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The power of the media: SBS's Lesley Power

The power of the media: SBS's Lesley Power

When she launched her career in media law some 23 years ago it was a dream come true for Lesley Power, now the general counsel of Special Broadcasting Service (better known as SBS).Power freely…

When she launched her career in media law some 23 years ago it was a dream come true for Lesley Power, now the general counsel of Special Broadcasting Service (better known as SBS).

Power freely admits that the arts were her first love, and law only really began to spark her interest towards the end of her arts/law degree when she became involved in establishing the Canberra Community Legal Centre.

"At the early stages of my studies I was much, much more interested in the arts side of things," she says. "Some of my great interests throughout university were arts-related activities - it was a very major part of my life. It wasn't until my final years of law school that I got really interested in the law - and the main thing that engaged me was the social justice side of the law. That's what I found really inspiring at the time."

So when she gained a position as the deputy director of the Arts Law Centre - a not-for-profit community legal centre for artists - fresh out of The College of Law, Power says she was "absolutely thrilled".

"It seemed to me to be an absolutely perfect job because it fused two of the key interests in my life," she says. "I've always thought the creative arts are a really vital aspect of a vibrant and meaningful society and I was aware that there was a legal framework underpinning a lot of artistic and creative endeavours. So I applied for the job and it was like I'd won the lottery the day I got it."

After four years at the Arts Law Centre she joined the legal department of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a position she held for 11 years, before moving across to her current position as general counsel of SBS.

Power explains that a key skill of a media lawyer is to be able to make confident, sound judgement calls in relation to a suite of legal issues - ranging from defamation to trespass and secret recordings - often working to tight deadlines. An important part of this skill, she says, is not necessarily advising as to whether or not something should be put to air, but what strategies and defences can be used to minimise the risks of legal claims being made against the organisation.

"For example, often the heart of the decision is not whether something is actually defamatory but whether there is a defence to it - that's often where the main focus of the conversation with the program makers who wish to publish contentious material," she says.

"There are a lot of strategies and approaches that can be brought into play to make sure a story goes to air. Certainly the training that I got at the ABC, and the editorial ethos that I've carried through to SBS, is that lawyers aren't there to stop robust material going to air.

"The role of the lawyer is to enable public interest stories and information that the Australian population has a right to know is put to it."

Her strong belief in the importance of free speech, and the public's right to know has also led her to take on an advocacy role in the areas of defamation, privacy and copyright law reform, which have helped lead - among other things - to the introduction of uniform defamation law in Australia.

"Free speech principles, I think, are a very important platform of a free and democratic society," she explains. "Obviously free speech has to be balanced against other competing interests, but striking that balance is very important for the healthily functioning of society."

Other significant areas of work for her legal team include intellectual property matters, involving copyright material, trademarks and domain names, as well as a large volume of contracting work. It's diverse and challenging work, but Power's clearly got the goods, and she was recently named ACLA's Government Lawyer of the Year for 2008.

One of Power's particularly inspiring initiatives during her time at SBS has been the establishment of an Indigenous paralegal program. The program, which began in 2001, allows an Indigenous student to work part time at the SBS while completing their law degree, enabling them to get their foot in the door and benefit from valuable mentoring opportunities. Past participants in the program have since gone on to work for Foxtel and for Channel 4 in London, and the scheme's being considered as a model for other departments within the SBS and other media organisations.

Power says the idea sprouted while she was tutoring at the University of Technology and she noticed that one of her Indigenous students was having difficulty affording textbooks. She then also started to notice that other Indigenous students were starting their careers on the back foot because they didn't have the industry contacts and the understanding of the career options available to them that other students did.

"I thought if someone came and worked at the SBS while they finished studying, it would give them exposure to the way things worked," she says. "I also think it was triggered off by working with the SBS. I've seen how important it is for Indigenous people to have their own voices and tell their own stories, and the legal underpinnings - the understanding of copyright laws, of film contracts, of everything to do with communications, media and film making - are a crucial part of the process. I think that cultural expression and story telling will have a very valuable role to play in the reconciliation process."

- Zoe Lyon

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