The passage of the new shield laws has therefore been welcomed by the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. This is mostly for its broad definition of journalist, which includes ‘a person who is engaged and active in the publication of news.’ This definition includes bloggers and other citizen journalists, representing an attempt to address issues raised by new media formats.
All that remains is for states and territories to pass complementary legislation. NSW is currently the only jurisdiction with shield laws in place, but they are not as protective as the Federal regime. Victoria looks set to be the first state to pass new legislation closely modelled on the Federal laws, but with the significant exception that bloggers will not be afforded protection. The WA Attorney General Christian Porter, after initially labelling the proposed changes to his state laws as ‘useless’, has become more sympathetic to the idea.
There are also ongoing criticisms of the federal regime. Current shield laws do not extend to anti-corruption watchdogs. This includes super-judicial bodies like the Victorian Office of Police Integrity, NSW Crime Commission and Australian Building and Construction Commission. In these ‘star chambers’ journalists are not protected and may still be required to answer questions about sources. There is some suggestion WA may be the first jurisdiction to address this issue. But elsewhere, this does not look likely to change in the near future. Nonetheless, the federal shield laws do represent a step towards greater press freedom in Australia.
LIZZIE O’SHEA is a Melbourne-based lawyer.