Free speech lost in legal picnic
The Murdoch press had one of its vintage hissy fits this week over the plan to establish a government media regulator and it was spot on.
Let anyone who is tempted to champion the cause of another government agency be reminded of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, a bureaucracy supposedly established to enhance freedom of information.
As far as we are aware, the information office is yet to even pass comment on the nation's longest running information battle, the freedom-of-information request from Will Matthews, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary without a resolution this year.
Lest we digress, Senator Stephen Conroy's plan for further government control over media is just as Orwellian, though far more dangerous, than a harmless old information bureau.
And it comes at a time when the lawyers are busy quashing free speech like there's no tomorrow.
Adele Ferguson, a colleague here at Fairfax Media, has been clobbered with a subpoena to produce documents by the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
At the request of Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting, the court is demanding she hand over all emails, text messages, notebooks, any records of private communications she may have had with Rinehart's son, John Hancock.
"Failure to comply with this subpoena without lawful excuse is a contempt of court and may result in your arrest," she was warned.
Ferguson responded: "As a journalist, I will not ever reveal my sources, or do anything that may disclose the source of information that has been provided to me."
Unless Ferguson complies, she faces a possible jail sentence. She has a young family.
Rinehart's lawyer is Mark Wilks from Corrs Chambers Westgarth.
Meanwhile, a retired nurse from Queensland, Susanne Devereux, who lost $50,000 by "investing" in Empire Oil & Gas, is now being sued by none other than the directors of Empire Oil & Gas.
Frustrated by the company's management, Devereux and others had made critical comments on the internet chat site HotCopper. Empire directors Craig Marshall, Bevan Warris and Neil Joyce didn't like it. They threatened HotCopper, Devereux and a bunch of their own shareholders with defamation suits.
HotCopper, which is constantly menaced by marauding legal bullies, shut down all comment but the Empire directors kept suing.
Devereux, 68, could not afford a lawyer. She could not afford to fly from Queensland to stay in Perth and defend what she firmly believes to be true statements.
She is now in a fragile emotional state. Despite requests from her and her partner, William Hartman, to postpone the hearing for two months, requests accompanied by two medical certificates, the court is yet to agree to a two-month delay.
Two weeks ago, Justice Rene Lucien Le Miere fined Devereux $440 for not delivering evidence to Empire's lawyer, Martin Bennett, then exacted another penalty for not providing evidence in the format required. Both were paid to Bennett.
The Empire imbroglio is a warning. HotCopper managing director Greg D'Arcy has been forced to shut down discussion on seven ASX stocks: Peninsula Energy, Empire Oil & Gas, Navigator Resources, Artemis Resources, Apollo Minerals, Samson Oil & Gas and Solagran.
The defamation pressure comes mostly from WA companies. And it is likely, in most cases, that directors are using shareholder funds to suppress discussion. Empire's directors and lawyers have declined to be drawn on who is funding its directors' suite of lawsuits.
Elsewhere, ambulance-chasing defamation lawyers prowl like the undead in a zombie movie. There is no register of the websites and publications they have suppressed but the numbers are rising. Rarely do these actions make it to court.
And while the government cooks up new bureaucracies, there is zero leadership coming from the legal fraternity on reform to arcane libel laws. It is truly a lawyers' picnic at taxpayers' expense and, potentially, at the expense of democracy itself. Already, the seeds of a crisis in shareholder democracy are sown.
How long does it take Australia's richest person to earn your annual income? There is a silly website called howrichareyou.com.au. You enter your salary in a box, click and it will give you the answer.
Based on the $18.87 billion that Gina Rinehart earned in 2011, it takes the average Australian 349,366 years to earn her income.
Assuming the average senior barrister or solicitor acting for Rinehart makes $1 million a year, it would take such a character 18,870 years to earn Rinehart's income.
Scrolling down, the website says: "Gina Rinehart invests wisely in ASX companies. Perhaps you should do the same." You are then invited to click through to Absolute Investor, which appears to be a sharemarket tipping service run by a mob called Cygnet Capital.
Rinehart's great wealth may be a neat marketing trick to get in the sharemarket punters but the angle is an illusion. Sharemarket forays by Australia's richest person into Fairfax Media, publisher of this paper, and Ten Network have lost money.
Rinehart didn't make her money on the market. She made it from an iron ore discovery by her father that became Hancock Prospecting, and over the years she has used the law to protect her interests. She invested in the law, not the market. The odds of a successful outcome are far higher in the law than the market ... if you have the money to invest.
And few have put more money over the bar, the WA Bar that is, than Rinehart.