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Tuesday, 12 June 2007
Page: 47

Mr BROADBENT (5:21 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, you were in the chair when I was speaking previously on the Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2007. I had just finished summarising the provisions of the bill as outlined by the Attorney-General in his second reading speech when the debate was interrupted. I was amused and rather confused that the member who preceded me, the member for Wills, who is from Victoria, had not realised the seriousness of this debate and used it to have a crack at the government as if it were an ordinary debate. I noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you drew him back to the debate several times. What I am putting to you today is that this is a very important bill. It is about how journalists operate in this country. It is about protecting the freedom of journalists to operate in a way that protects the public, protects journalists and protects this nation. It is a very serious bill. Bills like this do not come before the House very often. Many bills are technical omnibus bills which change parts of legislation. But this is a very serious bill about freedom in Australia—the freedom for the public to receive as much information as they possibly can, having regard to an orderly society.

I would like to turn to some considerations that have given rise to this particular piece of legislation. Almost all of those who spoke before me referred to the most recent and celebrated case involving journalists and contempt proceedings. That involved Melbourne Herald Sun journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus. We have all referred from time to time to the parliamentary press gallery journalists as being members of the fourth estate. It is interesting to reflect on how the journalistic profession acquired this title. Journalists have come to accept that it refers to the profession’s relationship with the traditional British concept of the three estates of the realm, the lords spiritual—the bishops and clergy; the lords temporal—the aristocracy; and the commons. Since the early part of last century, the media has been portrayed as forming a fourth estate of the realm in acknowledgment of its role as a counterbalance to the power of the government of the day—in this particular case, the Liberal and National parties—and also as a watchdog over whether the opposition is doing its job or not. It is not just about keeping an eye on the government of the day or an individual member. There is not a member in this place who has not been made uncomfortable by the fourth estate.

The recognition of the role of the media in governance is often attributed to 19th century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. However, he was quoting an even earlier Anglo-Irish politician and thinker, Edmund Burke. According to Carlyle, Burke made this observation:

There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporter’s Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important than they all.

Burke was a leading figure, as you know, in British politics at the time of the American War of Independence, so this notion of the value of a free and independent media and its scrutiny of government actions has a long history. His thoughts were echoed by an American contemporary and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who declared:

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

From the time of the circulation of the first news sheets to when mass produced newspapers were developed to today with our sophisticated electronic media, every tyrant, despot and dictator has realised that their greatest enemy is the free flow of information. Their first moves are inevitably to seize control of television and radio stations, the printed media and any other form of media—for example, the internet—that they can close down. In this way, they can stifle that free flow of information and force-feed the public with their own particular brand of propaganda. That is why we have to ensure that Australia continues to have a free and robust media as one of the pillars of our democracy. This bill will contribute to this ideal by removing some of the constraints that might deter journalists from reporting in a manner that the public expects.

The opposition has qualified its support for the legislation, however, by claiming that it does not go far enough and should contain protections for so-called whistleblowers. The government recognises the need for some protection for whistleblowers—however, only when it can be demonstrated that it is in the public interest. It has built some of these protections into recent legislation, including the Trade Practices Act, the Corporations Act and the Workplace Relations Act. You could add this legislation to that list. Simply providing a measure recognising the need for journalists to protect their sources in appropriate circumstances will provide some protection for those very sources. Like much of the legislation that comes before this House, this bill seeks to achieve a balance between competing interests. In this case, it involves striking a balance between the right of the public to know and the entitlements of governments, corporations and individuals to confidentiality. We have enacted legislation to protect the privacy of individuals, governments and corporations as a means of restricting access to what they regard as sensitive information. But there is no doubt that from time to time these protections are outweighed by the public interest. By providing the protections for journalists contained in this amending legislation, we will see that this public interest is served. I will conclude on this point: if we come to this place and can do one thing in the time that we are here that strengthens the freedoms enjoyed in this nation—which is freer than other nations—we have played the role that we should have played as legislators. There should be freedom under the law. This nation should be free.