This policy sets out the Commission’s expectations and guidelines with respect to media and public comment including use of social media.
(a) To provide direction on when and how information or public comment can be provided to the media and others.
(b ) To maintain a consistent professional image for the Commission.
(c) To bring to the Commissioner’s attention information on activities that will or could attract either positive or negative media attention.
This Policy has been adapted from the Department of Justice and Attorney-General Media Policy.
1.1 The purpose of this policy is to outline the responsibilities and obligations of staff when making public comments.
1.2 Public comment and opinion can be expressed in many ways. While the Commission considers it important for staff to participate in the exchange of information, opinion and ideas, staff must adhere at all times to the Code of Conduct and this policy.
1.3 As you will appreciate, one of our greatest risks is reputational risk. The disclosure of information obtained in the course of an investigation or an ill considered comment can all have a reputational impact – not just on the Commission but also on a complainant, respondent or law practice. If the comment is defamatory or is capable of defamatory imputations, civil action against the staff member involved is also a risk. It may provide evidence of bias and so jeopardise the integrity of the decision making process.
1.4 All staff have a professional responsibility to uphold the reputation of the Commission and to exercise good and ethical judgement in any public comment. In particular all staff have an obligation to respect the confidentiality and privacy of information entrusted to them in the course of their employment.
1.5. For the purpose of this document the term ‘public comment’ is used broadly and includes comment made:
- at public speaking engagements eg CPD presentations, inhouse speeches at law firms or universities
- media comment such as radio or television interviews
- on the internet (including blogs, social networking sites and other online media that allow user participation and interaction)
- in letters to the press
- in academic or professional journals
- in other forums where the comment is intended for, or may be accessed by the community.
1.6 This document should be read in conjunction with the Code of Conduct, the Induction Manual and Guide for Investigators.
2.1 The Commission recognises the importance of the role of media in reporting matters of public interest. However, it is unlawful for Commission staff to disclose confidential information to any person (including the media) unless the disclosure complies with section 705 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (the Act).
2.2 All media inquiries must be referred to the Commissioner or Director of Investigations. This includes all requests for media statements and interviews.
2.3 The Commissioner and Director of Investigations are therefore the only persons who may provide information to the media unless staff are specifically instructed to do so. However, one of the Commission’s lawyers, if approached following a hearing before a disciplinary body, may provide the names and spelling of the parties and Counsel involved. Any other inquiries regarding disciplinary proceedings are to be referred to the Commissioner or Director of Investigations.
2.4 The Commissioner generally neither confirms nor denies the existence, or any aspect, of any alleged complaint or investigation, unless the complainant has made their referral to the Commission publicly known. In those cases, the Commissioner (or Director of Investigations) may comment on matters that have been or are about to be discussed on the public record depending on the circumstances — for example, where the facts have been misrepresented or distorted and the respondent has been consulted. The competing factors of accountability and the legislative emphasis on confidentiality in both the Act and the Information Privacy Act will be considered in reaching a decision as to whether or not to comment.
2.5 Unless specifically instructed, members of the Commission must not comment on current or completed investigations. If a journalist contacts you directly about a matter, you should defer the inquiry and tell the journalist that the Commissioner or Director of Investigations will ‘get back to them’. There is no benefit in quoting our internal protocol or saying you are ‘not allowed to speak to the media’.
2.6 Whenever media interest exists or is expected on an issue (either positive or negative), the Commissioner or Director of Investigations must be notified by the relevant member of the Commission.
2.7 The members of the Commission who are Department of Justice staff are also required to adhere to the JAG media protocol.
3.1 Members of staff, as part of their duties, often provide public comment on behalf of the Commissioner. In those cases we act as the public face of the Commission. This might occur, for example, in meetings with, or presentations to, members of the public, law practices, the Queensland Law Society, the Bar Association of Queensland or Universities.
3.2 When making comment in an official capacity, staff remain bound by the confidentiality provisions of the Act, this policy, as well as the Code of Conduct. Importantly, all staff must remember to:
- act honestly, professionally, and with respect and courtesy
- not comment on current or completed investigations
- be careful to avoid taking partisan positions
- not to compromise the staff member’s capacity to fulfill their duties in an unbiased manner
- not criticise any of the Commission’s stakeholders
- avoid stepping over the line from education into expressing views which may not reflect those of the Commissioner or suggest pre-judgment.
3.3 Under no circumstances should staff in any public comment reveal (or suggest) the name of a complainant, respondent or law practice involved in an investigation or complaint. This includes providing information which suggests the identity of a respondent/firm. For example, saying we are investigating a firm about a billing practice is different to saying we are investigating a criminal law firm in Charters Towers if there is only 2 firms doing criminal law. It is best not to say anything about the respondent or a firm being investigated.
3.4 If you do decide to discuss issues which are raised in a current investigation – talk about them in general terms or change the factual scenario so as not to jeopardise an investigation. For example, if discussing an issue raised in an investigation, simply say that we have “concerns” or are “looking at” a particular issue. Likewise, never express an opinion on issues which are still subject to an investigation. This may lead to allegations of bias. Always talk in the general so as not to contravene section 705 of the Act.
3.5 This Policy does not restrict the right of any staff member to freely express opinions in his/her private capacity as an individual member of society. It is obviously acceptable for staff to take part in discussion and debate. Our staff have the same right to freedom of expression as other members of the community, subject to legitimate public interests which are discussed below.
3.6 When making public comment in an unofficial or private capacity, staff must be careful not to make comment that is, or could be perceived to be:
- being made on behalf of the Commissioner rather than an expression of a personal view
- compromising the staff member’s capacity to fulfill their duties in an unbiased manner – eg an investigation
- revealing the name of a complainant, respondent or law practice
- raising questions about the staff member’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially
- so strong in its criticism of the Commission’s administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace. Staff are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with the Commissioner
- a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment
- unreasonable criticism of the Commission’s stakeholders
- compromising public confidence in the Commission.
3.7 Those observations are equally applicable when engaging in public comment online. Any information staff post online relating to their employment (such as naming their employer or describing their role) is able to be located easily and quickly by a search engine and this information may be taken out of context.
3.8 Staff must still uphold the Code of Conduct even when material is posted anonymously, or using an ‘alias’ or pseudonym, and should bear in mind that even if they do not identify themselves online as a Commission or Department of Justice and Attorney-General employee, they could nonetheless be recognised as such.
3.9 As a rule of thumb, irrespective of the forum, anyone who posts material online should make an assumption that at some point their identity and the nature of their employment will be revealed. Social media websites are public forums. Inappropriate public comment on such sites could put employees at risk of breaching the Code of Conduct
3.10 When considering making comment in an unofficial capacity, staff might wish to reflect on the following questions:
- Could the comments reasonably be expected to cause people to lose confidence in the staff member’s ability to work in an impartial and professional manner?
- Would comment of this kind, without proper justification, be likely to lower or undermine the reputation of the Commission?
- Are these comments in line with how the community in general expects the public service to operate and behave?
- Are these comments lawful? For example, do they comply with anti-discrimination legislation and laws relating to defamation?
3.11 All staff need to ensure that they fully understand the Code of Conduct and this policy as to how they apply to official and unofficial communications. If in doubt you should consider carefully whether to comment and what to say alternatively seek advice from the Commissioner or the Director of Investigations.
3.12 Inappropriate public comment by staff may result in sanctions under the Public Service Act.