Shake the Fault Lines and Watch the Hypocrites Fall Out

Federal police raiding union offices in 2017. Photo: AAP.

There’s not a lot that I agree with Martin Hirst about, but on one thing he is absolutely right: journalism operates on “fault lines”. Fault lines are those ethical conflicts that are part and parcel of the trade of journalism. Sometimes the fault lines are as (relatively) simple as blurring the line between journalism and public relations. Others run far deeper, such as how far to bend the rules to get a vital story, as Woodward and Bernstein famously did with Watergate.

Sometimes, though, the fault lines are seismic conflicts between the law, journalism ethics, and the public interest. The current furore over Australian Federal Police raids are exactly such a Richter-scale conflict. How it should or will be resolved is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: when you shake a fault line, the hypocrites come tumbling out.

In recent weeks, the AFP launched a series of raids on journalists as part of separate investigations. The government denied all prior knowledge of the raids, claiming that they were an independent decision by the AFP. Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton added that the AFP have “an obligation under law to conduct their inquiries independently.”

This is true enough – but it also stretches belief that the government knew nuzzink. Especially considering that the raid on Smethurst was related to the story she broke on a secret plan for the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australian citizens for the first time and gain access to their emails, bank records and text messages. Clearly, the government has an interest in this. Even if the government didn’t initiate the investigations, Dutton is still the minister with ultimate oversight of the AFP.

This is true enough – but it also stretches belief that the government knew nuzzink. Especially considering that the raid on Smethurst was related to the story she broke on a secret plan for the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australian citizens for the first time and gain access to their emails, bank records and text messages. Clearly, the government has an interest in this. Even if the government didn’t initiate the investigations, Dutton is still the minister with ultimate oversight of the AFP.

Defenders of press freedom are also right that journalists must be able to publish even secret material – with due responsibility – in the public interest.

But the biggest hypocrites in this story are some of the very people squealing loudest about “freedom of the press” and “1984”. Leftists like Waleed Aly preach about “feeling scared”: yet the political left has for years been intimidating – sometimes violently – everyone they disagree with. Barely weeks ago, the media was almost without exception cheering on the Ardern government’s clampdowns on reporting in relation to the Christchurch massacre.

Apparently it’s different when it happens on a conservative government’s watch.

It was not that long ago that a left-wing government was threatening the freedom of the press. When stories of then-PM Julia Gillard’s past began to surface, a furious Gillard got directly on the phone to editors and media bosses. Stories were spiked and journalists sacked. But Gillard and her political allies weren’t done. Labor and the Greens set up the Finkelstein media inquiry, to try and establish a new, government-run media regulator.

Were the ABC outraged at such attacks on freedom of the press? Well, no. ABC journalists mostly shrugged and dismissed the Gillard affair as a “storm in a teacup”, and the national broadcaster published puff pieces by the runners of the Finkelstein inquiry.

The ABC was also notably sanguine when British police were kicking down Murdoch journalists’ doors in the dead of night. Labor cheered on the raids and the subsequent Leveson inquiry, which, like Finkelstein, also recommended a heavy-handed government censor.

Yes, the British media had behaved abominably and broke the law. Journalists, rightly, are not above the law. But it is also true that the journalists raided this week, while not themselves accused of illegally obtaining material, certainly published such illegally obtained material. Of course, this kind of leaking is common practise in journalism. Quite often they’re necessary to hold the powerful to account.

This is yet another “fault line” that journalists have to straddle: balancing the public interest with the risk of prosecution, especially if journalists refuse (as they must, ethically) to reveal sources. Journalists can and have been convicted, fined and sometimes jailed, even in the last decade or so. This is obviously less than ideal for journalists.

Clearly, some balance must be struck between national security and public interest. Shield laws would be a good start. Already, some Morrison government members are putting the case for greater press protection on the table. This is a debate we need to have.

But it’s not going to be helped along by hypocrites whose sudden conversion to the cause of press freedom is less a Damascus road moment than naked, cynical opportunism.

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