There’s a pressing need to review how WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission is using its sweeping powers, the West Australian State Convenor of CLA, Peter Dowding, told an ABC TV Stateline audience in late November. He joined media representatives in requesting a reining in of the CCC’s secretive and threatening culture. CLA WA is considering assembling a panel of academics, lawyers and journalists to facilitate an open, public review of how the body operates.
Is the corruption watchdog stifling free speech?
Stateline Western Australia
Broadcast: Friday 30/11/2007
Reporter: Elvira Nuic
REBECCA CARMODY: It’s said a free press is vital for a healthy democracy, but in Western Australia there are fears that freedom is being eroded by the sweeping powers of the Corruption and Crime Commission.
In recent months, a number of journalists have been hauled before secret hearings of the CCC. There, they’ve been threatened with fines or jail if they didn’t reveal their sources.
Under the CCC’s Act, it’s not possible to release details of their appearances, to do so would result in a hefty fine or prison sentence.
But the transcript of one hearing has been made public, and it’s prompted calls for the Commission’s powers to be reined in, as well as greater protections for the media.
Elvira Nuic reports.
ELVIRA NUIC: It’s the most powerful corruption body in the country.
Now the media, that’s played witness to all the scandal and intrigue of its hearings, has found itself entangled in the web.
MICHAEL SINCLAIR-JONES: It’s an unintended consequence of the need for a law to fight crime and corruption. But in doing so journalists have become collateral damage.
The Government may be embarrassed by the leak of confidential information, but if you live in a society where everything is suppressed, then that’s not a democracy and it can’t be a democracy.
ELVIRA NUIC: It’s not clear how many journalists have been compelled to attend secret corruption hearings and asked to reveal the source of their exclusive stories.
But one case is now on the public record – how the ABC identified the new prime suspect in the murder of jeweller, Pamela Lawrence.
MICHAEL SINCLAIR-JONES: The very first thing that happens is that you are read a statement that says if you don’t answer these questions you will face three years jail and $60,000 fines.
ELVIRA NUIC: The transcript reveals the journalist was also told to reveal to no one that she had been summonsed to appear – not her family, boss or union, and was warned not to talk about her evidence for five years.
ELVIRA NUIC: But the source the CCC was trying to uncover didn’t exist. The scoop was the result of investigative reporting.
MICHAEL SINCLAIR-JONES: We know that’s happened to at least five journalists so far this year.
COLLEEN EGAN: There’s more of these to come, and there is a real genuine fear that a journalist is going to end up being sent to jail because they won’t reveal their source.
ELVIRA NUIC: Tony Barrass is the only Perth journalist to be jailed for refusing to reveal a source. But he may not be the last.
The CCC has been asked to investigate how the West Australian learnt of a $700-million cost blow-out for the Fiona Stanley Hospital project.
JIM MCGINTY: If somebody in the public sector has behaved inappropriately, then there is a requirement on the Director-General of the department to report that matter to the CCC.
COLLEEN EGAN: It would be like we were living in a police state if every time a story like that appeared there would be an automatic referral to a corruption body that would then have a secret hearing and haul journalists into it.
ELVIRA NUIC: This week, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance met the Attorney-General to voice its concerns.
MICHAEL SINCLAIR-JONES: There is a need for shield laws in WA to protect journalists from being forced to reveal sources, and we’ll be proposing to him that that’s what the Government adopts as a matter of urgency.
ELVIRA NUIC: In May, the Attorney-General said he wouldn’t consider shield laws until the West Australian newspaper sacked its editor.
It appears that stance may have softened.
JIM MCGINTY: I think sensible shield laws, which give a discretion to the court to protect journalists in appropriate cases where journalists are acting ethically and in the public interest, is an appropriate measure.
PETER DOWDING: On the face of it, this latest event might well tip the view of the CCC over the edge. I think it may now be seen that there is too much power in the CCC, and it needs to be reined in.
ELVIRA NUIC: Former Premier, turned civil liberties campaigner, Peter Dowding, supports the push for shield laws. He says if whistleblowers can’t be offered any protection by journalists, the free flow of information will stop.
PETER DOWDING: If you’re sucked into a sort of star chamber environment, you’re going to discourage, if not prevent, whistleblowers.
ELVIRA NUIC: He says Civil Liberties Australia will soon be convening a panel to look at the Commission’s powers and conduct.
PETER DOWDING: We are very concerned to look more closely at what is happening with the CCC, the way it uses its secrecy powers, the speed with which it deals with people who have been publicly criticised, and of course, on top of all of that, we want to look at this issue of the Upper House and the way in which it’s proposed that people who have been elected to Parliament by voters should lose their seat through some decision of the Parliament.
ELVIRA NUIC: Meanwhile, a review of the Corruption and Crime Commission Act is due by the end of the year. It’s unclear whether it will address the protection of journalists’ sources. For the industry, it’s protection that can’t come soon enough.
COLLEEN EGAN: Probably the most famous journalism done was the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon in America, and that was based entirely on Deep Throat, the protected source that Woodward and Bernstein protected until the day he died.
Watergate, if that happened now in Perth, well, they would be looking at jail.
PETER DOWDING: There are some really fundamental issues of civil liberties at risk here, and, you know, as Bonhoeffer, the famous German philosopher, said, "I was silent when they came for the Jews because I wasn’t a Jew, and I was silent when they came for the Catholics because I wasn’t a Catholic, and then they came for me."
I don’t think people can really stand back and say, "it doesn’t concern me because I’m innocent," and watch the society implode.