OPINION

Journalists need freedom to do their job and a watchdog for when they cross the line

What does the public have a right to know, exactly? I've had journalists snoop around the personal lives of my staff, who aren't elected, aren't responsible for distributing public funding, aren't delivering any public programs, aren't making decisions about matters of public significance - they aren't even public figures.

Senator Jacqui Lambie supports journalistic freedom, but calls for the implementation of a regulating body with teeth.

Senator Jacqui Lambie supports journalistic freedom, but calls for the implementation of a regulating body with teeth.

Journalists have taken it upon themselves to determine that whoever I employ becomes a matter of public interest, but that's wrong. The fact it's interesting doesn't make it a matter of public interest. The sex life of the Prime Minister might be interesting to some people (and I'm sorry to hear it), but that doesn't make it a matter of public interest.

To be honest, journalists aren't especially qualified to determine what is and is not in the public interest. It's a blurry area at the best of times.

And if journalists decide that a member of the public's private life is important enough to spray across the airwaves and the printed page, they'll do it. The person has very little they can do about it especially when you don't have the cash to fight the claims in the courts. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.

I've had journalists use the FOI process to try to get my medical records from my time fighting the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That's not about reporting in the public interest. My medical records don't have anything to do with protecting the public's right to know.

Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a journalist's ire. They have a huge megaphone and platform that no regular Joe Bloggs is able to counter. You're always going to lose that fight. And the power that gives to a journalist can and has been used for remarkable good.

The investigations that led to the Don Dale Royal Commission, to the Aged Care Royal Commission, the reports into the mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin - and that's just one program. In fact there are almost no royal commissions in our history that haven't been triggered by great reporting and, crucially, brave whistleblowers prepared to put their heads above the parapet.

Journalists can't be both players and umpire, any more than the government can.

I support public interest journalism. I support a strong media sector. I support whistleblower protection and freedom of information laws that actually see information released instead of refused or redacted. I support power going back to the sector holding every government to account. What I also support is a check on that power. It's naive not to.

Because when that power gets abused, the public has a right to push back and regulate that. We do that through democratic elections. Nobody elects a journalist.

So if you ask me whether the public has a right to know, I say absolutely. They have a right to know about the decisions being made in their name. They don't have a right to know everything the Prime Minister eats. The right to privacy is also worth protecting.

I think there's another way through here.

Journalists have for a really long time been given the ability to regulate themselves. Journalists need to accept that they step over the line every now and then. I don't think that's a reason to send police into their underwear drawer.

Journalism relies on the confidence of the public if it's to engage in journalism that enhances the public interest.

The current industry regulator, the Australian Press Council, has no teeth. If you're found to have broken the rules, you get a slap on the wrist.

Journalists want broad changes to the way journalists are treated under the law. They want the power to tell stories they argue are in the public interest.

But nobody defines what's in the public interest.

They will overreach. They always do.

Journalists can't be both players and umpire, any more than the government can. What's needed is an independent third party. A regulator, independent of press, but able to work on their behalf with the government. A regulator that doesn't rely on money coming in from media companies (who conveniently throw fundraisers) and one that cannot be bossed around by governments of any stripe.

Journalists are always going to favour more disclosure over less. To be frank, there's a commercial interest in doing so. Now, not all stories are written for your clicks or your eyeballs. But if you're a journalist sitting on a juicy exclusive you know will sell subscriptions, you're going to feel a commercial pressure to reveal it, irrespective of whether it's in the public interest to do so.

An independent regulator could enforce an industry-wide code of conduct and be independent of government to avoid interference for political benefit. They could levy fines and other penalties. They could scrutinise legislation and suggest new ways through to improve on the regulations around public interest journalism. They could promote good journalism through training and accreditation.

In other words, you don't need to regulate every word said by a journalist. You just need to regulate the freedoms that journalists are calling for, and make sure we don't lose the right to push back on a newly-empowered fourth estate.

  • Jacqui Lambie is a Senator from Tasmania representing the Jacqui Lambie Network.
This story Journalists need freedom to do their job and a watchdog for when they cross the line first appeared on The Canberra Times.