Increased privacy laws could cripple journalism: Media expert

Amid the government's renewed push to examine privacy laws relating to journalism, a leading media expert has argued stronger laws could be damaging in Australia due to the lack of freedom of speech protections.

Dr Mark Pearson, a professor of journalism at Bond University and the author of Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued, has argued that strong privacy laws in Australia could create a potential minefield, because Australia does not have any laws which officially protect freedom of expression.

His comments come as the government continues its review of the media sector following the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review. In recent months, the government's primary focus has been on potential reforms such as a public interest test for media ownership and the possible creation of a new government funded media regulator.

However, privacy has emerged as a major issue, particularly after the parents of deceased teenager Milly Lord complained that the media had invaded their privacy after her death. Reports have suggested the government is looking at new reforms which would give people the ability to sue if they felt their privacy has been breached by the media.

Pearson has argued the creation of such laws could create significant issues.

“Any new privacy laws would need a very strong public interest or news media exemption, and these would need to be very strong exemptions. They would have to be stronger than anywhere else in the world, because in Australia there is no freedom of expression in the constitution.

“There may be an implied High Court guarantee, but there is no real freedom of speech or media freedom as a fundamental right, which is the case in places like the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada, which have comparable privacy laws to what is being discussed.

“The courts need to balance privacy with freedom of speech, particularly for the media. I the government's privacy proposals do not have a strong freedom of speech provision linked with public interest, then these laws will be a danger.

“Obviously there will be clear cut cases where the media has acted irresponsibly with no public interest in mind, but my concern is the middle ground. We must be careful about passing more laws which limit freedom of expression. It could create major issues for the media if this is not dealt with properly.

“The Convergence Review suggested a situation where the media could be exempted from privacy laws if it committed to a strong self-regulatory code which enshrines protection of privacy. But to introduce strong privacy laws without something like that would be a retrograde step.”

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