New Zealand police Wednesday began searching four media organizations three days before national elections to seize evidence related to a recording of Prime Minister John Key that he says was illegally obtained.
Police say the search warrants will be executed Wednesday and Thursday. They are seeking copies of the recorded conversation between Key and an ally, interviews with the cameraman who recorded it and footage from the scene. Warrants are being issued at two television networks, a newspaper and a radio broadcaster.
The contents of the Nov. 11 recording have yet to be made public. Key's political opponents say they believe the recording contains embarrassing political statements by the prime minister.
After the cameraman handed a copy of the recording to the Herald on Sunday newspaper, Key and his governing National Party suggested the recording had been covertly orchestrated and compared the newspaper's tactics to those used at the notorious, defunct British tabloid News of the World.
But the Herald on Sunday's editor, Bryce Johns, said the newspaper didn't know anything about the recording until the cameraman turned it over. He said Key has been successful in his twin aims of diverting attention from what he says on the tape and ensuring it doesn't come out until after the election.
"He set out to paint the newspaper as the bad guy, and that's so far from the truth it's difficult to reconcile," Johns said.
Johns said police served a warrant Wednesday and the newspaper handed over all the material asked for. He declined to elaborate. He said the newspaper considered publishing the recording when it first got the tape, but it had to weigh that against its legal and ethical obligations and instead chose to wait.
The recording was taken after an event staged for media at an Auckland cafe. Key asked reporters to move away while he chatted one-on-one with Act party candidate John Banks.
Cameraman Brad Ambrose left a cloth pouch that contained a recording device on the table. Ambrose has said in media interviews that he left the device inadvertently in the confusion of the media scrum and hadn't intended to record the conversation.
This week, Ambrose asked a High Court judge to rule the conversation as public, given its venue and backdrop. But the judge on Wednesday declined to rule one way or the other, saying she didn't want to impede a police investigation.
The controversy doesn't seem to be affecting Key's chances of re-election. Polls indicate he and his party could win the most lopsided election in decades.