Publishers resist in gag debate

A bid to restrict journalists from reporting allegations of corruption within Queensland’s public sector is being resisted by news publishers.

A total 50 submissions have been made in response to a discussion paper released in June by Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) that questioned whether public scrutiny of corruption allegations was in the public interest and, if not, what legislative or other measures might prevent it.

Concern focuses on allegations submitted to the commission, then made public by individuals whose claims are found to be without foundation, scurrilous or malicious. This would cause unnecessary reputational harm to those caught up in such claims.

An argument to prevent any gag on the press was made by a coalition of media organisations, which includes NewsMediaWorks and its founding members APN News & Media, Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia and West Australian Newspapers.

Separate papers were put by Fairfax website Brisbane Times and News Corp’s Gold Coast Bulletin.

Brisbane Times said it believed “existing legal provisions, such as defamation, are sufficient to protect people from harm”.

NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption added its voice to the debate, noting that while it currently had no provisions to prevent an individual making public corruption allegations that they had made to ICAC, it was an offence to make mislead or make false statements to ICAC.

“While complainants may publicise the fact that they have made a complaint to the ICAC, it has not been the ICAC’s experience that any such publication has adversely affected its investigations,” its submission said.

“The limited cases where people do publish the fact they have made a complaint to the ICAC usually involve matters that the ICAC has decided not to investigate. The ICAC’s experience is that the more serious and substantial the complaint, the less likely it is that the complainant will risk prejudicing any investigation by publishing the complaint. In many cases complainants may be concerned that they will suffer reprisals if it becomes known they have made complaints. This concern acts as a natural constraint against disclosure.”

Other submissions ranged from vehement opposition to the restriction of open reporting, to strong or conditional support that cited the potential for irreversible reputation damage or impairment investigations.

The publication of the allegations for vexatious or political purposes, particularly around elections, was also a key concern.

Organisations that responded included the state’s Liberal-National Party, Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet, Whistleblowers’ Action Group and several local and city councils. Six submissions were submitted anonymously and 13 are under review and have not been published.

Sunshine Coast Council said it fundamentally supported “open, transparent and accountable government”. However, it did not believe “these pillars would be diminished by placing restrictions on the ability for a person to make allegations of corrupt conduct public”.

A public forum will be held by the CCC on October 6 and 7.

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