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Panpa Bulletin : Oct-Nov-December 2007
The Federal Government was furious, and initiated legal pro- ceedings to force the journalists to reveal the source of their story. This raised a fundamental issue of how journalists do their job. During the course of the proceedings, the leaker was found by other means and was convicted. But this did not deter the government from prosecuting the journalists for refusing to name their source. They were convicted of contempt of court, and fined $7000. In other words, they were convicted for doing their job and abiding by the ethical standards of their profession. I believe journalists do have a privilege to protect their sources, and that this should be recognised in the law. I do not believe this privilege should be absolute. There may be times when a journalist has information that in- volves national security, is about criminal activity, or terrorism, or an imminent threat to life --- and in those circumstances, perhaps the privilege should be removed. It would be good to think that all of us in the media could agree on certain standards that morally protect our nation and our citizens. But we should never be prevented from having access to informa- tion that makes leaders accountable and our nation a better place. The law should recognise that journalists have a need to protect their sources --- that there should be a presumption that such a privilege is valid, but can be reduced or removed under compel- ling circumstances. The kind of balancing I am talking about will involve the enact- ment of so-called "shield laws" at the State and Federal levels. To the credit of the Attorney-General, such a Federal law has been enacted, but it is not as strong as it should be. The States have yet to act, and indeed the law was undermined recently when the Australian Law Reform Commission pro- nounced its support for the idea that all Australians should have the right to sue for invasions of privacy under a newly "discovered" privacy tort. A free press is essential to the functioning of a proper democracy. A free press has to fulfil its role responsibly --- and take care to treat people and issues with respect. These things are finely balanced. But I am worried that over the past few years there has been an accelerating slide to secrecy in government and a weakening of the principles necessary to ensure a vigorous free press. I want to be clear: we do have a free press. We face none of the challenges journalists face in places like Zimbabwe, where freedom of the press is a crime, or Russia, where crusading journalists have been murdered. We face nothing like that. But we do need to be vigilant about a creeping secrecy in government. We at Fairfax Media have joined with our colleagues across the media industry --- print and broadcast --- to take these issues forward, and get that balance right. It is an important issue --- one to which we all need to pay keen attention. "I believe journalists do have a privilege to protect their sources, and that this should be recognised in the law."
August September 2007