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Tuesday, 12 June 2007
Page: 53

Mr ANDREN (5:52 PM) —As a former member of the journalistic profession, the Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2007 holds more than the usual interest for me. The arrival of this particular piece of legislation and the Attorney-General’s professed concern for ensuring a free press are more than interesting because they coincide with the launch of a campaign by leading media executives, representing a broad cross-section of our media, who are concerned at the squeezing of Australia’s right to know. These executives representing News Ltd, Fairfax, ABC, Free TV, SBS, Commercial Radio Australia, AAP and Sky News are deeply concerned by the state of free speech in Australia. In a joint statement, the eight media leaders say:

Our freedom to express an opinion, honestly and openly, is under threat.

Equally, our ability to report to Australians facts about how they are governed and how our courts are administering justice is being severely hampered.

They state that the latest worldwide press freedom index rates Australia 35th, behind Bolivia and South Korea, and equal with Bulgaria.

The group intends to commission an independent report to show Australians how much they are not allowed to know. This will cover freedom-of-information laws—almost an oxymoron, according to the group—and will look at the tendency of courts to restrict access; the risk of journalists facing jail even when acting in the public interest; the impact of new sedition laws on freedom of expression and the performing arts; the risk of Australians being detained without trial and the reporting of such being illegal; and whether defamation laws achieve the right balance between disclosure and protection of individuals. That is just some of the brief for that study.

How did we get to this point? I believe much of it is due to the web woven by this government and this Attorney-General post September 11, beginning with the disgraceful Tampa episode. Then began a quite deliberate construction of not a security alert but an insecurity alarm that quickly influenced all government responses to the post September 11 environment. Asylum seekers arriving by leaky boat became likely terrorists. From that point, there was no going back and Australia became an epicentre of the war on terror. Fridge magnets put neighbours on edge about neighbours. Sedition was dusted off and applied as in wartime. The end result of all this is the concerns I have detailed and the reality of a public servant being convicted for leaking information about serious lapses in airport security—lapses that led to a $22 million upgrade of Sydney airport. The man should have received an OAM last Monday.

Another result of this exploiting of insecurity was a raid on a Sydney newsroom by federal agents trying to trace a leak to a journalist. In that respect, it is difficult to reconcile the concern of News Ltd about suppression of coverage and opinion and threats to journalistic silencing with its lead editorial yesterday in the Australian, in which it made an attack on those who dared question other silencings of dissent. It said:

… claims that Australia is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state where dissidents are silenced …

…            …            …

… would seem difficult to sustain at a time when the marketplace of ideas has never been so crowded.

It goes on:

Blogs and internet chat rooms … The Monthly, New Matilda and The Australian’s own Australian Literary Review are providing new platforms for discussion while established journals such as Quadrant and the Griffith Review are reaching new readers … The queues outside venues at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival, record attendances at similar writers festivals around the country … are public expressions of a confident, mature democracy in which informed debate flourishes.

It goes on to criticise Robert Manne:

In his contribution to Silencing Dissent, Robert Manne claimed the nation was headed on the “increasingly authoritarian trajectory of the political culture” under Mr Howard.

Some of that may be regarded in many quarters as an exaggeration, yet the sort of tones and sentiments expressed by News Ltd executives in the group of eight who have voiced these concerns about the suppression of free speech and are seeking a proper investigation of it would seem to be having a bet each way when it suits—when it becomes a political debate. But whether it is left, right, centre or whatever, the fact remains, and it has been quite openly stated by those respected media leaders, that we face a threat in this country, and I would say it has been born of the climate of insecurity that has been built around the very convenient war on terror, which is never ending, all embracing and all threatening, and the danger is that it is all silencing in its extreme manifestation.

Apart from security issues or insecurity-exploiting issues, we have seen the raid on an Indigenous newspaper by Federal Police seeking information about a public servant, and a story on Indigenous community violence. Moving to state governments, the New South Wales government will not release information on how much water it allows Lake Cowall goldmine to take from the Murray-Darling aquifer. Going back to the federal government, it will not release information on the First Home Owners Scheme, including on wealthy people who fraudulently claim the $7,000. Of course, in the micromanagement of our real involvement in the war, the military will only cooperate with embedded journalists. On this latter point, media operators should refuse to cooperate in any blatant propaganda exercises. It is as simple as that.

In general, the public right to know must always be tempered by the need to protect the individual, and this extends to the absolute requirement that the media not stir racial vilification. It is one thing for the media to protest about all of the concerns outlined by the ‘Media Eight’, but I would argue the Cronulla riots stand as a monument to the abuse, by elements of the media, of the racial vilification statutes that we have on the book—state and federal—in this country.

This bill introduces a privilege that will protect confidential communications between journalists and their sources. We are told that the legislation will require courts to give consideration to the protection of interests, including freedom of the press and the public’s right or need to know. Why do we really have to legislate for this protection? Surely it only underlines the need for constitutional recognition of the right to free press and free speech. The fact that we need to legislate here suggests how dangerously balanced our freedoms are and how challenged they have been in recent times, especially in the past decade and more especially post September 11 in the age of insecurity and on the never-ending war footing in the fight against terror. And there is the risk of a never-ending generalised vilification of Moslems and the Moslem faith by some sections of our community, including some so-called community, media and political leaders.

This bill is really about commonsense when it comes to most legal matters, including its family law ramifications. The greatest weight a court will give in deciding what is allowable and what is not relates, of course, to national security. Under post September 11 circumstances that would be easily understood; but, given the restraints on freedom to know detailed by the media organisations, we come back to square one: just what is national security?

The minister assures us that this bill represents a significant amendment to the Evidence Act and will assist the courts to balance the interests of justice in needing to make evidence available with the public interest of ensuring a free press. This sounds fine in its reading, but, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. There are many in the media and the public who doubt this will lead to a real addressing of the concerns expressed so clearly by those media organisations who grieve over recently legislated constraints in this country that have harnessed free speech and a free media. Yet, in supporting them in that, I say that they cannot afford to apply double standards, as I think they have done in articles like that Australian leader yesterday, where they pick and choose just who is allowed to have free speech, perhaps who is allowed to grieve the loss of free speech and who is allowed or not allowed to be concerned about the very suppression of free speech that they are arguing about. I am not talking about all media leaders; I am particularly referring in this case to the article in the Australian.

We cannot pick and choose our morality on this. Having two journalists facing jail over publication of information on veterans affairs matters is absolutely outrageous, but the so-called and all-embracing war on terror will no doubt test the extent to which this and any future government is really serious about the public interest and a truly free media.