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Monday, April 11, 2011

Victoria up for a "professionals" only shield law

Attorney General Clark
Chris Merritt in The Australian reported on Friday that Victoria intends to legislate this year to create a rebuttable presumption that the identity of those who provide information to journalists will be protected by state law. Attorney General Robert Clark indicated the protection would apply in circumstances similar to those set out in the recently passed Federal law, but only for "professional" journalists. No detail provided, but in the light of what the Attorney sees as a neat distinction between professionals and amateurs, a reprise of the debate in Canberra about the scope of the privilege seems certain:
"We believe the shield should apply to journalists who receive information in the normal course of their work."... "The Greens' changes (incorporated into Federal legislation) are cast in extremely broad terms," Mr Clark said. "Simply running a blog does not make you a journalist. If you are a professional carrying on online journalism in the course of your work, electronic media journalists qualify (for protection) just as the print media does. "But if you are an amateur running a blog, in principle and practice, it is not appropriate that the privilege extend to such a person."
In Canberra Andrew Wilkie's initial attempt at defining the circumstances in which it could  apply was limited to a journalist employed and operating in the course of work. This would have excluded a free lancer not currently employed working on a story for later submission to a publisher but who could not point to an employee-employer relationship at the time the source provided the information. Or a student journalist. Or any person not currently employed who publishes and disseminates news and opinion regularly and consistently on the internet, in other words clearly a citizen journalist.

The Greens amendments incorporated into the Bill in Canberra with support from the Government and Wilkie were an attempt to address such problems. In my view the definitions don't extend the privilege to anyone who publishes anything, anywhere as claimed by Opposition Senator Brandis and his colleagues, and now reflected in the Victorian Attorney's comments:
journalist means a person who is engaged and active in the publication of news and may be given information by an informant in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium; news medium means any medium for the dissemination to the public or a section of the public of news and observations on news.
Uniformity should be the aim although "normal course of work" without references to any professional/ amateur dichotomy could be broad enough to extend privilege to those paid or unpaid engaged and active in the publication of news.

Let's hope for some sort of debate about this before we end up with the traditional mess of differing Federal and state laws reminiscent of those different rail gauges of another century.

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