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Writers fest explores govt threats to expose the truth

SMH journalist Kate McClymont.  Photo Jeff Dawson

SMH journalist Kate McClymont. Photo Jeff Dawson

Michael McDonald

Journalism was well represented at this year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival, with sessions on each day giving the punters an insight into the trade. Among them was a look at how much harder it has become for reporters to get the truth out there.

And not just because of foreign government repression as one would suspect with the lineup at Saturday’s session on ‘Jail For Journalism’. Noted journalists Sally Sara, Kate McClymont and Greg Sheridan all lamented the Australian Government’s fervour for cracking down on whistleblowers and tracking journalists’ sources via electronic means, the notorious examination of metadata.

McClymont now advises sources to put sensitive information in the mail. She even longed for the old days when Bob Woodward’s sources (of Watergate fame) could tell when he was available by the movement of his pot plant.

Sheridan said it was much harder to get information on national security. ‘We’ve had sources go to jail for exposing wastes of government money,’ he said.

Eavesdropping

Electronic eavesdropping, tightening of the Freedom of Information Act and the threat of our lousy defamation laws all restrict our right to know, according to these reporters.

Even in Afghanistan Sara found the Australian military brass less ready to talk than the Americans. And back home ‘we’re increasingly faced with [dealing with] spin doctors’, according to McClymont, who also said the minders resent reporters getting through to a government minister.

McClymont also noted how expensive it is to get the facts through an FOI, which is out of the reach of a citizen journalist. Sheridan added that recent legislation ‘empowers the government to jail journalists’ for doing their job.

Defamation, the rich person’s resort, raised its ugly head when McClymont described the terror of being sued by Eddie Obeid in 2006. Recounting Joe Hockey’s misadventure in receiving only a fraction of his court costs in his recent defamation case against Fairfax drew loud applause from the audience.

Need to know

Sara also pointed out that big media companies tend to cover the same stories while major international events are ignored. The public also are guilty in restricting their own need to know. Sheridan found this out when his major analysis of the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt factions in Thailand drew only 19 internet comments, while the public went ballistic on yet another Australian politician’s expense account scandal.

Perhaps also Australia needs to revamp its FOI laws in the style of the Right To Information laws in India, where RTI activists are formidable at uncovering scandals, sometimes at their own personal peril, according to Sara. India’s RTI www.rtiindia.org site certainly seems as personable as Australia’s www.oaic.gov.au/.

A democracy is only as free as its laws allow it to be. The recounting of stories and concerns by these journalists showed that Australia still has a long way to go.


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