’ misconceived press statement yesterday claiming he’d got what he wanted from the journalists, and more than he wanted from National figures, included a convoluted defence of freedom of speech with the caveat that no one can cry ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema. Which is correct. But of course in this instance there was smoke, and may have been fire, in his superannuation file and the public had a right to know about it. 

Some ‘experienced and respected’ journalists who ought to have known better shrugged their shoulders and said it was an innocent seven-year mistake and the National Party had orchestrated a conspiracy to damage Peters. 

Who to believe? The politician who held up a ‘No’ sign at a press conference when asked if his party received funds from millionaire Owen Glenn when it did? The man who had his lawyers sign and file this court action against National the day before the election and then purported to negotiate a possible coalition with them in good faith. The man who now tries to say black is white, night is day and journalists provided him with information he sought on interviews, communications and sources?

Peters did say his decision not to proceed against the journalists was ‘amicable’. That was probably because our refusals of his requests were always polite and we opted not to seek costs from him for wasting all of our time. We at Newsroom made the call we didn’t want to take the chance that any money forthcoming might have been from a taxpayer-funded source.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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