The invisible work of The Age − and why we do it

There is a lot of work we do at The Age that our subscribers don’t know about.

If we’re doing our jobs well, your homepage or newspaper should be compelling and full of interesting stories that teach you something or challenge your world view. We should, ideally, make it look easy.

It can be an arduous task extracting information from institutions, but The Age is committed to the cause.Credit:iStock

But despite what self-appointed experts and grenade throwers on social media might think, public interest journalism is not easy or cheap. It requires commitment, patience, talent and considerable investment.

Extracting information from institutions – including those with a duty to be open with the public – can be excruciating.

The freedom of information system does not live up to its name. An industry has cropped up to employ people who specialise in helping governments game this system to hide information from the public. It forces media companies to enter lengthy and costly appeal processes to obtain information the public is entitled to know about. Even innocuous requests can go months without a response, be rejected, or redacted into oblivion.

On the rare occasion detailed information is provided as requested, key details are buried under mountains of documents designed to obfuscate, or messaging is manipulated by spin doctors to dizzying extremes.

It is our job to cut through that and tell you what matters. That’s not easy, but we’ll keep doing it.

Open justice is another front on which we continue the struggle for transparency and timely information on our readers’ behalf. This requires pluckiness, know-how, money and talented people.

The Age is one of the few outlets that still makes this investment and fights for transparency and open justice. Our tabloid and free-to-read competitors, in particular, seldom do this. The Age prides itself on its achievements in this area. We believe we have a key role to play in upholding the principles of transparency, even though our competitors have largely abandoned this space.

This week, a lawyer representing a man accused of child sex offences in the magistrates’ court failed for a second time to have his client’s details suppressed from the public. The man, who is well known in his community, stood accused of crimes against four different children over a four-year period.

Our court reporter Erin Pearson – who had seen this move before – opposed the application herself, in the absence of a lawyer. The magistrate agreed with her and we wrote the story, because we believe you have a right to know what is happening inside our courts.

People accused of terrible crimes will always want to find ways to keep their identity secret. We will always fight such applications on matters of public interest, but we can’t be in every courtroom.

This is why our talented and passionate in-house legal team and other law firms we employ are constantly fighting significant cases to uphold the principle of open justice.

Without their considerable efforts, this principle would erode behind the ornate and heavy closed doors of courtrooms around the country.

“Open justice”, in case you were wondering, is a legal principle developed to ensure, wherever possible, the public and by extension the press, can observe court proceedings openly. As a result of this openness, the judiciary and its reasoning is subjected to scrutiny and the public is able to develop an understanding of how the legal system operates. In practice, this principle applies to the way courts grant access to documents and the way hearings are run.

In October 2021, our investigative reporter Nick McKenzie applied to the ACT Supreme Court to access the affidavits of federal police officers. This was a “restricted access” case, meaning parts of the case were closed to the public. Because these documents had not been produced in open court, we were testing new ground by attempting to have them released. Our patient reporter and legal team won access, then fended off an appeal, to see the documents – and add to the understanding of open justice in this country – almost 18 months later.

The important public interest story based on this material, about human trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people, will be published by The Age tomorrow. When you read it, please consider McKenzie’s perseverance and the work of our lawyers.

Other victories by our legal team in recent months have ensured people’s embarrassment, individual privacy or commercial interests do not trump the public interest when attempting to suppress a case.

Another confirmed that the court registry should release documents relating to sexual assault allegations when the victim had consented to being identified. The Supreme Court found in our favour and the documents were used to report this important public interest story.

Not all battles we fight for open justice relate to the biggest stories we cover. We do it because we believe that our subscribers expect us to stand up for their right to know.

It may not be obvious when you read our stories (or perhaps we don’t talk about it enough), but our willingness to fight for these principles is a huge part of what makes The Age such an important institution.

Open justice should not be taken for granted. It is too hard to preserve.

With your support, we will continue to fight for transparency and accountability in the justice system, in government and elsewhere.

If we don’t, who else will?

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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