“I am not a political person but what I am is hurt,” says Bradley Ambrose ahead of his teapot-tapes defamation case at Auckland High Court.
A crowdfunding campaign has been launched in an effort to ensure freelance camera operator Bradley Ambrose’s defamation suit against John Key makes it to court. The case, which is likely to see the prime minister take the stand, is set down for a two-week hearing at the Auckland High Court early next month.
Ambrose, whose recording of a conversation between the prime minister and former ACT Party leader John Banks at an Auckland cafe a fortnight before the 2011 general election sparked the so-called “teapot tapes” controversy, is suing Mr Key for a total of $1.25 million in damages.
For the case to go ahead, however, Ambrose needs to pay court fees of $38,000, which he can’t afford without support, he told the Spinoff this week.
The Givealittle campaign, which has been initiated by AUT journalism lecturer Greg Treadwell, seeks to raise those fees.
Ambrose’s claim centres on three separate comments made by Mr Key to media in the five days following the set-piece rendezvous at the Urban Cafe in Newmarket. The meeting had been convened as a symbolic endorsement of Banks, then ACT leader and candidate in the Epsom electorate, by the National Party leader. The prime minister has repeatedly alleged that the camera operator deliberately recorded the conversation after media were asked to leave the cafe.
Mr Ambrose, who is in Guatemala, where he has been filming the live Pacaya volcano, told The Spinoff that the prime minister’s remarks had “a fairly rapid impact” on his ability to gain employment, with many in the industry “wanting to keep a safe distance from me”.
“I’m lucky in that I have had one or two supporters who have allowed me to continue shooting news while in New Zealand, although even I have to admit, with the changing media landscape, it’s getting harder and harder to keep doing,” he said in an email interview.
Ambrose, who plans to return to Auckland to prepare for the trial, said: “Some of the work I get is overseas, where I’m not known as ‘that teapot guy’ and that work usually comes with a high degree of risk to myself.”
He rejected any suggestion that his action is politically motivated. “Saying that I am anti-Key or anti-National would be a way of discrediting anything I had to say before I even have a chance to say it,” he said.
“I had been a National supporter for as long as I can remember. When this occurred in 2011, I had voted National for 18 years, basically from the time I could first vote. I also thought Key was a good prime minister. Obviously this is written in past tense.
“I am not a political person but what I am is hurt. The only good thing about this experience is that it has opened my eyes to what is truly important. It’s also shown me how politics works in this country and it’s the last thing I’d want to be associated with.”
Greg Treadwell said he had mounted the crowdfunding campaign because Ambrose, whom he has not met, faces a natural disadvantage as a freelance journalist challenging a politician.
“I don’t know if the court will find in favour of Mr Ambrose but I do know that in seeking redress he will face huge personal and financial costs,” writes Treadwell in a comment piece published on the Spinoff. “So on his behalf, and in a way on behalf of journalism itself, I have started a Givealittle page to help fund his court costs… It’s a very lonely road fighting a matter of principle on your own.”
When the defamation suit was filed late in 2014, Mr Key stood by his remarks. “I don’t resile from anything I’ve said,” he said. “It’s been a long-standing dispute and in the end it will go through the court process… I have absolutely no intentions of settling and no intentions of resiling from anything I said.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister yesterday declined to comment when asked by The Spinoff whether the prime minister continued to stand by his statements regarding Ambrose, but confirmed that “as previously stated Mr Key’s legal costs will come out of the National Leader’s Office budget.”
The prime minister has previously faced criticisms for using the parliamentary leaders’ budget. “The National Party leader’s budget is for the National Party going about a legitimate political purpose in Parliament. It’s not for these sorts of actions,” New Zealand First leader Winston Peters told Newstalk ZB in December 2011.
At the time, Ambrose told media he had inadvertently recorded the exchange after leaving his microphone, which remotely sent the audio to his camera, on the table in the cafe. “It all happened so fast and I couldn’t get it out of my pouch,” he is quoted as saying.
“I couldn’t get in and I just grabbed my mic in its pouch and threw it on the table. That’s all I had the space to do. Then I was ushered out, quite forcefully.”
When he discovered he didn’t have the microphone and attempted to retrieve it, a member of the PM’s staff told him she would return it after it had been sent to police, he said. “I knew I had recorded something, but I didn’t know what until I got back to my office.”
Ambrose passed the tape to the Herald on Sunday newspaper – a decision he later said he regretted in a letter to Mr Key and Mr Banks. The newspaper reported on the existence of the recording but did not publish the contents, after failing to get the PM’s permission to do so.
Mr Key, who denounced the association between the Herald on Sunday and Ambrose as an example of “UK-style News of the World tabloid tactics”, filed a police complaint against the camera operator, which led to controversial searches of several media organisations in the days before the election. He defended his decision to lay a complaint by arguing that in the matter of private conversations, “We’re at the start of a slippery slope here and I for one am going to stand up and ask the police to investigate it.”
In March 2012, the Police announced they would not be pressing charges, but had issued Ambrose with a warning. The then-Assistant Police Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said investigators regarded the recording as “most likely” intentional, but at the least “reckless”.
It is not the first time Ambrose has sought recourse through the courts. In November 2011 he asked the High Court to issue a declaratory order that the recorded conversation was not a “private conversation”. The court was unwilling to make a declaration either way, however. Justice Winkelmann ruled: “In declining to exercise the discretion to make a declaratory order, I make clear that I have not reached any view on whether this was a private communication, and whether Mr Ambrose’s actions engage s216B [the section of the Crimes Act covering interception of communications].”
Ambrose said this week that he was humbled but embarrassed by the crowdfunding campaign.
“I’m probably like the majority of New Zealanders that live from pay cheque to pay cheque and could never, without help, afford to take this course of action to clear their name,” he said.
“I’m very grateful and humbled that someone has started a Givealittle but I’m also embarrassed that it’s come to this… It’s not a process that was decided on lightly and I wish that having a day in court was affordable to ordinary New Zealanders. I feel the principle behind the court case to clear my name to be very important and will be worth the effort, even though it feels like I have a David and Goliath battle on my hands.
“I can’t afford to do this alone and I hate the fact that it feels like I have my hand out.”
The case is set down to begin on April 4.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.