Journalists in Trouble


A free press is the most legitimate, and at the same time, the most powerful weapon that can be employed to annihilate influence, frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression. ( W.C Wentworth, Robert Wardell 1824)

Journalists, often referred to as the "Fourth Estate" (Economou & Tanner, 2008), are a critical part of Australian democracy, as well as many democracies abroad. They serve as a control on the government by reporting digressions from the will of the people, and also serve (according to the whims of their executives) as arguably the major means of communication between the people and their government. However, many journalists, both domestically and internationally, can come to find themselves in strife when they contradict government, or else are perceived to have 'overstepped the line' as the following examples illustrate.

Examples


Paul Lampathakis-

In February 2008, Paul Lampathakis, a journalist working in Western Australia Sunday Times published an article with the title "Bid to 'buy' Labor win". It was an article about a $16 million advertising bill for taxpayers to help get the WA government re-elected. It was plainly based on a leak, however government officials insisted on further investigation into the matter. Three months later on April 30th, the Sunday Times was locked down and searched by no fewer than sixteen officers from W.A.'s Major Fraud Squad, looking for anything that might help them identify the source of Paul Lampathakis's article. According to Alan Carpenter (Premier of Western Australia) the raid was a 'requirement' under the Public Sector Management Act when these sorts of leaks take place. The story appeared to involve the unauthorised leak of cabinet documents; and since that is a crime, presumably committed by a public servant, the Director-General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet was legally bound to report the matter to the police and to the powerful Corruption and Crime Commission, the CCC (media watch, 2009). However, "The CCC declined to investigate the matter, and has told Media Watch that it certainly didn't order the police raid on the Sunday Times" (media watch, 2009). Which then lead to the question who did order the raid then, since "The W.A. Police Commissioner, Karl O'Callaghan, claims he wasn't told about the raid before it happened, and when he did hear about it, he wasn't happy" ( media watch, 2009).


Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus:


Both Michael Harvey and Gerard McManusREPORT were journalists of the Herald Sun in Melbourne, who were convicted of contempt for refusing to name a source for a report about the federal government plans to abolish benefits given out for war veterans in Australia with a $500 million dollar rebuff. In February 2004 Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus published an article in the Herald Sun exposing the Howard government’s rejection of policy recommendations and over $500m in financial aid for veterans and their families. Citing access to ‘secret documents’, the report also exposed the government’s desire to keep this rebuff under wraps, while ‘sugar coating’ the package that was approved.

As this exclusive story was based on leaked documents it resulted in a full blown search for the 'leak' where offices were ran sacked and phones tapped throughout the veteran sector of government where Desmond Kelly was linked. Harvey and McManus were told to reveal their sources in court, they would not as they were bound by journalist ethics. The pair adhered to their loyalty to the sources of their article derived from the journalist code of ethics have led by the two following reasons: first, to protect personal own reputation in the profession, to ensure source will trust them in the future; second, the concern for wider “chilling effect”. Once one or two journalists gain a reputation for betraying confidences, the entire profession is tainted, and sources potentially dry up for everyone(Ingham 2008: 4)

Severely embarrassed by the article, the Government took action by utilising the Federal Police to investigate the leak, and urging Harvey and McManus to name their source. Harvey and McManus were told to reveal their sources in court (Media Watch 2005). Wanting to protect journalistic ethics, Harvey & McManus again refused to reveal their source, and as a result were found in contempt of the court.

This case sparked fresh debate over freedom of the press and the need for shield laws, to protect Journalists from prosecution. An amendment to the NSW Evidence Act is currently underway to include an Journalist Exception (2009). As this case shows along with others (see Lampathakis, Graham) the whistleblowers and journalists are not yet protected under current laws and can face the full brunt of the law and be treated as criminals when enforcing a basic human right as Free Speech even in instances of democracy and Public Interest. The only harm done by both Harvey and McManus in the release of such information, was that they caused 'political embarrassment' to the Government officials. While they were both spared a goal term, they both received criminal convictions and fined for refusing to answer questions (Jones & Whinnett, 2007). The court found Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey guilty of contempt and fined them $7,000 each. (Source:http://www.abc.net.au)


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"A political line have been drawn" in McManus and Harvey's case refers to their self-interests and political agenda. First, the tabloid press has known for its appetite for scandals and negativism that caters for their broad readership, of accused for its lacking in fact-checking. Second, political journalism has a tendency to argue against the ring-wing populism. Their revelation was not regarded as "high-value" speech because of the following reasons. The actual report was about a plan that was clearly yet to be confirmed as the truth despite the materials provided to the journalists were completely accurate. The press may perceive themselves as the watchdog for government in regards to public policy formation and that necessitate their responsibility to stop the plan from its arrival in the future. However issues in regards to whether public transport in victoria should be privatized or not is a matter of personal political preference. Besides, the role of watchdog requires the press to keep decision makers answerable and accountable for their action, instead of pushing their right to freedom with the prime purpose to cause political embarrassment for the government invoked by tabloid press's political motivation . This is what at stake of the political journalism under the "market censorship" imposed within the tabloid press. In essence, leaking government confidentiality of this case did not generate greater public interests such as unearthing corruptions or kickback in which could outweigh the public interest in preserving confidence of cabinet documents. However whether the case insulated from a situation in which "a line that denies politics entry into the forum of public discourse”(Fish:112) is debatable.

Holsworthy Army Base Photos

On August 5th 2008, two journalists from the Daily Telegraph, Tim Vollmer and Tony Bendeich, went to the Steele Barracks School of Engineering at the Holsworthy Army Base to take photos for a story they were running on lax security at Australia army bases (Kontominas, 2009). They were arrested within 15 minutes of entering the base and, on September 25th, 2009 the pair were found guilty of photographing a military installation and given a nine-month behaviour bond.

While neither the crime nor the punishment were particularly significant, this case is worth noting in the sense that it highlights the fact that the media does not have free reign to report on problems with the government, and must always do this within the confines of the law or risk prosecution. It is a difficult debate that cannot be made here as to whether there should be some freedom to breach laws when those laws are preventing reporting weaknesses of the very government that made the laws.

The protection of whistleblowers and journalists-

Case studies in Journalist in Troubles urged the need for protection of whistleblowers and journalists for the following reasons: Oversight on the ill-informed speculation and promote public debates; to prevent public from being misled by the bureaucracy; to change secrecy culture to embrace transparency and openness. In the light of receiving newsworthy information as opposed to giving cover to incompetent and corrupt public servants, it is worthwhile to question what is "newsworthy" information?

There will never be obsolete protections for free speech(hate speech), as the Alliance has unsatisfactorily revealed that the Shield Law did not go far enough to protect whistle-blowers. Indeed, no protection protection laws exist for journalist/ whistleblowers who are simply fed up with bureaucratic decisions and airing out harassment through the use of the media. Therefore, journalists have a social responsibility to think carefully about "what is true and important."

There has been increasing talk about the protection of whistleblowers, and of journalists within Australia for a very long period of time. However, there has not been too much done to actually protect whistleblowers and journalists. One of the fundamental reasons for this, is because there is no law that sufficiently protects whistleblowers within Australia. Australia does have a law to protect whistleblowers, but it does focus more on the public sector rather than on the private sector. For example "2004, Parliament passed the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Act 2004, introducing whistleblower protection into the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Further, in 2005, the Government announced changes to the Trade Practices Act to encourage whistleblowers to assist in exposing cartels" (aph.gov.au, 2005). Most of the state jurisdictions within Australia promote that in order to be protected; the information has to be "disclosed internally or to a ‘proper’ or ‘investigating’ authority. Such authorities include the relevant Ombudsman, police, including the Police Complaints Authority and the Anti Corruption Branches, the Police Integrity Commission, Auditors-General or, where permitted, the media or a member of parliament" (aph.gov.au, 2005).

However, like the Lampathkis's case above, when is the dissemination of information actually permitted without having detrimental consequences? and if so, to whom does one go to get the permission? And what sort of compilations does this have the on the actual reporter/journalist seeking to publish the story, is there a possibility that their information be repressed by government authority. Or in Lampathakis's case (where he actually published the article) bringing on a raid at The Sunday times office in order to find the root to where the information came from. Then subsequently, warned that "his refusal to answer the question could lead to penalties of up to two years in jail or a fine of $24,000" (O'Brien & Taylor, 2008). Lampathakis's response to the whole saga was that he believed the raid was an attempt by the Government to intimidate and harass him. "The latest incident was the second time this year that police came to The Sunday Times searching for information about the sources of one of my stories, at the behest of the Government" (O'Brien & Taylor, 2008) . In my opinion if that is how the system works, then society could no longer use media and the free press as a forum for discussion and disclosure of information that may be of interest to the public. Free press would not be 'free' anymore, and no one would be able to voice their subjectivity, which would definitely be of public interest.

There are some organisations for the protection of whistleblowers, and an example is 'Whistleblowers Australia (WBA)'. This organization is an association for those who have exposed corruption or any form of malpractice, especially if they were then hindered or abused, and for those who are thinking of exposing it or who wish to support those who are doing so. The goal of Whistleblowers Australia (WBA) is to help promote a society where it is possible to speak out without reprisal about corruption, dangers to the public and environment, and other vital social issues, and to help those who speak out in this way.

'WBA' uses two main approaches to achieve this goal. The first is to encourage self-help and mutual help among whistleblowers, and the second is to support campaigns on specific issues.

“There are 500 pieces of legislation and at least 1000 court suppression orders in force that restricts media reporting or the release of information to the public”, said Stewart (2007). He mentioned that journalists were increasingly being locked out by the centralization of information flowing at all levels of the government. Public servants are prohibited from giving journalists information directly. Under existing laws and protocols, anyone employed by the government is under threat of disciplinary action if they speak to the media. The journalists are either referred to the department’s media section or the Minister’s office, which may involve huge propagandas provided by the government.

As Overington (2009) emphasizes, “Whistleblowers know that their best and quickest chance of rectifying corruption, waste and general governmental incompetence is to go directly to the press.”

They can always reveive the first hand information in the organisation. Therefore a real democratic country should have a legislation to protect whistleblowers and journalists, because they are the eyes for the public to watch the government transparent.




Works Cited:


ABC, 2009, Did anyone ask for a raid?, accessed 26 September 2009, <http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/watch/default.htm?program=mediawatch&pres=20080512_2120&story=3>.

Economou, N & Tanner, S. (2008). "The Fourth Estate: Liberal Democracy and the Press", Media Power and Politics in Australia, Pearson, p1-26.

Harvey, M. & McManus, G. (2004), ‘Secret papers show bleak plan for war veterans: Cabinet’s $500m rebuff revealed’, Herald
Sun
, Friday February 20, 2004. Pp. 3. Original article available online in pdf format

Jones, K., Whinnett, E., (2007), 'Journalists avoid jail', Herald Sun, June 25, 2007. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/journalists-avoid-jail/story-e6frf7kx-1111113819422

Jones, K., Whinnett, E., (2007), ‘Fines for “contempt” journalists’, Daily Telegraph, June 26 2007; Online edition:http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw-act/fines-for-contempt-journalists/story-e6freuzi-1111113822811

Kontominas, B. (2009), 'Journalists guilty of photographing army base', retrieved 12th October, 2009 from Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/national/journalists-guilty-of-photographing-army-base-20090925-g5rv.html

Media Watch (2005), television programme, ABC Television, Sydney, 18th July 2005. Transcript available online:http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1416806.htm

O'brien, A & Taylor P 2008, "reveal sourse or go to jail, Sunday Times journalist Paul Lampathakis told", The Australian, accessed 27 September 2009, <http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23986090-5006789,00.html>.

Parliament of Australia 2005,
Whistleblowing in Australia- transparency. accountability.. and above all, the truth, accessed 27 September 2009, <http://www.aph.gov.au/Library/Pubs/rn/2004-05/05rn31.pdf>.

Overington, C, “State of Secrecy”, The Australian 24, Mar 2009, Newsbank Database.
Stewart, C, 2007, “All we want is the truth” The Australian 6 Nov 2007, Newsbank Database