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Journalists in contempt? Bah!

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News surfaced today about the “conviction” and fining of two Herald Sun reporters who refused to name a federal government source in a story about veteran’s benefits.

As a journalist I can’t help admire the stance of the two reporters to stick by the code of conduct and keep the source under wraps, but I also urge all followers of this case to take a cold shower and be reminded as to why they were punished for “upholding the right”.

Contempt of court is a crime – it’s as simple as that! People, especially journalists, may not agree with that fact but that’s the way it is. And that’s the way the judiciary operates – it’s my bat, my ball, and my playing field and you don’t play by the rules you go to jail. Perhaps that’s why the coverage of the trial centred around the reporters’ escaping jail time. Remember Derryn Hinch’s famous, albeit short, stint behind bars for contempt? What is really harrowing is the people the judiciary doesn’t lock up when it clearly should, but that’s the topic of another post.

The reporters were punished for contempt of court but what they did was certainly in the public interest and not concocted in any way, which should have at least saved them from defamation. They may have, in the strictest sense, demonstrated contempt for the protectionist court processes, but they were far from being in contempt of what is best for our democratic principles as a free society. As the government continues to adopt more measures to shield itself from public scrutiny, the people that fund its existence have less and less knowledge of what goes on behind those closed Canberran doors.

I avoid using “unnamed” or “mystery” sources in my work but when I do I always make sure what gets reported is well and truly in the public interest and, moreover, can surface at Senate committee hearings, if you’re lucky that is :-).

With “public interest” the furthest thing from the government’s agenda, it seems journalists who are prosecuted are those who struck a raw nerve and, hence, were hunted down like some sort of sacrificial lambs.

That leads me back to the letter of the law. If all voters (and taxpayers) want freedom of information then it needs to remain on the political agenda. We can’t change sentences but we can change the law. Journalists should be given the legal protection to freely report on government practices and, if need be, keep the sources of such information confidential. Only then will the media fulfil its promise of being the “Fourth Estate” that allows the population to unreservedly canvass and alter the actions of the state it fosters.

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