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Would a Bill of Rights improve the quality of Australian journalism?

By Rick Snell - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2000


A few weeks ago, in one of those moments of serendipity, I came across a book waiting to be placed in our law library's rare book collection.

Its title was: English liberties: or the free born subject's inheritance, printed on behalf of Sarah Harris in 1691. A pocket-size book that contains the Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus Act and other "most useful statutes" with commentary and a strong articulation of the importance of the jury and the necessity to protect rights and liberties against judges beholden to the King or monied interests.

That little pocket book, a frail and flimsy protection against the power of the British monarchy and its state apparatus, brought home to me the very potent mix of a constitutional document, granting rights, expressed in simple language, linked with legislation aimed at supporting those rights and a strong ever-vigilant promotion of those rights. A protection that cannot rely exclusively on judges, lawyers, heads of state or Parliaments but must spring from an informed and active citizen.

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We could do a lot worse than to give each cadet journalist a modern version of that 300-year-old book – an every citizen's guide to liberty. A copy not only for their own use but one to be imparted to others via their writings, visions and sound.

I argue that a Bill of Rights is not a gift from the gods but a charter of mutual obligation between citizens and society. A charter whose obligations necessitate an improved approach to journalism.

A Bill of Rights will remove many of the external impediments to good journalism – unnecessarily strict defamation laws, overly technical contempt laws or ones that easily hinder reporting – especially in long, drawn-out civil disputes.

More importantly it offers journalists a new chance to take on the obligations of accountable journalism as articulated by Paul Chadwick in the 1999 AN Smith Lecture. Chadwick argued that the media, as a wielder of public power, can only wield that power when it is fully accountable and fulfilling all of its purposes.

There is a close connection between the valid exercise of a right to free speech by the press and the duty to protect and promote public debate and civic conversations. Would a Bill of Rights that enshrined the Freedom of Speech transform or even enhance journalism in Australia?

The simplistic and immediate response from a Tasmanian who is confronted with the by-product of Murdoch's vision of regionalism, Packer's infotainment packaging, the short end of the stick from ABC budget crises and a benign neglect from SBS is a heartfelt "I hope so!"

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The key question, however, is whether Australian journalism is ready for the demands and responsibilities of a constitutional right to free speech? My equally simplistic response is "I hope so."

However, a Bill of Rights and the public, constitutional and assertive endorsement of freedom of speech should not be bound to the uncertain capacity of Australian journalism to deliver on its civic obligations.

A Bill of Rights is not a panacea for Australian democracy but it is a necessary step to the achievement of an Australian democratic citizenship.

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This is an edited extract of one of three speeches given to the fourth 2000 George Munster forum, organised by the Centre for Independent Journalism and held at The Museum of Sydney on 23 October 2000. A full transcript of the forum is available at here or can be purchased as an audio tape from the ABC.



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About the Author

Rick Snell is Senior Lecturer in Public Law and Media Law at the University of Tasmania Law School. His main focus is administrative law with particular expertise in the area of freedom in information. Rick Snell is National Editor of the Freedom of Information Review.

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Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
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University of Tasmania
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