A robust, free press, with its capacity to fulfil its vital functions protected by law, makes our democracy stronger and so our nation more secure.
It is therefore deeply concerning that, as the Committee’s report makes clear, the law in Australia does not adequately protect freedom of the press or the public’s right to know.
Labor members believe that the recommendations in the Committee’s report would, if implemented, result in meaningful improvements to the law of Australia, including improved legal protections for journalists who are doing their jobs.
However, Labor members also believe the recommendations in the report do not go far enough. For that reason, the Morrison Government should regard the Committee’s recommendations as a bare minimum – a starting point – for reform.
Broader reforms to protect press freedom and the public’s right to know are clearly needed, though Labor members recognise that reasonable minds may differ about precisely what those broader reforms should look like. To cite two examples canvassed in the Committee’s report:
The Committee has not endorsed the proposal by (among others) Australia’s Right to Know coalition to remove the evidential onus on journalist defendants in relation to a range of secrecy and unauthorised disclosure offences. Instead, the Committee has recommended that the Government consider whether defences for public interest journalism should be applied to other secrecy offences (Recommendation 7).
In our view, the proposal by Australia’s Right to Know coalition has considerable merit. Far from being radical, we note that such a change to the law would be consistent with the approach taken by the current government as recently as last year in the Criminal Code Amendment (Agriculture Protection) Bill 2019.
Labor members also believe that Recommendation 2 in the Committee’s report – though generally very positive – could be improved in several respects. For example, we are not fully convinced that Recommendation 2 should be linked to specific offences (e.g. “unauthorised disclosure offences”).
Looking beyond this inquiry, it is also important to recognise that the challenges to public interest journalism are much broader than those within the purview of this Committee.
This Committee is constituted under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, and accordingly its focus is national security, laws in relation to national security, and the agencies which constitute the “National Intelligence Community”.
Labor members are conscious that the breadth of the issues raised in the submissions to, and the public discussion around, this inquiry extends well beyond that provided for in either the Intelligence Services Act or the terms of reference in the Attorney General’s referral to this Committee.
Even before the Attorney-General’s referral, Labor did not believe that this Committee was the best forum for conducting a comprehensive inquiry into freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. While the Committee’s report will make a valuable contribution to the public debate, and implementation of the Committee’s recommendations will result in meaningful improvements to the law, Labor members remain of that view.
We would like to thank Liberal members of the Committee, and particularly the Chair, for the constructive way in which they have engaged with Labor members over the course of this inquiry.
Labor members would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated in this inquiry for their considered contributions.
Hon Anthony Byrne MP
Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP
Senator Jenny McAllister
Senator the Hon Kristina Keneally