03 February 2008

Commissioner beleaguered

In The Weekend Australian Hedley Thomas and Cameron Stewart report that AFP Commissioner Keelty's support has vanished in the wake of his contention that the media should be gagged or at least severely restricted in its ability to report trials of terrorism suspects..

Ken McKinnon , Chairman of the Australian Press Council, puts the case against the Commissioner's views trenchantly:

Our freedoms must not be destroyed in the name of defending freedom. We have open courts so that citizens may be assured by attendance or media reports that their freedoms are being preserved. Only in the most extreme circumstances should courts be closed. The public interest is the standard by which matters investigated and reported by the media should be judged. Delaying the reporting of terrorism trials as a matter of course would be entirely against the public interest.

Characteristically people in authority, ministers and commissioners alike, control sensitive information. They release what they think the public ought to be told, usually partially, from a particular point of view, and drip-fed at that. Or information is leaked to selected sympathetic journalists.

The best newspapers do not accept this as enough. Editors and journalists rightly believe it is their duty in an open society to discover the whole truth and report that to the public. That entails exploration of all sources of information, official and unofficial.

I, too, am concerned with some opinion pieces in newspapers, especially when they are at odds with what I believe. That does not mean they should not be published. And I can understand that the commissioner's onerous responsibilities are made more stressful by that kind of press analysis and criticism. But they are the necessary rules of play for commissioners and other officials. That is what democracy properly demands. Regrettably, the council has been put on notice that it is going to have to be alert to preserve those rules.

Well said. Let's hope the media continue to practice what Mr McKinnon preaches.

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