from The Guardian

The new chairman of the Australian Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot, has condemned the Abbott government’s data retention bill as “far too intrusive” and warned the proposed law would crush investigative journalism.

The incoming chairmansaid he plans to take a strong stand against the proposed legislation in particular and press freedom in general as he steps into the role occupied by Professor Julian Disney for five years.

“I’m very strongly opposed to the current proposals and I strongly hope that they will change,” Weisbrot told Guardian Australia in the first week in his new role.

“I am opposed to it as a private citizen. I think it’s far too intrusive and really changes the relationship between government, policing and the individual in a way that I don’t think we’ve fully worked out as a society.

“I think it goes well beyond the traditional social contract. It may be that we are willing to give up rights and freedoms for the added protection but I haven’t really been convinced yet the benefits will outweigh the obvious detriments.”

David Weisbrot says he plans to lobby the government to come up with a ‘sensible media carve-out or judicial oversight’. Photograph: Australian Press Council

Last week the Abbott government’s data retention legislation edged closer to gaining bipartisan support after the Coalition accepted amendments proposed by a parliamentary committee. The Coalition has argued the mandatory scheme is necessary because service providers are keeping fewer records voluntarily as their business models are changing.

“No responsible government can sit by while those who protect our community lose access to the tools they need to do their job,” the responsible ministers said last week. “In the current threat environment we cannot let this essential capability deteriorate further.”

But Weisbrot said journalism would be in dire straits if the bill was passed into law because people who made anonymous tips would no longer be willing to come forward. “I have very, very grave concerns about how this will affect investigative journalism,” he said.

“I think it will tend to crush it, frankly. I think that whistleblowers who are insiders in government or in corporations will definitely not come forward because their confidentiality and anonymity will not be guaranteed.

“If they came forward a journalist would have to say to them, ‘I have to give you some elaborate instructions to avoid detection: don’t drive to our meeting, don’t carry your cell phone, don’t put this on your computer, handwrite whatever you’re going to give me.’ I think it would scare people off.”

Weisbrot said he planned to lobby the government to come up with a “sensible media carve-out or judicial oversight”.

“I think we all would agree that that kind of investigative journalism is part of the backbone of open and transparent government and western democracy. If we don’t have corporate or official malfeasance exposed in that way by courageous journalists and whistleblowers we’re really letting ourselves down.

The parliamentary report released last week did not propose safeguards to prevent the pursuit of journalists’ sources. Instead the committee said it “acknowledges the importance” of press freedom and there should be a separate review in the next three months.

Publishers including News Corp and Fairfax Media are planning to launch a public campaign against the data retention bill this month.

Weisbrot said he had already met with News Corp Australia chiefs in the first step towards mending the fractured relationship between the press council and the publisher. The Australian actively campaigned against Disney and accused him of meddling too much in the way papers were edited.

Weisbrot, a former President of the Australian Law Reform Commission for a decade, is an emeritus professor of law and honorary professor of medicine at the University of Sydney and a part-time commissioner of the NSW Law Reform Commission.