Pressures on the media in a Western democracy #RSF #pressfreedom #censorship


Each year I file a report on key incidents and developments in the areas of media law and censorship as Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.

This data, when combined with submissions from several journalism and academic colleagues in Australia and throughout the world, feeds into RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index where most nations’ levels of media censorship are compared in a league table format.

I have just filed my 2011 report with the assistance of research assistant Kiri ten Dolle and share some of the highlights with you here, in reverse chronological order.

November 2011:

By far the most important threat to media freedoms in Australia came in the form of at least five government inquiries into media regulation conducted throughout the year, which I have blogged on previously. Between them they raised the prospects of tougher regulation regimes for print, broadcast and online media; a new tort of privacy; tough new classification systems across media; and the conversion of some self-regulatory bodies to regulatory status.  RSF was particularly concerned by suggestions at the hearings of the Independent Media Inquiry that journalists should be licensed or that the Australian Press Council should be given powers to fine media organizations for ethical breaches. See their release on the matter.

The trial of Victorian police officer Simon Artz for alleged leaks to The Australian newspaper about a counter-terrorism operation raised several media freedom issues, with Crikey senior journalist Andrew Crook allegedly breaching a suppression order by revealing the name of a former member of Victoria’s Special Intelligence Group involved in the hearing; warnings over Crikey journalist Margaret Simons live tweeting from the hearing; and The Australian’s Cameron Stewart being ordered to reveal his sources to the hearing.

In a separate matter Victorian Police were investigating an alleged hacking of an ALP electoral database by four journalists at The Age, including editor-in-chief Paul Ramage. The Age claims they received access to the private information of high-profile individuals through ‘appropriate journalistic methods’ and authorisation by a whistleblower.

October 2011

Leaks to the media were also central to a report by the Office of Police Integrity (OPI) found advisers to the Victorian police minister conspired to bring down the former police commissioner Simon Overland. Weston had allegedly leaked information to the media about Overland’s fallout with his former deputy, Ken Jones.

Government control over media access to detention centres prompted condemnation from the journalists’ union. Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) announced editorial control would be handed over to representatives of the immigration department under new guidelines introduced by DIAC that restrict reporting of and access to detention centres. Journalists and media organisations are required to sign a Deed of Agreement in accordance with the new policy which ultimately prohibits photography, film or interviews with individual detainees and rules that all footage must be submitted to department officials for approval before publication.

Defamation actions, even spurious ones, were alive and well despite uniform defamation laws introduced throughout Australia in 2005. Convicted killer Michael McGrane sought $30 million in damages from the Seven Network claiming he was defamed in a television show called “The Suspects: True Australian Thrillers”. A Queensland Supreme Court justice struck out the claim but gave McGrane leave to replead under a technical provision of the reformed laws.

The extent to which free expression should be trumped by hate speech laws was the subject of wide debate after a Federal Court judge ruled Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act when he wrote that some fair-skinned people used their indigenous identity to further their careers.

September 2011

Fairfax Media group general counsel Gail Hambly and the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald Peter Fray were summonsed by the Police Integrity Commission to produce documents on September 23 in relation to articles by the Herald journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch about the NSW Crime Commission. The inspector sought information about sources of information.

Fairfax Radio broadcaster Michael Smith’s contract was suspended in September when he tried to air an interview a former union official who claimed alleged fraudulent conduct by a former boyfriend of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Smith took Fairfax Radio to court, contesting his ‘planned dismissal’ under the Fair Work Act and alleging he was victimised over his political beliefs.

August 2011

Two Brisbane journalists and a producer were dismissed by the Nine Network for faking live crosses to the Daniel Morcombe search site and ‘unfair dismissal’ litigation was foreshadowed.

July 2011

Cancer-stricken Hinch was sentenced to home detention in July after being found guilty of breaching four suppression orders by naming two sex offenders on his website and at a crime rally in 2008.

June 2011

Fairfax Media announced it would outsource the sub-editing of news, sport and business content to Pagemasters, a subsidiary of the Australian Associate Press (AAP), with a loss 44 jobs at The Sydney Morning Herald and 38 at The Age, despite calls from the NSW Upper Tribunal to abandon the decision.

May 2011

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation used a programming exemption to FOI laws to deny The Weekend Australian and Herald Sun access to its audience data and employee salaries.

Fairfax’s deputy technology editor Ben Grubb, 20, was arrested after reporting on a conference presenter’s alleged hacking at the AUSCert IT security conference. During the week, Grubb had published a story explaining a demonstration shown at the conference of acquiring private photos from a Facebook user without being a ‘friend’. Police seized his iPad but released Grubb after questioning him.

Sixty Minutes reporter Liam Bartlett and his crew’s attempt to enter the main detention centre at Christmas Island led to a police investigation. Bartlett and refugee advocate Kate Gauthier were denied access to the centre after it was alleged Gauthier’s baby, who was with them, was fitted with a recording device.

March-April 2011

Fairfax Media, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, and two of its senior journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch were issued with subpoenas by the NSW Crime Commission demanding them to surrender mobile phone records, sim cards and other communication related to an investigation of organised crime and corruption in NSW. The Crime Commission dropped the subpoenas in April.

February 2011

The NSW Supreme Court considered forcing three journalists from The Age to reveal their sources in a defamation trial centred around a story about former businesswoman Helen Liu and former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority found there had been no breach of privacy when Channel Seven’s coverage of NSW Transport Minister David Campbell’s resignation included footage of him leaving a gay club. While the ACMA acknowledged the privacy rights of Campbell, they ruled public interest outweighed his personal privacy because he was a public figure.


Have we missed some? Please email me at if you think there are other important threats to free expression in Australia during 2011 and I’ll add them to our brief for RSF.

© Mark Pearson 2011

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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