Former NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman will not only be a good chairman of the ABC — assuming he’s confirmed in the job, as Fairfax papers report today — but he could easily be the best.

Certainly, he will be no government lackey. And he could be the ideal person to oversee Australia’s national broadcaster. That’s a remarkable thing to say about a recently-retired judge, given that most of his ilk regard the media as a nuisance or a plague, and that journalists generally hate judges. But Spigelman is a remarkable man.

Unlike most of his fellow judges, Spigelman values the media and believes it plays a crucial role in Australian society. He also believes passionately in the public’s right to know, which is why he instilled the principle of open justice into the NSW Supreme Court during his 13 years in charge.

In a lecture in London in 2005, Spigelman told a conference on media and the law: “The fundamental rule is that judicial proceedings must be conducted in an open court to which the public and the press have access. A court cannot agree to sit in camera, even if that is by the consent of the parties.”

Gina Rinehart and her lawyers would do well to have heeded those words of advice before their repeated recent demands for non-publication orders.

In the same speech, Spigelman quoted the observations of Justice Felix Frankfurter, who said: “A free press is not to be preferred to an independent judiciary, nor an independent judiciary to a free press. Neither has primacy over the other, both are indispensable to a free society.”

Just as relevant to Spigelman’s new role as ABC chairman is his belief in the importance of searching for truth. A week before he retired last May, the Chief Justice delivered the Sir Maurice Byers Lecture on “Truth and the Law”, in which his main theme was, “What matters most are the facts”. The Chief Justice assured his audience that the public want a legal system “dedicated to the search for truth”.

It’s no great leap to suppose that’s what the public also want from the ABC, and that it will be what Spigelman will demand.

But Spigelman brings a host of other qualifications to the chairman’s job. He has an incredible brain, which got him into Sydney Boys High and won him the Sydney University Medal in his youth. And he has experience in both the media and politics.

Back in the 1970s, he was the youngest-ever head of the Department of Media in Canberra, at the age of 29. Before that, fresh out of law school, he was Gough Whitlam’s senior adviser and principal private secretary.

He had already shone in student politics, as president of the SRC at Sydney University, and he had shown a passion for social justice.

In 1965, when Spigelman was 19, he was one of the key organisers of the Freedom Ride, in which Charlie Perkins and a bus-load of white students attempted to confront Australia’s racist attitudes to Aborigines. Giving a tribute to Perkins in 2005, Spigelman revealed he was “king hit” during one angry argument and that they were all subject to “physical violence and abuse”. At one point near Walgett in northern NSW, their bus was forced off the road and surrounded.

*Read the full story at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey