Pri­vacy re­form a blow to free press

The Bulletin - - News - › IAN MOORE Ian Moore is a for­mer ed­i­tor of The Sun­day Tele­graph and the found­ing ed­i­tor of the Sun­day Her­ald Sun

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.

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