AUSTRALIA’S STAR CHAMBERS While the [NSW Crime] Commission wants to investigate and know everything about everyone else, it wants the public to know little or nothing about it. Justifying its secretive position and extraordinary powers as necessary to protect us from “them”’, it takes only a short time before there is an apprehension that we need protection from it.46 Robin Speed, Sydney Morning Herald, March 2011
Cartoon by Joanne Brooker
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald last March, the president of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia, Robin Speed, reported the case of journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch, who were served subpoenas to produce their mobile phones and SIM cards after they wrote a series of stories critical of the NSW Crime Commission. Speed highlighted the coercive powers claimed by the plethora of anti-corruption agencies that have sprung up in Australia during the past two decades, and questioned if these powers to investigate corruption justified the chilling effect they undoubtedly have on free speech in Australia. During the past two years, up to a dozen journalists have been served with similar subpoenas by one or other of these agencies. As noted in the Media Alliance Press Freedom Report 2011, Progress Under Liberty, these extrajudicial bodies claim powers that would be almost unthinkable in the court system, including compelling witnesses to attend some hearings without legal representation and removing the common law right to silence. They also ignore the protections bestowed by federal and state shield laws, which allow journalists – or anyone engaged in the gathering and dissemination of news – to refuse to answer questions that might identify their confidential sources. Quite apart from stripping witnesses of their common law rights, they conflict with the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, clause 3 of which reads: “Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances”.47 As we have noted in this report, there is clearly a strong push, both in Commonwealth and various state jurisdictions, to recognise the importance of source confidentiality to free speech, yet shield laws rarely extend to anti-corruption bodies (the exception appears to be in Western Australia, where the Evidence and Public Interest Disclosure Legislation Amendment Bill looks set to extend protection to the state’s anti-corruption body, the Corruption and Crime Commission).
Published on May 3, 2012