2022-10-21 12:50:48 #MEAAMedia #pressfreedom #pressfreedom Campaigns MediaRoom Other statements Releases Speeches

On October 20, 2022, MEAA’s Deputy Chief Exectutive, Adam Portelli, addressed the public hearing of the Joint Select Committee Inquiry into the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022. MEAA was speaking in support of the Australia’s Right to Know (ARTK) submission to the inquiry (MEAA is an ARTK member).


Mr Portelli: Chair, if it pleases the committee, we would like to make a brief statement. We are a member of ARTK, and I imagine that Mr McAvaney [ARTK] is likely to speak to the specifics of the submission, but we’d like to make a brief statement.

Thank you, Chair and committee members, for your time today and providing us with the opportunity to address you. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, MEAA, is the union and professional association for Australia’s journalists. We have more than 5000 journalist members working across our country. All of those members, all of those journalists, as a requirement of their membership, are required to uphold the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics. Importantly, clause 3 of the code requires that, where a source seeks and is granted confidentiality, that must be respected in all circumstances. We welcome the acknowledgement in the bill of the importance of journalists and their sources in a healthy democracy.

The commission will rely on a variety of sources to provide essential information. Our members, journalists, too, will rely on a wide variety of sources in their investigations.

When we look back on the recent spate of royal commissions—into banking, aged care and, indeed, many other matters—they’ve been sparked by courageous whistleblowers telling their stories to journalists. They’ve turned to journalists because other avenues to expose illegality and wrongdoing have been closed to them. They’ve turned to journalists as a last resort, as the only people they trusted to tell the truth.

Journalists can never reveal the identity of a confidential source. To do so would be in breach of their ethical obligations. This principle has been accepted by parliaments across the country. The principle is rigorously observed, regardless of how that ethical requirement could impact the journalist. In fact, between 1989 and 2007, some seven journalists were convicted because they observed their ethical obligation to protect the identity of a confidential source. Three of those journalists were imprisoned.

[T]he introduction of shield laws… [has] taken close to 20 years to gain full coverage and they are still not perfect. Several jurisdictions do not apply the shield for their anticorruption commission investigations. Worse still, the statute books still allow people to pursue whistleblowers by going after journalists they work with.

The committee, of course, will recall that in 2019 the home of a Canberra journalist was raided at dawn by police seeking to identify a confidential source. The next day the offices of the ABC were raided about a separate story – that raid utilised a warrant that gave police extraordinary power to seize documents and access computer systems.

These raids were conducted in response to news stories. These stories were true. They were published in the public interest; however, they may well have embarrassed the government of the day.

While this bill to establish the NACC, in our view, provides some protections for journalists and whistleblowers, it falls short of what is required for genuine protection. Protection that can be bypassed by other laws, or a shield that is not comprehensive or uniform across all jurisdictions, still imperils whistleblowers, journalists and the public interest. As the submission from Australia’s Right to Know coalition, of which we’re a member, explains:

• The NACC bill contains some promising recognition of the important role of journalism … particularly in s 31.

• However, this is not matched by the warrant provisions and other secrecy provisions in the NACC Bill, and other existing legislative provisions … that interact with the NACC Bill and NACC processes.

• The Bill and related issues arising in existing legislation, outside of the NACC Bill may neutralise the effectiveness of any protections for journalist sources.

Greater effort, in our view, is needed for genuine protections for journalists and their sources. Whistleblowers seek to bring light to illegality, wrongdoing and corruption. They should not suffer for that.

Nor should journalists be punished for simply telling the truth.

LATER: MEAA and ARTK are supportive of the NACC holding public hearings (the Bill favours most hearings being held in private). In the previous day’s hearing, the commissioners of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) also confirmed their support for more public hearings. 

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Did any of you have the benefit of hearing the evidence of the commissioner of IBAC and the chief commissioner of ICAC yesterday, who both gave strong endorsement for more public hearings, in terms of accountability for their own organisations and accountability to the public?

Mr Portelli: Yes. MEAA’s view, like the others here, is that good government, open government, demands public hearings. It was certainly telling that two of the people who are at the front line in the two biggest states in Australia, dealing with their own anticorruption commissions, have got particularly strong views on this subject. We think, when you’ve got people like that giving you that opinion so forcefully, it’s something you should listen to.