Gina's subpoena threatens press freedom


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

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. By way of disclaimer, Adele Ferguson's partner is a member of the board of Jesuit Communications, publisher of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Adele Ferguson, Gina Rinehart, press freedom, journalist sources



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Existing comments

Tweet on web_ @EurekaStreet @adele_ferguson b.s.The drama 2b had is that it invades the special preciousness of the aesthetic of biography. Wrong street!!
LarrBecq | 15 March 2013

Fascinating stuff. As you are clearly concerned about free speech I look forward reading your howl of outrage at the latest proposed legislation from the Gillard government.
Chris Harper | 16 March 2013

While I agree with your defence of "Free Speech", I have to wonder why your defense is only available to journalists who agree with your views? Freedom of the press should be sacrosanct foundation of our country, regardless of the views expressed, and this should be defended by all sides. Micheal you are welcome to defend your colleague, but you must also acknowledge the rights of others to free speech even when they dont have the same views as you!
Troy | 16 March 2013

The principle involves a biographer. ..say, Diedre Blair (interview w/Morag Fraser: Eureka Street Vol. 1 no. 2 April 1991) Any Faifax articles within the requirements of the subpoena would have had as their source material the body of the bio material collected with the intention of Pan MacMillan publication. Fairfax is out of the picture except that it printed material from the bio preparation. Confidentiality. Confidentiality would depend on what the young Rinehart gave the biographer that he would wish to remain confidential and not to be contained in the bio. IT IS VERY RARE THAT SOMEONE SPEAKS TO A BIOGRAPHER WITH THE INTENTION THAT THE BIOGRAPHER SHOULD WITHHOLD WHAT IS GIVEN. The only breach of confidentiality would be the revealation of what the biographer did not use.
LarrBecq | 16 March 2013

It seems it's open season on Gina Rinehart, even to the extent of exploiting her differences with her children. The fact that you support them in this disgusts me. Could Fairfax be indulging in payback against Gina Rinehart for the 'crime' of investing in Fairfax, and not being of the Left? A reasonable Australian might see the Fairfax actions as a disgusting and disreputable attack on the privacy of a private individual with whom Fairfax has political differences. It's possible that Fairfax is also using misappropriated personal documents---they could inform us of that if informing the public was its aim, which is doubtful. Fairfax squeals about racial and gender vilification, misogyny etc--everything under the sun--- but it's open season as far as they're concerned on Gina Rinehart et al. Fairfax is the bottom of the barrel in Australian journalism---not fit for anything. This sort of thing is why no one wants to buy Fairfax publications any more.
truth | 17 March 2013

At the weekend, Malcolm Turnbull said that while the ABC is required to be impartial in political matters (he didn't refer to the other channels), there is no such requirement on newspaper editors. This seems quite an extraordinary statement. While there can be no doubt where the Murdoch media stand on Australian politics, there is some attempt at fairness by Fairfax. Why would anyone buy The Australian?
Frank | 18 March 2013

Freedom of Speech is not an absolute. Like all the other freedoms we enjoy, it is restricted. We are not free, for instance, to commit the crimes of libel or slander, nor are we free to indulge in racial vilification. Freedom to practice one's religion, for instance, does not imply the freedom to perform genital mutilation in Australia, even though individuals might hold it to be a 'religious right'. And, of course, along with all the rights we enjoy in this country, come responsibilities. Along with freedom of speech in the press comes the responsibility not to print lies, not to deliberately mislead the public or to imply falsehoods. The uproar (led by the Murdoch Press and allowed to pass without signifiucant challenge by Fairfax and the ABC) that has raged during the last week over the proposed legislation re media accountability is not about Freedon of Speech, but about the right to exercise the power to manipulate the public with downright untruths, untrue suggestions, manipulations, and the failure to report relevant and important facts. I have been quite dismayed this morning reading the first few responses to this article by Michael Mullins.
Kate Ahearne | 18 March 2013

'Free speech' is only one of the qualities needed in the presentation and publication of information and opinions. Fairness in presentation is just as important. This quality is often crushed by much of the mass media that promote one-sided opinion even in the publication of news. And at election times we have highly expensive and persuasive (but often uninformative) advertisements in print and on television that give advantage to those who have the necessary substantial funds.
Bob orcoran | 18 March 2013

threats to freedom of speech and independence of the media are the biggest issue affecting our country at present, because this is central to debate about any issue.
mary | 18 March 2013

It all comes down to politics "the Left and the Right". Now we know, where Eureka Street stands. I will continue to buy The Australian which stands for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Ron Cini | 18 March 2013

Chris Harper, it sounds like you have fallen for all the Media's propaganda. Tell me one thing that restricts freedom to report in the Gillard legislation? No, it is the threat to their own power that has led to the lies and propaganda from the Murdock and Fairfax media, masquarading as public interest. And "Truth"- your arguments-which I don' agree with anyway- have nothing to do the subject matter-media Barons misuse of media masquerading as public interest, and belief that their self interest is more important than standards and integrity.
Dancing Bear | 29 March 2013


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