Hypocrisy and free speech

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Richard Ackland had a good article on Friday on press freedom and free speech. He correctly argued that it is very concerning courts are prepared to force journalists to divulge their sources. This has obvious implications for freedom of speech and for press freedom. He writes:

The clear implication of this reasoning is that to be able to protect an informant the ultimate decision as to what is published is shifted from the editor and the journalist to the source.

Goodnight free press.

So the constitutional protection is useless, so too the old common law rule. What about any legislative help to save these journalists from the dock?

There’s no luck there either because the amendments to the Evidence Act seeking to give journalists a privilege against disclosing an informant’s identity came into effect only after Liu commenced her proceedings for discovery.

In any event, even if the amendment was relevant it is unlikely to be much help.

A court can say the protection does not apply if the public interest in the disclosure of the identity outweighs the public interest in the disclosure of facts and opinion.

We know which ”public interest” is usually the winner in this competition.

Yet it must be said that Ackland’s concern for free speech is highly selective. Let’s not forget this article he wrote following the Andrew Bolt case – in which a journalist was hauled to court for writing an article:

The splutterings about the erosion of Bolt’s free speech ignores the fact that the RDA does not baldly ban offensive and hurtful attacks of a racial nature. It requires the courts to balance those attacks with a series of exemptions, including the fair and accurate reporting of any matter of public interest – a test conspicuously failed by Bolt.

The RDA legislation has been a powerful tool for good. Only this week there were reports about a Facebook ”memes” page that portrayed Aborigines as drunken, petrol-sniffing layabouts. Memes, in this instance, being captioned photos of a very nasty nature. Its defenders said it was humorous, but that idea did not have widespread acceptance. The mere spectre of the RDA saw this offensive publication come down from the internet.

And this is what Ackland had to say about press freedom following the Finkelstein review, which proposed massive increased regulation on the media:

I am still trying to fathom what freedom is threatened by a regime that seeks to enforce the standards of reporting that journalists claim they adhere to already: accuracy, fair opportunity for replies; resisting personal interests or beliefs, payments or gifts; fair and honest means of obtaining material; no plagiarism; respect for grief and privacy; etc, etc.

It’s hard to take Ackland’s concern for free speech seriously when he was not just missing in action when it was under attack, but enthusiastically cheering from the sidelines for further restrictions on the media and free expression.


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