Scott Morrison may not be ‘troubled’ by what has happened this week. But plenty of Australians are
There are certain oft-used statements that seem trite until they are made real.
“Press freedom is vital to our democracy” – of course it is. But you don’t really appreciate the meaning of that sentence until photos appear of police officers in a journalist’s house, flicking through her cookbooks looking for evidence of a crime. Or until you see footage of police officers sitting in the ABC cracking into a hard drive, just a day later.
Raids on journalists and media companies are rare in Australia. Raids on journalists’ homes are even rarer. There’s a reason for that – the capacity of the free press to ensure that the state is held to account relies on the government of the day respecting the vital role of the media, and resisting the urge to use its considerable powers in a way that prevents the press from doing its job. Even when the press reveals things that embarrass the government. And even if no charges are ever laid, the chilling effect of such activity is real. A demonstration of force like we have seen in the past two days can’t be ignored and will act as a deterrent to journalists and editors when they are making decisions about whether to pursue particular stories that may embarrass a government.
I want to make clear that I am in no way making particular comment on police conduct in regard to the raids that occurred this week on News Corp and ABC offices. My concern is with the conduct of the Morrison government.
There is a balance here that needs discussion – and also a tension. There is a necessary amount of secrecy in the operations of government. There always has been and there always will be.
Journalism often involves telling stories that upset and discomfort those in power. That tension has been at the heart of several difficult pieces of lawmaking – not just in recent years, but since the first Secrecy Acts came into being internationally.
Federal Labor has always been very aware of the potential for national security legislation to impact on press freedom. That’s why we’ve insisted on a number of measures to protect journalists in recent pieces of legislation.
The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, passed in June 2018, included a number of public interest defences for journalists at our insistence. The original version of that bill, drafted by the Turnbull government, included no such defence.
It is worth noting that the alleged offences that are the subject of the two recent raids occurred before the passage of this legislation. The AFP is relying on the Crimes Act of 1914 in executing the warrants this week.
Labor insisted that journalists’ metadata could not be accessed without a warrant, ensuring an extra layer of protection for interaction between journalists and sources.
Labor also supported changes in 2017 to Section 35P of the ASIO Act which granted additional protections to journalists when reporting on certain AFP operations.
Of course journalists are not immune, and nor should they be, from investigation or prosecution.
But the government is ultimately responsible for ensuring the Australian people have confidence that the way journalists are investigated is properly balanced between national security and press freedom.
Police raids of journalists in Australia are an extraordinary event. And this is why many Australians are questioning if we’re getting the balance right.
The concern here is that the Morrison government has given no indication that there could be a problem here – perceived or real. Instead, the government is treating the raids of journalists as business as usual. The message that sends is terrible.
Particularly so, when you consider that some of the clearly politically motivated leaks in recent years, including Asio advice on the recent medevac legislation, and the AWU leaks from Senator Michaelia Cash’s office, do not appear to have been pursued with equal vigour. That is despite the director general of Asio, Duncan Lewis, raising serious concerns about the medevac leak.
The government’s response to this week’s raids has been completely inadequate. Of course it does not direct the actions of the independent Australian federal police (nor should it). But for the prime minister to simply shake his head and move on to the next question, and not properly address the sensitivity of the situation, is deeply concerning.
He may not be “troubled” by what has happened. But plenty of Australians are.
For Australians to have faith in the process, the government needs to explain it. It needs to justify it – which it can, without going into any sensitive details.
The government cannot let the pictures of the raids – seen by millions of people on evening TV news – speak for themselves.
That would be sending a very bad message indeed about the value this government places on press freedom.
• Mark Dreyfus is the shadow attorney general