No truly free press with our inadequate shield laws, whistleblower protections

PHOTO Geoff Bagnall, National Indigenous Times: Journalist Gerry Georgatos at the January 26, 2012 Lobby Restaurant incident - days later he broke the story that the Prime Minister's Office was extensively involved in generating the incident despite their claims that it is was the work of a rogue parliamentary staffer.

By Gerry Georgatos, investigative journalist, WikiLeaks Party Senate Candidate, Western Australia

Transparency, accountability and justice are neither the primary nor default positions of the Australian political landscape and of its news media. Instead it comes down to personal choices by parliamentarians and journalists, indeed with anyone, whether they will be pursuant unfettered of these values. It will take a cultural shift to ensure transparency, accountability and justice as their primary and default positions.

Reporters Without Borders has ranked Australia 26th on the 2013 Free Press Index. This low ranking of Australia bespeaks of a muzzled press and in part this is due to inadequate shield laws for journalists, and repugnant lack of adequate whistleblower protections. Effectively, at any time hired lawyers can commence litigation against journalists and their publishers and without in the first instance having had to substantiate their right to litigate. As a journalist I have often been phoned by lawyers warning me not to publish any further material about their clients while the lawyers who have called have never read a single word of any of the articles I have written about their client! On occasion I have emailed PDFs of the articles that these lawyers should have read. In my experience, truth is not the objective of the majority of lawyers, and especially those who earn their quid from litigation.

As a journalist I have had to see off one legal threat after another which had been intended to prevent me from investigating and submitting for publication public interest news stories. On occasion I have had Writs served on me and my publisher. Publishers are predominately averse to sustaining coverage about someone who is prone to litigate or who has a track record of doing so. And it works. More often than not many of those who abuse litigation do not realistically pursue compensatory damages but only seek to financially damage the other parties, such as the journalist and the publisher, and where possible the whistleblowers, with outrageous legal costs. Indeed, legal costs will always outstrip any financial damages outcome but it rarely gets to that. More often than not the Writs or proceedings hang over the journalist and publisher for many months or years so as to ensure they stop investigating and publishing, and this is what the plaintiffs had sought to achieve. Their claims are very rarely tested in Court. Unless you are prepared to represent yourself in Court as I do, independent or freelance journalists and small publishers cannot afford their day in Court. Justice is denied.

I have never published a controversial story without various testimony, testimony which I have tested, without various corroboration and other research. Yet, even with the most watertight story it is more often than not against the financial interest of the publisher to run with it because to defend the story from a litigant may mean hundreds of thousands and more than likely millions of dollars to lawyers. In my case, I always represent myself,I will never speak through a lawyer and therefore I have minimal financial expenditure. I refuse to compromise my convictions for anyone, especially litigious bullies and wrong-doers. As a child I learned that what matters is to do what is right, what is the common good and to always account for every word and deed where it is so in the public interest. Crudely, it has also been my base understanding that anyone who generally needs to explain their deeds or words, or to prevent scrutiny of their deeds and words, well usually they are cowards, liars and deceivers. But as a journalist I usually finish up as the Second Defendant on any Writ, with the publisher finishing up as the First Defendant. I have never bowed to supporting the removal of any of my stories from the public domain or to cease coverage of a public interest story – whatever the legal and other consequences, which are many, including ostracisation, persecution and various malice – this is not how I will live my days. Example may be our only immortality.

For small and niche publishers litigaton is a nightmare prospect and could be their demise. For independent and citizen media once again similarly so.

To ensure the free flow of information, in order to add to the public record in the public interest, without fear or favour, shield laws and other protections for journalists and publishers need to be of such robust nature that one cannot litigate without prior cause demonstrated and at no expense to any other parties. The wealthiest among us are able to deny the public interest merely by financially underwritten attrition, by leveraging their wealth against the publisher and the journalist and of course where so against the whistleblower.

Without adequate shield laws an informed citizenry will continue to be denied and the victim is the national consciousness. Not only do corporations and eventually the State become unaccountable, they become clandestine.

Majority Governments have failed again and again to deliver effective shield and protective whistleblower legislation. They have little intention of working towards this. Unless we secure into our parliaments those voices who will not compromise truth, who will challenge monopolies and various spheres of influence, who will not succumb to cultures of favour-dispensation and nepotism, and who will also work to erode monopoly politics.

The existing news media is owned by various individuals and excessive self interest groups with diverse portfolios and it is not in their cross-interests to campaign for shield laws and protective whistleblower laws. 98 per cent of the Australian print media is owned by three entities, with the Murdoch owning 60 per cent. But these entities have diverse interests in mining, banking, various large scale ventures – and broadcast media. It is these other interests they own which benefit from the quiet brought on by the ability to litigate at will against investigative journalists and whistleblowers.

Australia’s Free Press Index ranking will worsen as its news media, small and large, continues to be harangued by an ever increasing litigious wealthy class and the public relations bent corporate sector whose lived experience is supported by the premise that the ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.