By MARK PEARSON
The sources of at least three journalists investigating a collapsed fund manager have been ordered by the Queensland Supreme Court to hand over all correspondence with the reporters.
The tactic is an alarming new threat to the confidentiality of journalist-source communications and comes as other reporters face direct court demands to reveal their sources.
The subpoena comes from the administrators of Gold Coast-based LM Investment Management Ltd and it demands from Trilogy Funds Management Ltd “letters, emails, facsimile transmissions, memoranda, other correspondence and reports” with a range of parties, including Sydney Morning Herald business columnist Michael West and The Australian’s Anthony Klan.
It also demands all correspondence with any other journalists from The Australian and the National Business Review in New Zealand.
It was issued on April 30 but was extended until June 14 after an unsuccessful application to have it dismissed.
West told journlaw.com it was a ‘disgraceful’ technique he had rarely encountered in his long career.
“It is a pity for journalism and intimidating,” he said.
“It’s a waste of unit holders’ money in LM.”
National Business Review reporter David Williams called it a “fishing exercise without a genuine need” – a technique that did not appear to have been used in New Zealand.
“It is an appalling tactic that should be vigorously resisted, particularly by Australian-based media. If this was happening in New Zealand, NBR would resist it as strongly as possible,” he said.
“Perhaps now I’ll have to resort to strictly using phone calls and letters.”
He said the practice of subpoenaing reporters’ communications should be banned.
“At the very least it should be resisted by the parties involved, and the courts should closely question the need for such a course.”
Voluntary administrator Ginette Muller of FTI Consulting said only one document had been provided to date which she said was “nothing of note”.
She said the purpose of the subpoena was not to identify the journalists’ sources.
“We know the source,” she said. “It is more about the people who have been subpoenaed as opposed to the journalists.”
The subpoena also sought correspondence between Trilogy and their law firm Piper Alderman and its partner Amanda Banton.
Banton told journlaw.com the court had decided the request for the order was ‘relevant’ and set aside her application to have it dismissed.
She said the journalists and their organisations could make separate applications to have the order set aside.
But that seems unlikely given the tight budgets of the major newspaper groups and the lack of any shield law for journalists in Queensland.
Reporters Steve Pennells and Adele Ferguson are awaiting court decisions on their refusal to reveal their sources after demands from Australia’s richest person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
I am reporting upon this latest episode to Reporters Without Borders.
© Mark Pearson 2013
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.