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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 2994

Mr GEAR —I present the report of the Committee of Privileges relating to the matter of printed references to the proceedings and prospective recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception in the Sun News-Pictorial and Courier-Mail of 17 November 1986, and similar references in other newspapers, and incorporating four dissenting reports and the minutes of the proceedings. I also present evidence received by the Committee and correspondence relating to the inquiry.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr GEAR —by leave-The report I have just presented follows an inquiry initiated by a complaint by the honourable member for Macarthur (Mr Martin) on 17 November 1986. The honourable member, who at the time he raised the complaint was Chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception, raised, as a matter of privilege, Press reports which purported to reveal recommendations of the Joint Select Committee which had not, at that time, been reported to either House. The matter was referred to the Committee on 18 November 1986.

The Committee received written and oral evidence from Mr Martin and, inter alia, he indicated that two of the articles in question indicated to him `an oral briefing given to a reporter by someone who had participated in the Committee's deliberations, rather than a draft report being in the possession of a reporter'. Mr Martin said, in particular, that a knowledge of private discussions at meetings of the Committee on 13 and 14 November 1986 was revealed.

The Committee took the view that it should investigate, as thoroughly as possible, the apparent unauthorised disclosure, as well as the aspect of publication. To that end, the Committee wished to receive evidence from all members of the Joint Select Committee. Senators who had served on the Committee were given leave by the Senate to appear before the Committee of Privileges of the House if they saw fit. Each member of the Joint Select Committee gave evidence, as did staff members who had served on the Committee secretariat. The Committee also heard oral evidence from four journalists involved; namely, Messrs S. Rous, G. Greene, A. Fewster and M. Cockburn. Written material was also received from journalists and persons associated with the various newspapers.

The Committee made two historic decisions. First, evidence was taken in public, apart from the first evidence from the Chairman of the former Committee, although the evidence received from him in camera was subsequently authorised for publication. Secondly, the Committee permitted witnesses, if they wished, to have the assistance of an adviser or counsel during the course of their appearance. In the event, four witnesses took advantage of this offer. The level of involvement permitted was limited, and not as extensive as desired by those involved. However, witnesses were permitted to consult with and receive advice from counsel as frequently as they wished in the course of their evidence. Witnesses were also advised that further submissions could be lodged with the Committee after their oral evidence was given, and submissions were subsequently received on behalf of two witnesses. All witnesses who gave oral evidence did so after making an oath or affirmation.

It appeared from the evidence that there had been more than one source of information on the deliberations of the Committee. However all members of the former Committee, and staff of the Committee, denied having disclosed confidential material or information to the journalists in question. None revealed any grounds for believing that they could have been a source of an inadvertent disclosure, and each stated that they had no knowledge of the way the apparent disclosure took place.

I come now to the conclusions of the Committee. First, on the matter of disclosure, although the possibility of some form of interception or monitoring cannot be dismissed, the Committee has concluded that confidential Committee deliberations have been disclosed without authorisation by persons with access to the information. If such persons acted deliberately, they were each guilty of a serious contempt. Regrettably, the Committee has been unable to ascertain the identities of such persons. It takes a very serious view of such actions, which display an offensive disregard for the Joint Select Committee itself, and others associated with it, and ultimately a disregard for the important rules and conventions of the Houses.

Secondly, the Committee has concluded that the various acts of publication revealing the confidential deliberations constituted contempts. In particular, Messrs G. Greene, A. Fewster and M. Cockburn, in submitting material for the reports eventually printed, were each responsible for publishing information revealing confidential Committee proceedings which had not been authorised for publication, and these actions constituted contempts. Further contempts were committed by those responsible for the later publication of the reports.

Having been unable to identity the person or persons responsible for the disclosure, the Committee can make no recommendation on this matter. If, however, the Committee had been able to ascertain the person or persons responsible, the House would have been well advised to take exemplary action.

On the matter of publication, although an important rule has been breached, and whilst the actions of the three journalists in question do them no credit, the Committee has taken note of the view of the Chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception to the effect that no impediment was caused to the Committee. It therefore seeks the guidance of the House as to its attitude to penalties. If the House believes that a penalty is warranted in this case, it should refer this matter back to the Committee for consideration. If the matter is referred to it, the Committee would propose to recall the persons in question so that they could be heard on the matter.

On the question of incidental matters, during the Committee's inquiry it heard evidence from members and staff of the former Joint Select Committee. As mentioned before, each person denied having disclosed confidential material and stated that he had no knowledge of the source of the material. If the presumption is that persons with a knowledge of the confidential deliberations of the Committee in fact disclosed the material in question, it would appear that one or more persons has lied to or misled the Committee of Privileges. The Committee regards this as a very grave matter, and even more serious than the actual disclosure of the deliberations of the Joint Select Committee.

The Committee was faced with a situation in which three witnesses, namely Messrs G. Greene, A. Fewster and M. Cockburn, each refused to provide certain information requested by the Committee. The information sought concerned the sources of their information about the Committee's work. The witnesses were advised of the possibility of a refusal to answer questions being regarded as a contempt. However, they referred to their desire, even a perceived obligation, to respect the confidentiality of their sources. Reference was made in particular to the Code of Ethics of the Australian Journalists' Association.

Whilst the conventions associated with this code may be given considerable weight by journalists, it is not accorded special significance by the Committee. The Committee is of the view that, whilst the Houses and their committees would always take note of these conventions, in every case question of whether they should be respected or whether, on the other hand, a journalist or other representative should be required to answer, would be for the House or committee to determine. In this particular case, I advised the three witnesses who refused to provide the information sought that refusal to provide information could itself be regarded as a contempt, but they did not change their positions. The Committee therefore recommends that the House refer the matter back to the Committee for the consideration of an appropriate penalty. The Committee advises the House that, prior to considering the question of penalty, the Committee would recall the witnesses and provide them with an opportunity to be heard on their own behalf.

Only last week, Mr Deputy Speaker, the House debated and passed the Parliamentary Privileges Bill, which declared the powers, privileges and immunities of the Houses of the Federal Parliament and their committees and members. I hope that the House will now find time to consider this report from the Committee of Privileges because some very important issues are involved. Finally, as Chairman of the Privileges Committee, I would like to place on the public record the appreciation of the Committee to Bernard Wright, the Secretary to the Committee, and his assistant Veronica Lategui, for the high standard of assistance given to the Committee during this inquiry.