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Friday, August 31, 2012

Fairfax redundacies include one of the FOI best

Eighty three staff at the Sydney Morning Herald, and others at Fairfax publications The Age and The Canberra Times took redundancy packages this week in what someone at Crikey described as "probably the biggest clear out of talent in the history of Australian journalism."

The departures, David Marr, Adele Horan, Malcolm Brown, Ian Verrender and John Huxley  (and others), to name a few, leave gaping holes in quality, experience and professionalism in journalism at Fairfax. 
None more so than Matthew Moore leaving after 30 years, most recently titled Urban Affairs Editor but still managing an investigative unit and wearing the FOI Editor hat that he donned in 2006 after returning from a spell in Jakarta. Before going there, here as state political reporter and Olympics Editor he became a leading FOI exponent, notably pushing the envelope in seeking disclosures regarding the preparations and financing of the Sydney Olympics in the lead up and aftermath of the games.

Matthew broke many major stories through use of FOI particularly in the period 2006-2009 when already tight resource constraints at Fairfax started to bite harder. During that period and since he also provided invaluable advice to others at the SMH and elsewhere as  access to information laws became a mainstream journalism tool used by those on education, health, police, environment and other rounds.

Among memorable Moore campaigns was exposing food businesses caught breaching health laws. After two years of reports that included turning the public stomach at news of a rat plague in a Sydney sushi factory, the NSW Government decided to begin publishing details of fines imposed. One of his first FOI applications for this sort of information to the City of Sydney Council was (erroneously) knocked back on grounds disclosure would breach the privacy act.

Another long FOI battle resulted in NSW Police releasing a database of 77,000 crimes and other incidents at or near named hotels and clubs and the publication of details ranking the clubs and hotels according to the number and type of incidents of violence and the levels of intoxication of the person concerned. The Police originally refused access on grounds the Alcohol Linking Program would collapse through lack of co-operation from hotels, the information would have an unreasonable adverse effect on commercial interests, they wouldn't be able to investigate incidents or conduct secret audits of named hotels, and the game would be up for the Random Breath Testing program because motorists would twig to likely places where they would encounter a RBT unit. The Police folded on the steps of the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

Fairfax itself is the one looking battered at the moment. There is pessimism rather than optimism regarding ongoing interest, enthusiasm and capability at the SMH, The Age and The Canberra Times in crusading use of access to information laws to hold the powerful to account.

I hope Matthew Moore isn't lost to the cause entirely. He leaves as a good friend and admired colleague with every best wish for the future.

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