In New Matilda, David Shoebridge (Greens member of the NSW Member of the Legislative Council) argued that shield laws for journalists need to be more robust.
As a motherhood statement all political parties say they accept that the media have a legitimate role in uncovering often difficult evidence and then using that to hold the powerful to account. But the real test of their commitment to this principle will be if they support the extension of shield laws beyond just sources and beyond the Courts.
It is time for all governments to urgently reform shield laws so that they protect journalists from revealing their sources and from betraying their confidences and to extend these protections to other coercive public inquiries. For all those politicians who say they believe in the principle of a free press, the time has come to put up the laws. [Source: Shoebridge, ‘Why Journalists Need Shield Laws’, New Matilda]
Shoebridge gives examples of cases where the wealthy and the powerful used the courts to chase after journalists. Mining heiress Gina Rineheart is currently chasing a journalist in the WA courts over claims she believes are defamatory. Rineheart wants the details of correspondence between the journalist and the source so that she can then sue the source for those comments. And so on and so forth.
The argument relies on the audience having fairly similar reactions to the examples cited: journalists are the brave, courageous truth-seekers who need protection from the rich and the powerful.
But Shoebridge isn’t arguing for shield laws to protect the brave, courageous truth-seeking journalists from the rich and the powerful; Shoebridge is arguing for shield laws to protect all journalists from everybody else.
I think I’m entitled to a certain level of privacy and a fair reputation. One day, I become a little bit famous and a local journalist decides that publishing sordid details about me would sell more papers. They find a secret source who’s willing to divulge all kinds of strange stories about me.
Due to our legal system, I’m unlikely to be able to afford the same level of legal representation as the newspaper. I could probably afford to sue the source of the information, but Shoebridge’s proposed shield laws prevent me from discovering who that person is. So what are my options? What protects me from the tabloid journalist? Why don’t I have a right to face my accusers?
Journalists are not on the side of the public. For example, it was clearly in the interests of democracy that voters knew which politicians were leaking information to the media, but the media decided not to tell us. This problem is reflected in the level of trust the public has for journalists: it’s extremely low.
So if we don’t trust journalists, and if we can clearly see that journalists are not acting in the interests of the public, why would we confer upon them greater protections from public accountability?