Media bosses from ABC, Nine and News Corp have called for reform to protect investigative journalism and whistleblowers, in the sake of public interest.
ABC managing director David Anderson, Nine CEO Hugh Marks and Michael Miller, Executive Chairman of News Corp Australasia, spoke at the National Press Club today.
Their address was couched as a united response to the recent Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC’s Ultimo office and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.
ABC Managing Director David Anderson called on the Government to bolster protections for whistleblowers to safeguard the public right to know.
Anderson told the National Press Club today that urgent reform is needed to laws that inhibit the media’s ability to report on matters of public interest.
“The rhetoric of the importance of a free media to Australian democracy is not being matched by the reality,” he said. “Journalists are increasingly accused of crimes for performing their job. Whistleblowers, whose brave interventions are so important to identifying wrongdoing, run the risk of being cowed out of existence. Freedom of Information has failed to deliver transparency. Defamation laws appear only to protect the rich and powerful.”
Anderson’s address to the NPC outlined four key areas for urgent legal reform, including the need to decriminalise journalists and public interest whistleblowers, raising the bar for search warrants and protection of confidential sources, and breaking the culture of secrecy by overhauling the FOI system.
“While it is heartening to know that the Government regards a free media as a foundation stone of democracy, nowhere is that articulated or entrenched in law,” he said. “Decriminalising journalism is a mandatory first step…No one deserves to be punished for pursuing information that is clearly in the public interest.”
He added, “Journalists are increasingly accused of crimes for performing their job. Whistleblowers, whose brave interventions are so important to identifying wrongdoing, run the risk of being cowed out of existence. Freedom of Information has failed to deliver transparency. Defamation laws appear only to protect the rich and powerful.
“The confronting raids on ABC and News Corp have served at least one useful purpose, exposing the extent of deterioration in our public discourse.
“We are committed to working constructively with all sides of politics to identify areas of weakness and to push for meaningful, urgent reform. This reform must identify the areas where the balance between the public right to information and other priorities, like national security, has tipped too far. And to restore that balance.”
Nine CEO Hugh Marks said it was becoming more risky and more expensive to do journalism while bad legislation and over zealous officials were impacting whistle blowers and other confidential sources.
“First and foremost, our governments and institutions are becoming more secretive. Much too often these days the words ‘national security’ are conveniently invoked as a means of shutting down the flow of information and debate on the most spurious grounds. To spare serious examination, public ventilation or just garden variety embarrassment. It’s a twisted default position,” Marks said.
“The balance in the national security debate is now too weighted towards secrecy and away from the public’s right to know.
“Second, it’s the persecution of, and lack of protection for, legitimate whistle blowers. Whether they be from government. Or from industry. All too often brave people persecuted because our institutions don’t respect the public’s right to know. We should admire those who speak out over legitimate injustices. All too often it’s the way real change happens. Again for the benefit of the public.
“The balance for whistle blowers is too weighted against them speaking out – an action that is so incredibly hard to undertake in the first place.
“Third, it’s the way defamation laws and the implementation of those laws don’t achieve the outcomes they are meant to achieve. Yes, of course holding journalists to account is important. Rightly. Importantly. We should own our mistakes. But not to the extent where current defamations laws mean a journalist goes gets into the ring with the unscrupulous, the dishonest and the corrupt with two hands tied behind his or her back.”
Following the address the MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said the raids had solidified concerns about the impact of national security laws by seeking to stifle public interest journalism.
“The reality is that legislative creep over a number of years has restricted the public’s right to know, criminalised journalism, and left whistleblowers exposed without adequate protection,” he said.
Michael Miller, Executive Chairman of News Corp Australasia said: “We support laws that keep Australia and journalists safe. We believe in being tough on terrorism and strong on border security. With the current laws, journalists, and even support staff, face jail for handling information which they may not even know is secret or sensitive. We do not accept that safety has to equal secrecy.”
The laws being called out by the media organisations for reform today are:
- The right to contest any kind of search warrant on journalists or news organisations before the warrant is issued.
- Public sector whistleblowers be adequately protected with current laws to be changed.
- A new regime that limits which documents can be stamped ‘secret’.
- A proper review of Freedom of Information laws.
- Journalists be exempted from the national security laws enacted over the last seven years that can put them in jail for just doing their jobs.
Federal president of MEAA’s Media section, Marcus Strom added, “If action is not taken now to reverse the worst of these laws, then our democracy itself is at risk.
“We call on the Government and Opposition to work together to provide protections for press freedom in the public interest.”