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Irene Moss, saviour of Australia's press freedom??

By Joseph Palmer

The recently formed Australia's Right To Know is a coalition of media groups consisting of Fairfax Media, News Ltd, the ABC, SBS, AAP, commercial TV and radio stations and journalists unions. Its aim is to "tackle the deeply troubling erosion of free speech, including restrictive FO laws, and a legislative failure to protect whistleblowers." The coalition has hired Irene Moss to head the group and to conduct an audit of how the media's right to know has been eroded.

Irene Moss is a strange and poor choice for this job. She has been tainted with her strong links to the Labor Party and Bob Carr, who as premier effectively neutralised FO laws. After retiring from politics, Carr was given a lucrative consultancy at Macquarie Bank, whose CEO happened to be Bill Moss, Irene Moss's husband. Irene Moss reported to be a very close personal friend of Helena Carr, Bob Carr's wife. During Moss's tenure as head of ICAC, it was widely acknowledged that ICAC was a failure and had a very poor record in tackling systemic and entrenched corruption in the public service and government. Many whistleblowers were exposed by ICAC and after attempts to discredit them, Whistleblowers Australia advised whistleblowers not to report corrupt conduct to ICAC.

Transcripts of Hansard recording NSW Parliament Committee on ICAC reveal some interesting information. In the General Meeting with the Commissioner of the ICAC on 30 November, 2001 (Report 7/52 Parliament), Irene Moss is asked whether her executive officer, Stephen Murray and other senior ICAC officers were ALP members. At this point it is recorded on page 56, that the "evidence continued in camera". This year, Stephen Murray outed himself as Crikey columnist Boilermaker Bill.

We must not over-egg free speech argument
Sydney Morning Herald
August 31 2007
By: Richard Ackland

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, is a great man. A wonderful contributor to the law of civil liberties and the right to publish. He has a towering intellect and an international legal practice. He can also be quite funny; for example, with his line "Rupert Murdoch is a great Australian, in the sense that Attila was a great Hun".

So he was an absolute natural to do the big oration on Tuesday night at a free-speech dinner in Sydney. It was staged by an outfit called Australia's Right to Know, which is a coalition of media organisations and lobby groups.

Fairfax Media is a member, so too is News Ltd, the ABC, SBS, the free-to-air TV people, the commercial radio stations, the journalists' union and AAP.

The event was sponsored by a concatenation of upscale law shops, mostly acting on the defendants' side but, if the client and the money are right, they'll cross the street and act against the media. The aim, according to the blurb on the menu (smoked chicken with tian of avocado and apple, Amelia lamb racks followed by vanilla-bean creme brulee with cream macaroons) is to "tackle the 'deeply troubling' erosion of free speech".

Singled out for special mention in the erosion stakes are: restrictive freedom of information laws, an excessive number of suppression orders issued by the courts, a lopsided and expensive defamation regime, and a legislative failure to protect whistleblowers. It's quite a mouthful of evils. The coalition has hired top guns under the baton of Irene Moss, the former commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, to conduct an "audit" of how our (the media's) right to know has been stealthily undermined.

Yet there are some troubling elements to all this. Robertson was, no doubt, briefed by the coalition on the latest data. He quoted the worldwide press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders, which had Australia ranked at number 35, equal with Mali, Bulgaria and France, but behind Ghana, Bolivia, Benin and Trinidad and Tobago, Latvia and Slovenia.

Robertson asked: "So how is it that Australia, a nation that prides itself on outspokenness, on frankness, on telling it like it is, happens to have less press freedom than Malta or San Marino?"

Good question, except that Malta or San Marino are not on the index. And when you look at the methodology applied by Reporters Without Borders you begin to wonder. "Partner organisations" and freedom of expression groups on five continents plus 130 correspondents around the world assisted in compiling the index. The questionnaire asked 50 questions ranging from, "How many journalists were murdered?" to "How many cyber-dissidents or bloggers were harassed or physically attacked?"

I'm not convinced that given the range and strength of the media in this country, the vigour with which issues are discussed, and the eagerness to expose government and corporate shortcomings, that our media is less free than its counterparts under regimes in Mauritius, Bolivia and Namibia.

Another reflex recitation from the Right to Know coalition is the high number of court-issued suppression orders under which we labour. Robertson referred to "the extraordinary increase in suppression orders issued by courts which stops the reporting of evidence".

He said that 10 years ago there were fewer than 100 suppression orders in Australia and now in NSW there are more than 1000. Where does this come from? Ten years ago figures were not kept by the NSW Supreme Court on the number of suppression orders. But in the past three years there have been fewer than 90 issued by the Supreme Court, which is an average of 30 a year.

A somewhat higher number would have been issued by the District Court, but its a far cry from "more than 1000".

What may have been rolled up in the figures are court warnings to the media about legislative restrictions affecting the reporting of sexual assault and criminal cases involving under-age witnesses or complainants.

It's terribly important that the media not overstate its case in this campaign, because to do so will undermine its battle against the insidious but very real threats to press freedom.

Apart from government secrecy I'd include here the corporate use of highly skilled spin merchants and more recently the resurrection of economic torts (and not just against the media). Gunns and David Jones deserve special mention in this category.

The High Court opening the door to "business defamation" also has the potential to unwind some of the real advances under the uniform Defamation Act.

As well as addressing those points, the Right to Know coalition might also look to their own houses. For instance, the ABC last year was in the Federal Court opposing an FoI application from the University of Technology, Sydney, to produce its records of complaints into alleged bias in its coverage of the Middle East.

In other places sensitive stories are spiked or simply not written and the dumbing-down proceeds apace at SBS while the managers steadfastly deny it is happening.
justinian@lawpress.com.au