Politicians and their staff are chronic
leakers and briefers because they know how important it is to get their
message across to the public via the media. For this reason it’s
strange to say the least that Federal Parliament’s powerful Privileges
Committee is looking at ways to curb leaks to the media. Terry Lane
raised the issue on his weekly Radio National program In The National Interest yesterday and his interview with Crikey will be replayed from 1.25pm today.

While
former defence ministers like Robert Ray and Kim Beazley are firmly in
the camp of throwing the book at public servants who leak sensitive
material, it was interesting to see Liberal Senator Sue Knowles quoted
as follows by the Fin Review last week:

In a contest between the power of the parliament and the media, Liberal Senator Sue Knowles has no doubt who is winning.

“The
media has waved goodbye to the parliament with two fingers instead of
five,” she said yesterday. Senator Knowles and some of her colleagues
appear determined to bring the media to heel by launching a crackdown
on leaks to journalists.

Could this be the same Senator Knowles who was hugely embarrassed when
one of her own colleagues leaked to Crikey a letter she wrote whinging
about missing out on an overseas junket. For a refresher, check out this package from the Crikey archive, with her letter towards the bottom.

Clerk
of the Senate Harry Evans has lobbed a submission to the Privileges
Committee arguing that every leak should be deemed “a prohibited act”,
but it should be viewed like the The Copyright Act where the law is
broken constantly but action is only taken when the consequences are
severe.

It’s easy for the media to label any action to
discourage or punish leaks as an attack on free speech, but the fact
remains that some leaks are extremely damaging. If an ASIO operative
agrees to give sensitive in camera evidence to a Senate committee, then
this should not be leaked and the perpetrators should be punished. But
you need to distinguish between the political player who leaks the
material and the outlet which runs the story.

Nothing ever happened to The Sunday Times
for reporting Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations about Israel’s secret
nuclear facilities, but the man himself was kidnapped by Israeli agents
and then locked up for 18 years. He knew what he was doing was a crime
and suffered the consequences, even though many in the media defend his
actions as being in the public interest.

The hypocrisy of this
Senate committee attack on the media is that the politicians themselves
are usually the sources of such leaks, yet there’s no discussion about
punishing them for providing the material to the journalists.

An Age
journalist was reprimanded two years ago for jumping the gun before a
committee report was tabled in the Senate, when no damage was inflicted
on anyone. This whole sanctity of Parliament notion is a joke when you
consider that going to war and calling elections is no longer something
that is announced in parliament because press conferences and
television addresses are the preferred means these days.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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