When he launched the Rudd Government’s shield law reforms in March, Attorney-General Robert McClelland said his Bill recognised the important role journalists play in informing the public and insisted that the new legislation “balances this against the public interest in the administration of justice”.

While welcoming the chance to review the unhealthy situation regarding shield laws in this country, journalists have overwhelmingly rejected the idea that this is balanced. We believe that the legislation as it stands will not go far enough in protecting journalists and their sources.

The Senate agrees. As The Australian reports today:

Five of the nine members of a key Senate committee called for the Government to make a major change to the shield-law scheme introduced to parliament by Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

In a report tabled at 6.35pm yesterday, the non-Labor members of the legal and constitutional affairs committee all called for the Government to adopt a scheme based on that used in New Zealand.

Under Mr McClelland’s Bill, journalists such as Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, who have criminal records against their names for nothing more than doing their jobs and adhering to their profession’s code of ethics, would still be found guilty of contempt for refusing to name their sources.

As McManus told a conference organized by the right to Know Coalition last month, he has already felt some of the fall out of that black mark against his name, when he was refused a visa to enter the US while accompanying the Prime Minister on an overseas trip.

Let’s just revisit that item of journalism’s Code of Ethics: “Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”

These three words, “in all circumstances” are the key here. They mean a journalist cannot buckle when a court tells him or her to come clean with a name, no matter how much weight the judge places on having that information for the administration of justice.

Set against this the words of Chief Judge Michael Rozenes in the Harvey/McManus case: “Journalists are not above the law and may not, without penalty, expect to be permitted to follow their personal collegiate standards where those standards conflicts with the law of the land.”

Personal collegiate standards? It’s a pretty mean way to sum up the motives of two brave reporters who were prepared to go to jail rather than betray a confidence and rubbish their professional code. Would he address a Catholic priest this way in coercing him to break the seal of the confessional, or a psychiatrist who wanted to protect client confidentiality?

And yet Mr McClelland’s proposed shield laws will leave all the discretion to judges like Michael Rozenes, who either cannot understand or do not value the vital part played by this confidentiality in bringing important information to the Australian public.

Put quite simply — without this guarantee, this information will dry up. If they can’t guarantee that their identities will be protected, the brave men and women who resort to talking to journalists after their internal complaints have been ignored, will not risk coming forward in the public interest.

We will all be poorer for it.

The Media Alliance is of one mind with pretty much all of this country’s media organisations on this subject. We should, as a matter of urgency, look at introducing a similar system to those adopted in New Zealand, where they have a presumption that journalists’ sources should remain confidential unless there is a compelling reason for disclosure. Similar laws are in force in Britain and are being debated federally in the US, where a large number of states already protect journalists’ confidential source.

For a government that came to power pledging to “restore trust and integrity”, Mr McClelland’s shield laws do not get the job done. More work is needed on this.

Christopher Warren is Federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey