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Gina's subpoena threatens press freedom

  • 18 March 2013

During the past week we've seen media power brokers assert their view that the Federal Government's proposed media reforms represent a massive attack on freedom of the press. Arguably these assertions are spurious and reflect fears that the changes would threaten the power of the press and other media. 

Freedom of the press is about freedom to report, not to dominate. It is a value that is cherished by serious advocates of democracy and denied by totalitarian regimes. It is a complex principle that contains a range of imperatives, some of which are contained in the Media Alliance Code of Ethics. These include upholding the confidentiality of journalistic sources where confidence is requested. 

During the week, in which the press freedom debate has raged, this core principle of reporting has been challenged by one of Australia's up and coming media barons. 

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart is pursuing legal action that has led to the issue of a subpoena to Fairfax journalist Adele Ferguson, author of the unauthorised biography, Gina Rinehart — The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World. 

It demands she hand over emails, text messages, notebooks and any recordings of interviews made between Rinehart's eldest son John Hancock and the journalist since September 2011. Ferguson has until the end of this month to comply or be charged with contempt of court. A conviction could carry a jail term. She told the ABC she'd go to jail rather than violate the confidentiality principle.

There are appeals pending over other attempts to force journalists to reveal sources in various cases, including one involving Rinehart from a year ago. But the coincidence of last week's subpoena with the debate on press freedom highlights the hollow nature of the rhetoric of the media power brokers and indeed most politicians.

There has been scant coverage of Ferguson's plight in some of the major media outlets. Free speech defender Andrew Bolt, who is Rinehart's media commentator protege, was slow off the mark with a token reference. Meanwhile politicians from both the Government and Opposition have been silent with the notable exception of Malcolm Turnbull, who tweeted in Ferguson's defence. It appears other MPs are driven not by principle but fear of the media power brokers including Rinehart.

It's left to concerned citizens to fight for this important principle, which they are doing through a petition at change.org.

Michael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. By way of disclaimer, Adele Ferguson's partner