Category Archives: censorship

Review: Truthteller – An Investigative Reporter’s Journey through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News and Conspiracy Theories

By MARK PEARSON

Truthteller: An Investigative Reporter’s Journey through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News and Conspiracy Theories, Stephen Davis (2019)

Dunedin and Chatswood: Exisle Publishing, 264 pp.,

ISBN 978-1-92533-589-7, p/bk, USD 29.99

[This review was first published in Australian Journalism Review, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2019]

Timing of the publication of the page-turning paperback Truthteller could not have been better, with the subsequent Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC offices and News Corporation journalist Annika Smethurst’s home offering a haunting currency to many of its themes.

Former journalism educator at Macleay College, Stephen Davis, has seen the craft from all angles over an impressive career as investigative reporter on the Sunday Times’ Insight team, producer for 60 Minutes, and editor of the New Zealand Herald.

Three decades of reporting international wars, espionage, crime and intrigue make for a riveting read as Davis reveals the lengths to which governments and agencies and their functionaries will go to mislead and deceive the media when they have something to hide.

Davis structures Truthteller into an introduction and conclusion plus 10 chapters taken from the ‘toolbox for lies and deception’ – each centred on a case study from his reporting career where the authorities have used a different technique of spin or outright censorship.

Highlights include:

  • The UK Government’s cover up of the truth behind British Airways flight BA149 which was given permission to land in Kuwait with 367 passengers in 1990 despite the Iraqi invasion of that nation having already commenced. The passengers were subsequently used as human shields by the Iraqis but the British government denied them compensation despite evidence the flight had been landed to deploy a troop of undercover special forces operatives;

  • The world exclusive that oil giant BP was using a Brazilian subsidiary to rape huge swathes of Amazonian rainforest and the subsequent attacks by authorities on Davis’s prime NGO source in a classic case of shooting the messenger rather than addressing the problem; and

  • The multi-government conspiracy to cover up the real reasons for the 1994 sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea with the loss of 852 passengers and crew amidst allegations that the captain had been whisked away and that the ship had been carrying Russian arms.

Davis’s ‘toolbox’ of techniques used by governments and big corporates include character assassination, targeting sources, generating alternative theories, delay, distance, cover-ups, legal suppression, secret deals and media manipulation.

His stated aim is “to inspire truth seekers of the future, because the battle between those seeking to expose the truth and those seeking to prevent it is an unequal struggle”. Sadly, I could not find much inspiration in the dark picture Davis paints in his case studies, most of which remain clouded in the confusing mystery of spin despite the best efforts of some of the world’s best investigative teams.

The book’s subtitle ‘An investigative reporter’s journey through the world of truth prevention, fake news and conspiracy theories’ promises to shed light on false news in the modern ‘post truth’ era. However, while Davis offers some insights into bots and trolling and a short chapter on the 2017 fake news conspiracy theory about a secret anti-Trump society in the FBI, the bulk of the book is centred on analogue media manipulation from the 1990s and early 2000s when Davis was doing most of his international reporting.

There is a paucity of references and a gimmicky technique of listing random other news items from the particular case study’s news day at the start of each chapter which contribute to the impression it is a popular read rather than a worthy set text or reference work.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating memoir and a useful vehicle for the media literacy of the masses, whose eyes will be opened to the methods governments and multinational companies have used to keep truth from their citizenry.

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.

© Mark Pearson 2020 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Five media law essentials for journalists, publishers and students #MLGriff #auspol #medialaw #auslaw

By MARK PEARSON

Much has happened in the field of media and social media law, even since the sixth edition of our Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Pearson & Polden) was published in 2019.

As media law students start their academic year at Australian institutions, this calls for a quick update of the five most important risks facing journalists in the digital era.

  1. Defamation: Reforms to Australian defamation laws appear imminent, but the basic principles will remain the same. Pause before publishing anything criticising or ridiculing anyone and consider your language, evidence base, intended meaning, motivation and working knowledge of the defences available to you. If in doubt, seek legal advice. If you can’t afford that advice, then modify the material or leave it out – unless you have considerable defamation insurance. Society needs robust journalism, but remember it can also need deep pockets to defend it. The 2019 case of Voller v. Nationwide News underscores the decision in Allergy Pathway almost a decade ago: publishers may be responsible for the comments of others on their social media sites, particularly when posting articles on inflammatory topics or people. Ashurst law firm has produced a useful flow-chart to explain the steps a publisher should take to minimise the risks of liability for comments by third parties on their social media sites.
  2. High profile trials: Regardless of the fate of the 30 journalists and news organisations still facing contempt action over their reporting of last year’s trial of Cardinal George Pell, the episode reinforces the dangers facing those reporting and commenting upon major court matters. As we show in our crime reporting time zones flowchart in our text, a criminal case involves an interplay of risks including defamation, contempt and other restrictions. Courts and prosecutors take suppression orders seriously, so it is wise to pause to reflect and to take legal advice when navigating this territory.
  3. National security risks: Many of the 70-plus anti-terror laws passed in Australia since 2001 impact on journalists, with jail terms a real risk for those reporting on special intelligence operations, ASIO, suppressed trials, and any matter using insider government sources, along with a host of other risks as identified by Australia’s Right To Know’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in 2019. The laws present a minefield for journalists covering national security, defence, immigration and related topics. It is a specialist field requiring a close familiarity with the numerous laws.
  4. Breach of confidence: Journalists are reluctant to reveal their own confidential sources, but they are keen to tell the secrets of others – particularly if matters of public interest are being covered up. Actions for breach of confidence allow individuals and corporations to seek injunctions to prevent their dirty linen being aired. Further, the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended a new action of serious invasion of privacy and the future development of the action for breach of confidence with compensation for emotional distress. The Parliament has not yet embraced the proposal but judge-made law on privacy and confidentiality remains a possibility.
  5. Compromising sources: The journalist-source relationship is one where the journalist’s ethical obligation to preserve confidentiality is threatened by a number of laws. Most Australian jurisdictions now have shield laws giving judges a discretion to excuse a journalist from revealing a source after weighing up various public interest factors. This is far from a watertight protection and journalists face potential jail terms for ‘disobedience contempt’ for refusing a court order to reveal a source or hand over materials. Further, as two ABC journalists and News Corporation’s Annika Smethurst discovered last year, journalists can also face criminal charges for just handling or publishing confidential or classified materials given to them by whistleblowers, even if the matter relates to an important matter of public interest. The validity of the warrants to raid them over ‘dishonestly receiving stolen property’ (Commonwealth documents) was upheld by a Federal Court earlier this year, despite a range of arguments including shield laws and the constitutional implied freedom to communicate on political matters. Such action, combined with the far-reaching powers of authorities to access communications metadata and the proliferation of public CCTV footage presents huge challenges to journalists trying to keep their whistleblower sources secret. It is one thing to promise confidentiality to a source, but quite another to be able to honour that promise given modern surveillance technologies and the legal reach of agencies.

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.

© Mark Pearson 2020 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Washington Post podcast shows role of JWs in First Amendment rights #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

MEDIA law students and colleagues will have undoubtedly noticed the Jehovah’s Witnesses pop-up stalls with religious books and magazines outside campuses and public transport stops, staffed by followers passively promoting their religion.

Yet few would realise the important role this religious group has played in cementing First Amendment rights in the United States, with a ripple effect for freedom of religion and free expression internationally.

That story is central to Episode 16 of the acclaimed Washington Post podcast ‘Constitutional’, available free here.

It uses the voices of constitutional experts and those who lived through the period to explain how a series of cases brought to the US Supreme Court by the Jehovah’s Witnesses forged the interpretations of the First Amendment that laid the platform for religious and media freedom – and free expression more generally – today.

More than 20 cases were brought in the midst of the Second World War. The religion lost the first two major cases, related to proselytising in public and the right of their children to refuse to salute the US flag at school.

But within two years the Supreme Court had overturned that decision, giving the First Amendment precedence over many other rights.

It is a compelling narrative and particularly well produced, and recommended listening for media law students.

Australia’s High Court has chosen to take a narrower approach to freedom of speech and religion in its interpretation of what it has called an ‘implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government’. In a comparable case in 2013, it declined a religious group’s attempt to use that implied freedom to proselytise in the centre of Adelaide.

Caleb and Samuel Corneloup were evangelical members of the fundamentalist ‘Street Church’, who preached in Adelaide’s busy Rundle Mall in a loud, animated and sometimes confronting style. Adelaide City Council tried to stop them, by using a by-law prohibiting anyone preaching or distributing printed matter on any road to any bystander or passer-by without permission.

The High Court majority held that the Local Government Act empowered the council to make the by-laws. They ‘were a valid exercise of the Council’s statutory power to make by-laws for the good rule and government of the area, and for the convenience, comfort and safety of its inhabitants’.

Although they ‘burdened political communication, they did not infringe the implied constitutional freedom’ because they served a legitimate end in a manner compatible with our system of representative and responsible government, the High Court said (Pearson & Polden, 2019)

[See Attorney-General (SA) v Corporation of the City of Adelaide [2013] HCA 3 (27 February 2013), <www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/cth/HCA/2013/3.html>. ]

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.

© Mark Pearson 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Filed under censorship, First Amendment, free expression, freedom of religion, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Media regulation, Press freedom, suppression