By Emma Senior
When journalists aren’t writing about John Laxon’s clients, they are his clients. The criminal lawyer is also an expert on media employment law, representing high-profile media types including former Channel 10 newsreader Tracey Spicer and 60 Minutes producer Stephen Rice, who left Nine following the Beirut child-snatching scandal.
Laxon is often called on by female journalists to run his eye over employment contracts to check if they are overly onerous.
“You’re often dealing with situations where the woman’s position has been made redundant or she’s been offered some not really suitable alternative because she has parental responsibilities which she may not have previously had,” he says.
Laxon says he recently acted against a company with email footers featuring messages about diversity and equal opportunity, yet it is ousting a senior executive after her return from maternity leave.
“They spend a lot of money on their brand and sending out the key messages but whether they walk the walk after talking the talk is another thing,” he says.
Laxon says journalists in dispute with their employers should do what comes naturally: gather the facts.
“It’s about knowing what your rights are, being informed as to what your rights are, and that’s a powerful thing because it enables you to make sound decisions knowing whether or not the law is behind you.”
“It’s about knowing what your rights are, being informed as to what your rights are, and that’s a powerful thing because it enables you to make sound decisions knowing whether or not the law is behind you,” Laxon says.
Despite close links to many in the media, Laxon still falls foul of the industry in his other role as a criminal lawyer.
“Trial by media can lead to great injustice because reporting can be inaccurate, particularly when it is based on the allegations of police who often get things wrong,” he says.
Laxon recently defended a man in a sexual offence trial and unsuccessfully applied to have the case moved from Newcastle to Sydney because of the level of media exposure.
“The comments on social media were diabolical — you know, really dangerous and uninformed comments, with the potential to cause a miscarriage of justice,” he says.
The trial ended with 50 not guilty verdicts and the jury was discharged on the remaining 16 counts.
Laxon will be a guest speaker at the 2018 Women in Media National Conference along with Special Counsel Steven Morris who also counts journalists among his clients.
Morris says there is a trend for large media organisations to hire journalists as contractors rather than employees, depriving them of benefits such as long service leave.
“There is a Federal Court decision where the judge says if it looks like a duck, if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck and it acts like a duck, you can call it a chicken, but it’s still a duck.”
Many organisations also impose contract clauses covering perceived disrepute. Journalists are liable to termination if they produce stories executives believe might bring the organisation a less favourable perception in the marketplace.
“It’s rubbish,” Morris says.
“Often big organisations will dump a contract on your desk and give you an hour to sign it so you’ve got no opportunity to get away and seek independent advice on that either from a financial or legal perspective and so they can take a very ‘bully boy’ approach.”
Last year Morris dealt with a redundancy case in which an organisation put “golden handcuffs” on a journalist.
“They will bring you in and say, ‘I don’t want you to say anything, here is your redundancy package, I want you to sign it here’. They give you no right to get advice … just really unbelievable duress,” he says.
Morris often advises journalists who have broken away and started their own media ventures, such as a blog, but still want to keep themselves legally protected.
When asked what one tip he would give to journalists, Morris says to seek the assistance of a commercial business lawyer.
“Don’t be a tight arse, go see a lawyer,” he says.
Both Morris and Laxon will also talk about the #metoo movement and the complexities around defamation and fair reporting of cases.
The 2018 Women in Media National Conference will be held at Bond University on the Gold Coast.