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.