Serious ethical as well as legal questions arise from the publication in The Australian today of excerpts from an interview by the Australian Federal Police with Dr Mohamed Haneef.

As the AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, noted on ABC Radio, the legal question concerns a possible contempt of court, but whether that turns out to be right or not, the publication of leaked material always raises important questions about journalistic ethics.

In this case, there are three main ethical questions:

  1. How was the leaked material obtained? If it was obtained by unlawful means, is there a justification for publishing it that outweighs the wrong involved in participating in unlawful conduct?
  2. What was the motive of the leaker? How did the newspaper strike the balance between serving the interests of the leaker, serving the interests of the newspaper and serving the public interest?
  3. How did the newspaper strike the balance between the public interest in preserving the integrity of the legal process and the public interest in penetrating some of the secrecy surrounding the State’s pursuit of Dr Haneef?

These are difficult questions on which people of goodwill can differ. It is not asserted, on the basis of what has been publicly disclosed, that The Australian acted ethically or unethically.

What The Australian does owe the public is an explanation of its reasons for publishing.

A strong case can be made out for publishing:

  • How the terrorism laws are administered is a matter of high public interest.
  • The present Government has a record of rank dishonesty where matters of immigration are concerned.
  • The Minister for Immigration, Kevin Andrews, has locked up Dr Haneef on an opinion he formed without disclosing the basis of that opinion, so avoiding public accountability.

Equally, a strong case can be made out against publishing:

  • If by publishing this material the newspaper causes legal proceedings to miscarry, justice may not be done.
  • By publishing the material the newspaper has added to the flow of information that already taints Dr Haneef whether he turns out to be guilty or innocent.
  • By publishing the material the newspaper may impede the police investigation.

These are big questions, and it is an insufficient answer to say the material was published simply because it was available, or by reference to some general statement about the freedom of the press or the right to publish.

The press rightly has freedoms but they come with responsibilities, and these include explaining its conduct where large public interest issues are at stake.

Dr Muller is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and a former editorial executive on The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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