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MP wants journalist prosecuted over alleged ICAC breach

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Former Labor minister Jennifer Rankine has launched an extraordinary parliamentary attack on an Adelaide journalist, saying she will ask SA Police to prosecute him for allegedly breaching the controversial secrecy provisions of the ICAC Act.

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Rankine recently won a Australian Press Council victory over the journalist, The Australian’s bureau chief Michael Owen, in relation to a series of articles he wrote in early 2015 following Rankine’s resignation as Education Minister.

The nine articles concerned allegations about the appointment of a public servant and claims that there were two investigations by “authorities” into the matter.

In the Press Council’s words, “the series of articles ended on 5 May following a public statement by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption stating his investigation concluded that none of the allegations were substantiated”.

The Press Council upheld several, but not all, of Rankine’s complaints about the articles.

Talking under the shield of Parliamentary privilege yesterday, Rankine claimed the Press Council process – which involved both Rankine and Owen appearing before it – had uncovered a breach of the ICAC Act.

Under the Act, publication of the details of an ICAC investigation is prohibited without the Commissioner’s permission, with stiff penalties including fines of up to $150,000 for a body corporate, or a maximum penalty of $30,000 for an individual.

“What was really interesting, what was really beneficial, from my point of view, throughout this hearing and throughout the adjudication process, the negotiating process, was the fact that Michael Owen admitted that he was writing about an ICAC investigation,” Rankine told Parliament.

“So, whilst he skirted around it in his articles and whilst the ICAC commissioner found that no other conclusion could be drawn, he finally had to admit that he was writing about OPI and the ICAC investigation. That clearly breaches the law.

“We now have evidence directly from him, now documented by the Australian Press Council, and these are matters that I will be putting to the South Australian police for prosecution.”

Owen would not comment on Rankine’s threat.

The managing editor of The Australian, Helen Trinca, said in a statement: “We published the Press Council finding, and we have no further comment.”

Attorney-General John Rau would not comment.

“I understand the Member for Wright (Rankine) is taking this matter up directly with SAPOL,” he said.

SAPOL would not comment, saying:”Legislative requirements prevent anyone from making comment about this matter.”

InDaily also approached Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Bruce Lander. However, InDaily understands that because Owen is not a public officer, he does not come under Lander’s jurisdiction in relation to recommendations about prosecution.

The Press Council found against Owen on several points in a judgement handed down last week.

“The Council has concluded that reporting that she (Rankine) had resigned ‘amid an investigation by authorities into an appointment of a public servant’ was not technically incorrect and was not implying a causal link,” the council said. “However, the Council concluded there was no basis for reporting there were multiple investigations and that the Office of Public Integrity’s referral of the matter to ICAC was not a sufficient basis for reporting there were investigations by two bodies.

“The Council also concluded that paraphrasing of the complainant’s remarks in the article on 4 February as ‘Ms Rankine has said ongoing investigations that first began in 2013…’ was not an accurate paraphrase and inaccurately suggested she had resigned due to such investigations. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint was upheld.

“The Council noted the final article on 5 May is headed, ‘Ex-minister cleared by ICAC’, but the main section of the article unfairly reprises allegations that had been found to be unsubstantiated and did not refer to the clearance by the ICAC Commissioner until late in the article. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint was upheld.

“In considering whether the complainant was provided a fair opportunity to respond to what was reported, the Council took account of the publication’s attempts to solicit comments, the substance of the article on 5 May, and that the complainant’s letter to the editor focuses on the principal issues in that article. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint was not upheld.”

The full Press Council adjudication can be read here.

In Parliament yesterday, Rankine said the “clear imputation” from the articles “was that I had stood down because I was under investigation for some inappropriate behaviour”.

“Well, I had not, and I was pleased that the ICAC Commissioner confirmed I had not.

“Following the publication of these articles, I lodged my first and only complaint in my 18-year career as a politician to the Australian Press Council. My complaint was essentially that Michael Owen implied I resigned owing to investigations (plural). One investigation was underway, but I was unaware of it, as was confirmed by the ICAC Commissioner.”

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