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Apr 9, 2013

'Bend over, lift your balls!': Tony Barrass on journos in jail

Former WA bureau chief of The Australian Tony Barrass reflects on his time in jail for protecting his sources, as five of his colleagues are facing the same fate.


It’s Groundhog Day in Australian journalism, with a new push to recalibrate clunky state shield laws and finally build a proper national fortress that legally — and ethically — protects journalists going about their work.

It’s quite ridiculous that in 2013, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has been forced to act because some of the best practitioners of our craft face hefty fines, and in some cases jail, for simply doing their job: that is, informing Australians about the world in which they live. These five are at the top of their profession and should be applauded for their stubbornness and determination to highlight this Dickensian situation.

But it’s really not about them. It’s about something much bigger than the individual; it’s about fighting for the most important principle on which the very best journalism comfortably sits: trust. Relatively small word, bloody big meaning.

It was hammered into me from an early age by my dad, Tom, a life member of the then Australian Journalists’ Association, that you always went about your job “without fear or favour” and you never, ever, gave up a source. The trust between reporter and contact was as sacrosanct as that between confessor and priest. The fear or favour bit was often hard, particularly if you practised your journalism in small cities where you tended to be well-connected after a few short years.

One week you’d be sharing a beer with your best contact, the next you’d be kicking him all over page three. But they were the rules, and good contacts understood that. It was the same when it came to revealing your sources.

In late 1989, I became the first Australian journalist to be jailed for refusing to reveal a source of information in a court of law. I had steadfastly refused to answer questions, despite magistrate Peter Thobaven’s insistence that I do so, about whether the young man charged with disclosing official secrets about the tax affairs of Laurie Connell, the shonk at the heart of the WA Inc. scandal, was in fact the source for my reporting in Perth’s Sunday Times.

Editor Don Smith decided not to publish the details of Connell’s tax receipts, hard copies of which I had been given, but went big on the fact there was a major security leak inside the Australian Tax Office. We thought we were doing everyone a favour by highlighting the breach.

It was against the journalist’s code of ethics to reveal confidential sources, I told Thobaven politely, again and again. Defence lawyer Richard Utting brilliantly painted me into a corner, and while I thought I handled the court proceeding quiet well, Thobaven, grumpy and unpleasant, thought otherwise. “Seven days at His Majesty’s pleasure will give you time to change your mind,” he muttered.

I was taken from the dock, frog-marched into the bowels of the East Perth lock-up, deprived of my tie, shoelaces and belt, ordered into the back of a paddy wagon, which I shared with three boisterous, angry fellow convicts, driven to one of two maximum security prisons in Western Australia, stripped, searched (I can still hear them barking: “bend over, lift your balls!”) and then put into a cell that seemed no bigger than your average shower.

Welcome to Canning Vale, son.

What made it even more unjust was that when the case went to the next level the following year, I then faced five years inside and a $50,000 fine, but by this stage was really pissed off and even more determined — District Court Judge Antoinette Kennedy said my so-called crime “struck at the heart of the justice system”, and slapped me with a $10,000 fine, which, thankfully, was picked up by both Rupert Murdoch and the AJA.

And what about the concept of double jeopardy? I was punished not once but twice for sticking by our principles. Unbelievably, the Tax Office worker was found guilty (without my evidence, so go figure) and received a minor fine.

I have refused to allow my career to be defined by that once incident, but it was my 15 minutes of fame over a terrific 32-year career. I still, occasionally, get embarrassed about the whole scenario, particularly if it’s raised by those outside the profession. I’d like a buck for every time the chair next to me has shuffled an inch or so away when it was discovered one ruffian at the dinner party had “done porridge”.

But it’s not about me, it’s about the system, a system that protects the state and demands journalists be punished if they don’t play by its silly, archaic rules. That very same system seems determined to again make an example of Steve Pennells, Nick McKenzie, Philip Dorling, Richard Baker and Adele Ferguson.

That’s why the system needs urgent attention, and it’s up to us to fight hard to make sure we convince attorneys-general to drag these vitally important shield laws into the 21st century, ensuring a robust democracy and a world in which all Australian journalists can work “without fear or favour”.

*Tony Barrass is a Perth-based journalist who now runs a small media consultancy business; his family’s connections to the journalists’ union go back to the 1960s. The Media Alliance is holding a press freedom dinner on May 3 in Sydney to highlight the issue, with Kate McClymont as keynote speaker — more information on the Alliance website.


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7 thoughts on “‘Bend over, lift your balls!’: Tony Barrass on journos in jail

  1. Achmed

    I agree that journalists should have the “right” to protect thier sources.

    The counter to that is that if there is a “leak” of confidential information it needs to be stopped as the information being leaked could end up in the wrong hands.

    It would only be right that the leak was exposed if not the name of the journalists source

  2. Ron Chambers

    The press are just as important to society as the courts and yet judges treat journalists with such disdain. They don’t respect Free Speech. The High Court only gives it grudgingly. A good journalist is more effective at justice than any judge and courts only look after the rich. Why should the public respect the courts when the courts don’t respect the people’s right to free speech? I can’t answer that question because if I did I would be subject to contempt of court as a publication which offends the dignity of the court. So you cannot criticize them. How is that for free speech?

  3. drmick

    Occasionally this is a good thing; but like the parasites they are, they use this alleged “right” to lie, cheat, threaten, abuse, oppress, disgust & literally get away with accessory to murder, and get shirty when they are called on it. Bend over princess; there is royal commission going on at the moment investigating organised, religious “protection of sources”. Which mob is your “saviour” backing in that one?

  4. Em_E

    Tony I enjoyed your article. I want those shield laws for Journos… I think America has them and yet here we have a government hell bent on tightening laws on the fourth estate wherever they can.
    It must have been hard for you in prison, but it’s more important to honour your word once it’s given – you did exactly that.Bravo more power to you…

  5. Em_E

    drmick I see your point..but there is a difference.
    I’d like the Royal Commission to pin point where the catholic church and other organisations failed to fulfil their legal and moral obligations when abuse occurred.
    The newspaper rule is insufficient. Investigative Journos need Shield Laws to protect their source at ALL costs, assuming the story would be in the public’s interest.
    Priests protecting paedophiles is a whole different ball game I think.

  6. charlesmaddison

    I remember Tom Barrass from my time as a young journo on The Newcastle Herald.

    A good man who taught me a lot.

  7. GF50

    I believe that a right to fair and fearless reporting is a necessity….but a protection of sources from the Judiciary not necessarily, BUT not to be published, nor access to that source to be given to the “other side” .. definite yes. Allows the Judiciary to “weigh” that evidence. So often it appears to be that it can come down to Journalists sources are other Journalists. So many Journalists use “confidential source” to print what they know to be non fact with fictional source “anonymous” rubbish and infer a legitimate source ie: back bencher, caucus member, minister whatever gives their opinion legitimacy, and definitely does not pass The Public Interest Test.
    The “other side” on a personal, punitive, fishing expedition should be dis-allowed by a Court, particularly in the type of matters listed in this article, personal litigation, demanding sources, that is IMO a perversion of legal process.


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