The country’s biggest media companies have joined forces to demand the Gillard government amend its draft whistleblower laws so that public servants are not punished for making disclosures about politicians, intelligence agencies and judges.

In a rare joint submission, Fairfax, News Limited and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance have told a Senate inquiry that Labor’s Public Interest Disclosure Bill is too restrictive and could leave journalists criminally liable for gathering news. The submission is also backed by Free TV Australia, Commercial Radio Australia, APN, SBS, AAP and The West Australian.

The ABC has made similar points in a separate submission to the Senate committee examining the bill.

The media companies argue the whistleblower scheme should be broadened to include public interest disclosures about potential wrongdoing by politicians, their staffers and members of the judiciary. The bill currently only protects disclosures about public servants, contractors and employees in statutory authorities such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the Australian Defence Force:

“The public interest disclosure scheme should apply to all areas of government, including the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. There is no justification as to why Members of Parliament should not be protected under the scheme, nor be the subject of the scheme.”

The media companies say the almost total carve out of intelligence agencies such as ASIO in the scheme is also excessive:

“There may well be instances where corruption or maladministration occurs in these agencies, the disclosures of which will not affect intelligence or security matters. These agencies, which are responsible for significant matters of public interest, should be subject to the same level of accountability as the rest of government.”

Backing arguments made by whistleblowing experts, the media giants also oppose the many hoops public servants must jump through before they can go public with their concerns. The bill only allows disclosures to the media following an internal investigation, an unreasonably delayed investigation or if there is a “substantial and imminent danger” to public health and safety. They want a broader formulation such as the “exceptionally serious” failure requirement used in the UK.

Media companies are also alarmed by a clause that makes it a crime for anyone to use or disclose information that could identify a whistleblower. They say this could make normal newsgathering processes — such as verifying information provided to them — impossible.

In a joint submission, the heads of spy agencies ASIO and ASIS say they support the bill as it is currently drafted because it strikes the right balance between protecting sensitive intelligence and encouraging transparency.

Peter Fray

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