Monday, 21 October 2019

Sky News – Paul Murray



Subjects: Press Freedoms

PAUL MURRAY: So again on these press freedom back and forths that have happened today. Christian Porter is the man who is the target of this campaign. He woke up to all of those front pages like everyone else did today, but just one more time can I show you the six things this is about, because a lot of people keep talking vaguely or generally about what it's all about. There are six demands that are put in place. I explain those to the Attorney-General and we'll go through each of those that are room for compromise or no deal.

So Mr Porter, there are six main things that the media organisations want. They want a right to contest search warrants. They want protection for whistle-blowers. They want restrictions on secrecy. They want freedom of information reforms. They want journalist exemptions to essentially mean they are free of prosecution when it comes to national security. And finally they want defamation law reform. Are any of those unreasonable?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: First of all, that's seriously the best summary I've heard of this all day and I think that you need to look at each of these as individual issues and look at how they're being dealt with.

So with respect to warrants and how are those warrants are applied and administered by the AFP and other organisations and on the issue of how we classify documents on a scale of secrecy, and on the issue of FOI; all three of those issues are being considered by the Parliamentary Committee into Intelligence and Security. I think each of those raise completely sensible issues. They're being dealt with in a very sensible way by the most powerful and the bipartisan committee of this Parliament. So we wait, we see what they say. But again I don't see any of those issues as being improperly raised or not lacking common sense. They're all sensible issues being looked at in a sensible way.

With respect to whistle-blowers, they're governed by an Act called the Public Interest Disclosure Act. That Act was drafted in the dying days of the Rudd-Gillard governments. It has been described by the courts as impenetrable. It simply is unbelievably difficult to read and understand and interpret. We've had a review into that and that has to be amended and reformed and I'm inside that process at the moment. Defamation, again, what's been raised by media companies, you know they're looking at things like the cap on defamations, they're looking at things like the un-level playing field because online publications don't get treated as publications. Those matters have been dealt with by CAG, again entirely sensible.

I think where this issue starts to become more difficult is at the edge where media organisations have said they want two things. One is exemptions - I'll use their words – 'for journalists from all laws that would put them in jail for doing their job.' And the second exemption they want is from all warrants which would allow a law enforcement agency with a warrant that has been given by a judge to access data possessed about a journalist. Now, simply giving blanket exemptions to all behaviour which a journalist considers is doing their job, for all criminal lawsin Australia at a Commonwealth level, I think falls outside the edge of reasonableness.

PAUL MURRAY: Well, also I think there's perhaps a seventh demand here that I am surprised is missing from the cases they were trying to make today - and I know it's the purview of the states - but I think suppression orders are a massive issue. I mean we know what happened in and around the George Pell case. We also know that there are great efforts when people want to come out and talk about their experiences as victims of sexual assault, particularly the jurisdiction of Victoria seems to love these things in particular. I would throw those in as things that need to be dealt with as well. Do you think that that is reasonable when we're drawing up a list of things that are eminently reasonable to talk about, that the use of suppression orders is something that needs to be thought of as well?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah again, I think that having a discussion around how to best manage or better manage the court-use of suppression orders is a very sensible discussion to have. I mean the issue here is that there's no lack of commitment to the free press from this government or anyone in Parliament. But the reality is the Parliament over decades – 100 years in Australia has had to balance that very important right to a free press against other issues. So the right to a fair trial, which is where suppression orders arise, defamation, anti-vilification, national security imperatives. Very often these laws arise in the context of protecting the identity of a child or a witness in a criminal proceeding. Or even in the Public Interest Disclosure Act there's a provision that says that journalists can't disclose the identity of a whistle-blower, for obvious reasons because it discourages whistle-blowing. So in each of these instances and areas government, Parliament, Parliamentary committees have got to look and assess as to whether or not the balance is struck in a way that can be improved. So as I say, many of these issues are completely sensible and they're being dealt with in a sensible way. But you know, giving a blanket exemption to every journalist who considers that an action is - in the words of the Right to Know Alliance - doing their job from every single criminal law at a Commonwealth level is not workable.

I mean, we redrafted entirely the espionage and secrecy and foreign interference offences. And when we did that we included for the first time ever, a very full and complete defence for any person engaged in public interest journalism to those secrecy offences. Now many of the older offences simply didn't have that type of approach. So as a Government, we've shown ourselves completely willing to make laws that best balance these interests, but I think that you have to look at each of these issues on a case by case, issue by issue basis. And yes as you point out, Victorian courts seem to have a much greater propensity to apply suppression orders than in some other jurisdictions. And at a Council of Attorney-Generals' level that's a question that we are asking, and each of the jurisdictions at a state level are looking into these issues because there must be an appropriate best standard that we can apply across Australia.

PAUL MURRAY: The weakest part of the argument being made today is in part this absolute exemption for journalism and journalists doing their job from all levels of criminal law. Because the problem is, is that the Media Union gave an award to Julian Assange. He is an example of somebody who has declared himself a journalist in the past and there are some pretty significant clear breaches of national security that have happened there. This would essentially let a person like that continue to do whatever they wanted to do. The most extreme parts of the Internet would be protected by that.

But conversely I think that one of the strongest parts of what's being argued today is the specific examples in and around aged care. Would you agree that we have to do something about a system that means we don't have to wait for six months to learn if an aged care facility has been dinged for the inappropriate treatment of the people inside that facility? Because families if they know instantly of a breach would either be able to move them or we would be able to move to an even faster process of publicly naming and shaming those very organisations rather than hiding behind, I'll see you in six months.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, I think that the aged care issue as I understand it's a Freedom of Information issue and the first issue you raised is about an exemption from things like data warrants or from any type of criminal offence. And if I just deal with both of them in turn …


CHRISTIAN PORTER: On the data warrants issue there a very specific process that would apply to accessing the data of a journalist in the process of investigating a very serious offence. The offence might not even be about the journalist but it's about getting information about the commission of a very serious offence. They're used very sparingly. There's a special process. But the idea that no matter how serious the offence, that - and no matter how important this information might be to an investigation, whether that's a homicide or an investigation into child sex crime or terrorism, that a journalist or journalists should all have complete exemption from those warrants which are argued in front of and ultimately granted by a court, just seems not only unworkable but something that I think ultimately most Australians would think isn't getting the balance right.

In FOI - noting that FOI is one of the issues that the Parliamentary joint committee is considering - it is always desirable that you get the answers back to FOI requests as soon as possible. One of the difficulties is that there are literally thousands and thousands of these things that come in to departments and to ministers. And yes, I mean every effort is made to be timely, but these are issues that I think that the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee is looking at and making a decision on the run without seeing first what they report and respond with respect to, would make things much worse not better.

PAUL MURRAY: The Attorney-General is Christian Porter. We spoke in Canberra a bit earlier today.