Veteran NewstalkZB political editor Barry Soper will give evidence for New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in the MP’s court action against senior public servants and National MPs over a leak of his superannuation overpayment.
Soper, who criticised the leak and media revelations of the Peters’ overpayment during the 2017 election campaign, is one of three late witnesses whose intended evidence has only just been provided to the defendants’ lawyers before the November 4 hearing.
The other two witnesses, listed in the latest High Court judgment in the case as ‘H’ and ‘M’, are likely to give evidence over the internal conduct of the Ministry of Social Development and procedures in the office of the Minister of Social Development.
The nature of Soper’s testimony is not outlined. But in Peters’ original legal attempt to force journalists from Newsroom and Newshub to reveal the source of the leak, his lawyer cited Soper as a “senior and respected” journalist who “realised the leak for what is is, a deliberate political trick to damage [Peters’] reputation. The reports by [such] experienced journalists have reduced the damage suffered”.
Soper and Peters have interacted at Parliament for much of the past four decades, on-and-off, and the Newstalk political editor has a close insight into Peters’ mind and modus operandi.
While Soper is now listed as one of Peters’ witnesses, two other journalists may yet be compelled to give evidence on how they obtained information on the case from a whistleblower.
Peters’ lawyer Brian Henry has advised Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid, who was involved in reporting the original news of the overpayment, and Newshub‘s press gallery reporter Jenna Lynch that they will face subpoenas to appear at the hearing next month to give evidence.
Peters initiated legal action against the two news organisations for “pre-commencement discovery” to establish what notes, phone and digital records the journalists had from their interactions with the whistleblower. That action was dropped after both Newsroom and Newshub said they received anonymous calls on the matter, could not help in his inquiries and would not prejudice sources.
In the latest hearing, last Friday, Justice Geoffrey Venning criticised the delay from Peters’ side in getting witness material to the defendants. “The position is unsatisfactory. The issues should have been addressed some time ago.”
Peters’ own brief of evidence had only just been signed last week.
Peters will have to delete one paragraph from that evidence after Henry advised the court the UMR pollster Stephen Mills, whose firm surveys public opinion for the Labour Party, would no longer be appearing as a witness and UMR polling would not be produced in evidence. A Peters reference to UMR’s polls would not now be read.
The lawyer for the Crown defendants, Victoria Casey QC, said the outlines received of what witnesses ‘H’ and ‘M’ “will say” at court needed to be provided as proper briefs of evidence. It was her understanding “the witnesses may not actually go as far as the ‘will say’ statements propose.”
The taxpayer is covering the costs of the defendants – including a QC and lawyer for former ministers Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley, and Crown Law and Casey for MSD, the State Services Commissioner and the MSD chief executive.
Peters’ statement of claim from June 2018 says he wants $450,000 in damages from Boyle and [the Attorney-General] on behalf of MSD, (the claim is unclear on whether he wants the sum from each of them or combined) and $450,000 from each of Hughes, Tolley and Bennett. The $1.8 million total figure is, interestingly, 100 times the amount Peters is believed to have repaid MSD.
He also sought a declaration from the court that each of those being sued breached a duty owed to him to keep his superannuation details private.