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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 12529

Senator ROBERT RAY (3:49 PM) —I present the 113th report of the Committee of Privileges entitled Australian Press Council and Committee of PrivilegesExchange of Correspondence.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

As the title of the report indicates, the 113th report is in effect an exchange of correspondence between the Committee of Privileges and the Australian Press Council on matters arising from the 112th report. Some senators would have noticed that that report, and a previous one dealing with the leak of in camera evidence dealing with the Australian newspaper, have aroused quite some publicity in the media. I have to say that most of the articles on this have been very self-serving. Not surprisingly, it is in the interests of journalists and media proprietors to have absolutely no controls placed over what they write in newspapers. I understand the perspective they are coming from; I do not necessarily concede, however, that the standard of the articles written has done anything to illuminate the issue. They have been very good at knocking over straw men, and that means that some of us have been fairly reluctant to enter a public debate on this, because we know just how one sided it will be in terms of the press's attitude.

These issues deal essentially with premature disclosure of Senate or parliamentary committee reports. They take one of two forms: either the disclosing of in camera evidence or the disclosing of the conclusions of a report before it is tabled in this parliament. In some cases, that disclosure only happens one or two days before the reports are due to be tabled in the parliament—hence, it is not a question of the public's right to know; it is just a matter of one journalist ratting on all their colleagues and getting a `scoop', and that is why they do it. It is a breach of privilege to do it. We have drawn the attention of the press gallery here and media proprietors in general to the rules of parliament. To prematurely disclose such a report is a breach of privilege. It is not necessarily a contempt of parliament, because to meet that particular definition one would need the Privileges Committee to consider the matter and report to the Senate and the Senate to make a finding on it—we should not confuse the two things.

Of course, one of the great responses of the media and the Australian Press Council is to say, `Why don't you go on a witch-hunt for the leakers? Why don't you chase down the leakers?' as though we never do. The fact is that we do. We are concerned about tracking down the leakers. That is why, if it is a Senate committee, we call all the senators in before us and ask them to affirm that they did not leak the material. It is interesting that we get no credit whatsoever for being probably the only legislature around the world with the honesty to point the finger at senators. If this were a parliament overseas, they would never concede their own went out and leaked material to the media. They would deny it. We are the realists. We say, `Yes, it probably, almost certainly, was a senator who leaked the material.' We do not try to shift the blame onto committee secretariats or anyone else; we believe that it is some opportunistic senator who has leaked the material.

They ask, `Why don't you go out and catch them?' There is an absolutely simple way that we could catch them. We could compel journalists to attend the Privileges Committee hearings; we don't. We could compel them to reveal their sources; we don't. Why don't we? Because we realise that the profession of journalism has its own ethical structure, one of the tenets of which is that journalists do not reveal their sources. We do not seek to make them break the ethics that they subscribe to. All we ask in return is that they do not breach the ethics of this parliament that reports are tabled in this chamber before they are published in newspapers. It is a one-way street for a lot of media proprietors and journalists. They want us to respect them and the ethics by which their profession is run, but they will not respect the ethics of the Senate itself.

The Press Council itself asks: `Why don't you go and seize the telephone records of senators? Why don't you go and seize the hard drives from senators' computers so that you can track down a leak?' There are two reasons why we do not. We are not that sort of investigative body. We settle these matters based on the papers or by way of public hearings. The logical extension of that would be that we do not want to contemplate, and we are not going to contemplate, that we go and seize the hard drives and the phone records of journalists. What sort of position would that get us in? We reject those particular points.

Regrettably, as the correspondence shows, the most notable feature of the Press Council's correspondence is a total lack of intellectual rigour and a total lack of understanding about what the Senate and the Senate Privileges Committee has been on about. That is absolutely obvious to those senators who read that correspondence. I know that in one of his letters the head of the Press Council suggested that one of my responses to him was rude, and I regret it if it was. I do not suffer fools gladly, and I have not suffered him too gladly for the glib remarks he has made in correspondence, but I hope that later correspondence in no way reflected any rudeness—only an impatience with the lack of intellectual rigour, the lack of substance and the almost obtuse understanding of the issues that the Press Council has shown. In one of the last paragraphs of Professor McKinnon's letter—and I do not take this as a threat—he said that he would like to circulate his correspondence to editors, as though it was so edifying. I have saved him the trouble: we put it in the report with all our correspondence so that some objective assessment can be made of all of it, not just one side.

Question agreed to.