There’s been quite a bit of activity over the past few weeks with respect to Australian press freedom and the impact of the anti-terrorism legislation passed back in 2005.

Fairfax’s Chairman, David Kirk, recently addressed the Australian Press Council. Mr Kirk had quite a bit to say, including announcing that Fairfax will join News Ltd, the ABC, Free TV Australia and SBS in the recently formed coalition “to preserve, protect and promote press freedom in Australia”. The campaign is called “Australia’s Right to Know” (I’ll call it ARK) – it’s a lobby group which is Canberra bound. There was some chat about it on ABC The Media Report yesterday with Lucinda Duckett of News Ltd on-air to explain the reasons behind ARK. Seems source material is harder and harder to get these days. Clearly no news is not good news.

ARK has the mighty media behind it. There is real concern from the ARK that the Australian press is becoming less free. The concern should be real because the situation is pretty serious – imprisonment for journalists who reveal ‘operational information’ about ASIO or refuse to hand over their notes and sources. There are the changes to trial procedure and court reporting brought by the National Security Information (Civil and Criminal Proceedings) Act 2004. Some of the new legislation is in direct conflict with the professional ethics of journalists.

In my view, the big players had to get together on this. But why now and why like this? Has it taken 2 years for the effects of the legislation to be felt? Funny, it’s a pleasant 29 degrees outside and our journos are walking around in jumpers…well, at least that is the fear. The submissions made to government by the media back in 2005 (and later) have been of limited success – not that anyone else has had much success either. Perhaps, as Lucinda Duckett points out, it’s getting too expensive to keep fighting this fight in the courts. The issues are complex. In part, they go to what kind of democracy we currently have and what it will become. It’s also about the high cost of information especially when so much information these days is subject to legal regulation. And I don’t mean cost in only monetary terms.

I guess I am wondering if the wider communications industry understands the impact of the national security legislative framework on their businesses and whether they will join the march on issues such as interception, access and privacy. Certainly the arts community and consumer groups have been active. The ALRC has been busy with sedition and privacy.

There was a Senate committee in 2006 about the changes to the Interception regime Of the carriers and carriage service providers, only Telstra made a submission. Telstra chose not to debate the policy underpinning the bill despite the potential impact on the long term interests of end-users and its business.

Simon Bronitt and James Stellios from the ANU College of Law have referred to the changes to the interception and access warrant regime as a “watershed”. George Williams from UNSW has also written about interception, noting that innocent people can now have their communications intercepted under the b-party warrant regime. I wrote something about it too: see ‘Who is singing the B-party blues? National Security and the Communications Industry’ Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, No 121, November 2006.

In the US, Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer and former member of the 9/11 Commission, noted (in an article written with two of her colleagues) that the impact of the ‘war on terror’ has been felt the most by the communications industry. The same is arguably true for Australia. Our print and broadcast media has finally felt the punch.