Press freedom disconnect
The joint intelligence committee inquiry is too important to fail
Is the federal government serious about the parliamentary inquiry into press freedom, or is it just going through the motions to keep the issue off the front pages? At this morning’s public hearing in Sydney, it was hard to avoid the impression of a disconnect between the grave message coming from the assembled chief executives of the Right to Know coalition – including that we are increasingly living in a “state of secrecy” [$] – and the questions coming from some of the government members of the inquiry. Senator David Fawcett chirped that Australia ranked 21st on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, above the UK (33) and US (48), so “it’s not all doom and gloom”. His Liberal colleague Senator Eric Abetz drew a false equivalence between the ABC breaching its charter occasionally and the federal police overreaching occasionally, “human nature being what it is”.
There were already doubts that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security was the right body to inquire into press freedom. The joint submission of Australia’s Right to Know (ARTK) coalition – representing more than a dozen major media groups, including the ABC, Nine and News Corp – complained that the terms of reference were too narrow and concluded that it had “serious reservations about whether this inquiry is the right way to achieve the outcomes we believe are necessary to redress the combined impact of more than a decade of law making in the name of national security”. The terms of reference do include an “any other matters” clause, and so ARTK is urging the committee to take the broadest possible interpretation of its brief. If the committee does not come up with firm recommendations, the backlash from media organisations showing an unprecedented degree of unity and acting in good faith is likely to be intense.
All the media were singing from the same song sheet. News Corp chair Michael Miller told the hearing that submissions to the committee from government departments, law enforcement and national agencies “talk about the importance of a robust and free media… ‘a fundamental pillar’ … ‘Keeping the public informed’ … The rhetoric plays the right tune.” However, he said, “There are many laws that criminalise journalism. They are creating a secret society that most Australians would not recognise as ours. We may not be living in a police state, but we are living in an ever-increasing state of secrecy. Australians are at risk of losing their democratic freedoms.”
Free TV chief executive Bridget Fair told the committee that when the mandatory metadata retention laws were introduced in 2015, media organisations all received a visit from the authorities. She said that the media was told that they could trust the authorities, that the law had always given them surveillance powers, and that the new powers would not be used to target journalists. After some negotiation the journalist information warrants process (which are required if a government agency wants to access a journalist’s or their employer’s telecommunications data) had been put in place – and the AFP subsequently breached it. “The trust has been breached,” Fair said, and was backed up by News Corp executive Campbell Reid, who said similar assurances had proved “hollow”. Nine chief Hugh Marks said, “Not only are the AFP marking their own homework, they’re setting the exam papers themselves.”
In summary, ARTK want: the right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organisations; public-sector whistleblowers to be adequately protected; a new regime that limits which documents can be stamped secret; a properly functioning freedom of information regime; exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs; and defamation law reform.
A sign that at least some members of the committee are unsympathetic came when David Fawcett tried a cat-and-mouse line of questioning against the ABC’s news director, Gaven Morris, which started by asking whether the ABC supported the official secrets provisions of the Crimes Act (“absolutely,” said Morris), and wound up with a proposition that perhaps journalists should be required to provide government agencies with a copy of any secret documents they have obtained. Far from contemplating a rollback of national security laws impinging on press freedom, Fawcett seemed to be thinking of adding a few new obligations. “I don’t think more overlapping laws are going to help,” said Morris, but it may have fallen on deaf ears.
Last week Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton wrote a letter to the federal police, directing them to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society before executing search warrants. The government is going to have to do a lot more than that. With Cities Minister Alan Tudge last night telling [$] Q&A that it was “ridiculous” to suggest Australia was becoming authoritarian in the wake of the AFP raids on journalists, the prospects are not good.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Is the federal government serious about the parliamentary inquiry into press freedom, or is it just going through the motions to keep the issue off the front pages? At this morning’s public hearing in Sydney, it was hard to avoid the impression of a disconnect between the grave message coming from the assembled chief executives of the Right to Know coalition – including that we are increasingly living in a “state of secrecy” [$] – and the questions coming from some of the government members of the inquiry. Senator David Fawcett chirped that Australia ranked 21st...