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Monday, May 24, 2010

Lively interest in right to know

At the session on Saturday on Press Freedom and the Public's Right to Know (packed, with over 400 people), excessive secrecy and government attitudes and barriers to disclosure came in for the inevitable serve. Mike Carlton suggested things are getting worse not better, citing suppression orders in the courts as a particular trend in the wrong direction. The point was hammered home by David Marr who cited a "barmy" court order (I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere else) that prevented publication of The Weekend Australian Magazine in Victoria on Saturday because it contained an article about the murder of a child in Western Australia that a judge decided may have influenced jurors in a completely unrelated trial in that state of a man charged over the death of his three children; orders that prevent the publication of the names of many involved in court proceedings including names of rxxpists serving life sentences for acts committed when they were underage; the difficulties of accessing court documents in NSW while proceedings are underway and a reform process that is "going nowhere"; and the $8 per page cost of transcripts that poses a "horrendous" obstacle to digging into what has happened in open court if you didn't happen to be there. 

Anne Davies, recently returned from Washington, spoke of the "startling contrast" between her experiences there-even under the Bush administration, and things have improved since - in terms of access to government information and what she encounters here, using examples about the premier's appointments diary ( technical hoops here, versus 300,000 entries online at the White House website), and the release of political donation details (180 days after the end of the financial year here, versus something closer to real time there.) 

Michael McKinnon claimed government secrecy is about protecting policy failures (it's a bit more nuanced than that); gave some examples that readers here will be familiar with of the need for constant vigilance as quiet steps backward often accompany big announcements of moves in a positive direction; and was particularly critical of delay tactics in the Freedom of Information arena that have the effect of turning important information concerning accountability into unusable stuff because of the lapse of time. It won't be news for public servants who deal with McKinnon's FOI applications to hear his stated modus operandi: proceed with obsessive bloodymindedness and demonstrate you will never give up. 

This led to some questions about the media giving up on some topics, first from a small number of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, encouraged by the session title, who tried to put the panel on the spot about the media's complicity in an alleged cover up- no one was having that - and another about the truth behind the AWB Iraq scandal. Marr was critical of the Rudd Government's timidity in office on the issue given what was said when in opposition , and indicated the matter still has a way to run-watch this space.

"Privacy laws", said to be misused to protect important information that should be released,  received a general caning- more about the media, privacy and the Campbell episode in another post.

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