Herald-Sun, November 17, 2006
Bureaucrats spent more than $110,000 fighting a marathon Freedom of Information battle with a documentary maker filming forest protests. The State Government has been accused of squandering taxpayers' money after amassing the legal bill in a dispute over the release of videotapes and the names of public servants. The Department of Sustainability and Environment racked up the legal costs over more than three years in a secrecy war with filmmaker Peter Vaughan.
The costs included $36,700 to try to stop the release of the names of staff who discussed charges laid and later dropped against Mr Vaughan while covering an anti-logging protest in Goolengook in East Gippsland. The DSE eventually agreed to hand over five names contained in emails when staff consented after retiring or shifting from the department.
A further $74,000 was spent thwarting Mr Vaughan's bid to get access to DSE footage of a raid on protesters in March 2002 that in part aired on TV news bulletins. Activists blockaded Goolengook for five years in a bitter fight over old-growth forests. Mr Vaughan recently gained full access to the department's outside legal fees spent on the FoI actions at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
He accused the DSE of waging a bloody-minded secrecy campaign. "It has been an incredible and absurd waste of money," Mr Vaughan said. He said his documentary, The Last Valley, already used his own and TV footage showing some DSE staff the department fought so fiercely to protect.
His 56-minute documentary tracking East Gippsland's declining timber industry had its Melbourne premiere at the Capitol Theatre last night.
A DSE spokesman defended the expense of the FoI case and accused Mr Vaughan of making false claims to promote his film. The spokesman denied the department tried to sabotage Mr Vaughan's documentary. VCAT had backed officer concerns about being threatened, assaulted, abused and intimidated if their videotape was publicly released, he said.
The department released more than 100 pages of documents to Mr Vaughan but was legally obliged to protect requested privacy and had to defend demands to divulge confidential legal advice and 50 personal names."
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