ATTORNEY-GENERAL Philip Ruddock has asked the County Court of Victoria to exercise its discretion to dismiss contempt of court charges against Herald Sun journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey.
Submissions lodged to the Court by Ruddock also expressed the Government’s view that imprisonment would not be an appropriate penalty for the journalists. McManus and Harvey were charged after they refused to reveal a source when they were called as witnesses in the trial of a former public servant alleged to have leaked details of a federal cabinet proposal to reduce war veteran benefits.
Ruddock said the submissions “make clear the Government’s view” that reform to evidence laws is necessary “to ensure confidential sources, including journalists sources, are properly protected.”
“In the Government’s view, confidential communications should be protected except where disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice — for example, where national security is at stake, or where disclosure is necessary to show the innocence of an accused,” Ruddock said.
The issue of greater legal protection against the disclosure of confidential communications was the subject of discussion at the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General last week. Ruddock said reform of the uniform evidence acts was currently the subject of review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, in conjunction with the Victorian and New South Wales law reform commissions.
He hoped the Attorneys-General would agree to give “timely consideration” to recommendations made by the law reform commissions for amendments to the Acts “to include this protection”.
Ruddock has also asked the Solicitor-General for the Commonwealth, David Bennett QC, to seek leave to appear on his behalf in the contempt proceedings as a friend of the court, a decision that was in the hands of the Court’s Chief Judge Michael Rozenes.
McManus and Harvey were scheduled to appear in court this week.