Pacific Media Watch

18 March 2014

AUSTRALIA: Journalist's source lawsuit win boosts shield laws campaign

Hero image
Journalist Adele Ferguson, who successfully defended herself against attempts by mining mogul Gina Rinehart to force her to reveal her sources. Image: Melbourne Press Club

Perth (MEAA / Pacific Media Watch / Sydney Morning Herald): The Australian government is coming under increased pressure to enact uniform shield laws across the country to protect journalists and their confidential sources, after a journalist won a legal battle against the world's fourth richest woman.

Earlier in the week, Australian mining and publishing mogul Gina Rinehart, who is worth over AUS $17 billion, lost her bid to force journalist Adele Ferguson to reveal her confidential sources, with Rinehart's mining company Hancock Prospecting ordered by the Western Australian Supreme Court to pay all court costs.

Rinehart brought the case against Ferguson after becoming angered at Ferguson's reporting on a Rinehart family feud over a $5 billion family trust. Rinehart was managing the trust for her four children when three of them instituted court action against her in a bid to remove her as a trustee.

Rinehart then subpoenaed Ferguson, demanding all confidential source documents related to the story.

In a twist to the story, Rinehart is also the biggest shareholder in Fairfax Media which owns the Sydney Morning Herald, making her Ferguson's employer. Ferguson is also the author of the unauthorised biography of Rinehart: Gina Rinehart, The Untold Story of the World's Richest Woman. Rinehart is currently the world's fourth richest woman, having slid in the ratings since the biography was written.

Subpoenas dismissed
While the subpoenas were dismissed last year after Western Australia enacted shield laws protecting journalists' sources, Rinehart asked the court to rule that the shield laws "did not apply to subpoenas issued before the new rules came into effect in late 2012", the Sydney Morning Herald reported. But Justice Janine Pritchard dismissed her application and ruled that the shield laws still applied.

Had Pritchard ruled in favour of Rinehart, Ferguson could have faced criminal convictions, fines and/or jail terms for maintaining her ethical responsibility to protect the confidentiality of sources.

The Media Entertainment Arts Alliance journalists' union said the court had made a welcome ruling that journalists should not be forced to reveal details of their confidential sources but this ruling needed to be "properly enshrined in law".

Meaa federal secretary Chris Warren called for "uniform national shield laws" that would be applied across the whole of Australia to prevent people like Rinehart from being able to haul journalists before the courts in one state but not in others.

He pointed out that the Western Australian shield laws still require journalists to reveal their sources to judges who may then decide if the source should be shielded or outed. Since journalists are ethically unable to comply with any court order that they reveal their sources, they can still be found in contempt of court in Western Australia for protecting sources.

Reporters without Borders said yesterday that they supported the introduction of uniform shield laws to be introduced across Australia.


Creative Commons Licence

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators. (cc) Creative Commons