The Prime Minister has hinted that during the campaign he will release a couple of modest reforms in order to free up restrictions on journalists and increase the public’s access to information. He said as much yesterday in the wake of the Leaders Debate fiasco when he was asked whether a culture of secrecy and restriction is taking over in Australia.
The PM’s promise was met with a lukewarm response, judging by a piece in The Age today that had an unnamed media executive reminding us not to get too excited about the prospect of anything radical.
The Coalition has been dragged kicking on the question of media freedom by a concerted campaign by the nation’s major media organisations, known as the Right to Know coalition. Yesterday’s small crack in the façade follows another win, of sorts, following last month’s announcement by the Government of an inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission into Australia’s Freedom of Information laws.
However, on this front the reforms are also likely to be modest as the terms of reference are limited and the ALRC has a history of doing precious little to give the media a break in important laws where the public’s right to know is in the balance. Its stance on Australia’s sedition and privacy laws are cases in point.
So what would the Coalition need to do to match what the ALP is now touting as policy?
For a start it would need to move on real reforms to FOI that change what Shadow Attorney-General Joe Ludwig calls the “sclerotic” nature of the current rules, in which the exemption provisions are widely abused in order to prevent the release of what should be public information.
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The Coalition would need to match the ALP’s promise to combat the federal bureaucracy’s entrenched culture of secrecy and somehow turn it into a “pro-disclosure culture”.
The Government would need to match the ALP’s policy of providing shield laws to protect journalists who in turn protect the anonymity of their sources. This would eliminate the ridiculous situation in which journalists are threatened with prison because they don’t reveal the identity of the people from whom they gain sensitive information. The Government would also need to provide rules that allow for public interest disclosure for whistleblowers. The rules would need to give insiders the means of venting sensitive information internally in the first instance and externally as a last resort without fear of retribution.
Unfortunately it appears that the Coalition doesn’t need to do much to reform the draconian nature of the sedition laws in order to match the ALP because so far the Opposition has been silent on this important area of reform.
When it comes to media freedoms however, it’s important to remember that anything offered by an Opposition is subject to review when in Government. After all, media freedoms are always championed by Oppositions and then whittled away by Governments.