THERE IS an inherent tension between lawyers and journalists, according to the Editor in Chief of The Age newspaper. But, as the “machinery of government and the bureaucracy, in conjunction with the judiciary” grind the media down, he called on the legal profession to defend responsible media organisations from intrusions on the freedom to communicate.
While the media is concerned with the right to publish, and being able to communicate to a large and diverse audience, lawyers are more concerned with getting the best result for their clients, as well as individual rights, said The Age’s Editor in Chief, Andrew Jaspan.
Addressing the Law Institute of Victoria recently he said that, despite these differences, “there is often room for agreement, particularly when the subject matter has universal application”.
Speaking before the Melbourne cup this week, Jaspan said that while Australia’s eyes were to be diverted by a horse race, the Federal Government sought to “ram” its Anti-Terrorism Bill through “an obliging Senate”.
In their stampede to appear to be “doing something”, governments are in danger of imperilling the exact freedoms they espouse for other countries, said Jaspan. “Taken together with attacks on media freedom in a number of other areas, the media’s job grows harder by the day,” he said.
Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of communication have always been taken as “a given” in our society, he said. But as the newspaper said in an editorial recently, the anti-terrorism laws will “override some of the essential rights, such as the prohibition on detention without charge, that distinguish this country from others with neither traditions nor safeguards”, Jaspan said.
“According to the Government’s plans, people may not even speak about whether, why or how detainees suspected of terrorist offences are being held,” he said.
Journalists should not tolerate attempts to “muzzle our effectiveness”. Instead, they should “fulfil the important societal and public policy dimension expected of us — holding people and institutions accountable without fear or favour”.
Though “lawyers and journalists are not exactly cosy bedfellows”, he called on legal professionals to defend freedom of speech and “responsible media organisations from unwarranted attacks and intrusions on the freedom to communicate”.
Jaspan said that Australia, unlike other countries such as the United States where freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution, does not have the luxury of free 24/7 information. “The fact that it is not entrenched means that it is open to qualification by law-makers and officials. There is also risk of abuse by law enforcement bodies,” he said.
“But wait a moment, we’ve already got provisions in the statute books that permit ASIO to detain and interrogate journalists about information they may have in their possession, in the course of their reporting, regarding terrorists and terrorist activity.
“Journalists can also be held incommunicado without access to lawyers and they can be compelled to divulge sources with severe penalties if they refuse to do so.
“Governments including this one should not be given a blank cheque — particularly when such changes go the heart of the Australian way of life,” Jaspan said.