Privacy reform a blow to free press
THE transition from opposition to government is often fraught, as platforms or policies taken to voters at an election work their way through the legislative or regulatory system.
During these tentative days, steps usually are taken to reassure stakeholders that longstanding philosophical positions or promises made during the campaign will come to fruition.
This has not occurred with newspaper publishers. Although it is still early days, publishers are not getting clear messages from the Abbott government on vital areas of media law.
The most important is in the area of privacy. Driven by the Left, the former Labor government sought to give much greater weight to the right of an individual to privacy at the expense of the right to publish in the public interest.
This was not a mere adjustment of the pendulum to strengthen the rights of the individual; it was an all-out punitive assault on the freedom of the press.
In its last months in office, the Gillard-Rudd government put terms of reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission for an inquiry into privacy law. Under the terms of reference, it would be an offence to publish material obtained through what could be deemed as a serious invasion of privacy, even if it the information was true and in the public interest.
However, it did not stop there. Under the instructions of former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, the terms of reference also raised the prospect of stripping publications of profits for breaches of privacy and requiring them to publish court-ordered corrections and apologies.
Also under consideration is whether there should be any limit on monetary damages that might be awarded for breaches of a new privacy tort that Labor asked the commission to design.
The proposals smack of government control of the media and the sort of payback that inspired Labor’s failed media inquiry instead of protection of the rights of the individual.
As such, the Coalition – which opposed Labor efforts to install a government-funded media regulator as attack on a free press and freedom of speech – needs to knock it out of play immediately. This could be achieved simply by providing the Law Reform Commission with guidance on the terms of reference.
Instead new Attorney-General George Brandis has been remarkably silent. When asked by The Newspaper Works on more than one occasion whether the government would review the terms of reference, it declined to answer. Over the past month, it also has declined to answer whether it would review exemptions for politicians that have been included in current federal shield laws.
Some may shrug their shoulders, and say the media is too intrusive and the right to privacy needs to be respected. Indeed, but so does the public’s right to know, which would be greatly diminished under the current terms of reference.
Oddly, the Coalition’s position seemed clearer in opposition than in government. In opposition, the Coalition advocated transparency, was an ardent supporter of free speech and had a sensible approach to the balance between the rights of the individual and the public interest.
Now, despite Mr Brandis’ criticisms in opposition of Labor’s push for a privacy tort as a “gradual, Fabian-like erosion of traditional rights and freedoms”, as Attorney-General he has left us totally in the dark as to his intentions.
Similarly, one of the first actions of the Coalition government was to curtail the release of information on asylum seeker boats and instead give a oncea-week press conference.
It is not a good look for a party that previously was an advocate of press freedoms and government accountability.