Australia’s Right to Know Campaign is holding a Freedom of Speech conference in Sydney next week. The campaign is led by John Hartigan , the CEO of New’s Limited. It is supported by our major Media companies.
The motivation for this campaign was concern that significant inroads were being made into our fundamental rights to free speech and the public’s right to know. The concerns are justified. An examination of our Freedom of Information (sic.) laws, libel laws, the extraordinary number of suppression orders (especially in Victoria), the Australian Law Reform Commission recommendations on privacy and the excessive statutory restrictions on publication, are a concern.
There have been 18 suppression orders in Victoria in just four working days this week.
That said, there are some positive steps emanating from Canberra. The Media cannot expect that all of these issues will be addressed overnight. They cannot expect to get everything that they want. There has to be a balance.
The Bill introduced this week into the House of Representatives, to improve the position of journalists trying to protect sources, is a move in the right direction. The interests of justice must continue to outweigh a journalists’ privilege. If a judge takes the view that the only way to get a fair outcome in a trial is to order a journalist to disclose a source, then the judge will still make that order. The journalist can still refuse to answer the question and face the consequences.
The importance of the Bill, introduced by Attorney General Robert McClelland, is that judges will need to first consider the public interest in a free press. This is a positive development.
The second recent development is the Report on Whistleblower Protection from the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, chaired by Mark Dreyfus. The committee recommends that disclosure to the media be protected where the matter has been disclosed internally and externally and has not been acted on. Unfortunately the recommendation is limited to matter that threatens immediate serious harm to public health and safety but hopefully that limitation will be removed before the relevant bill is introduced to Parliament.
Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Peter Bartlett is a partner at Minter Ellison Lawyers Melbourne