Last week the Attorney-General wrote to “commercial media peak bodies like the Australian Press Council” asking for their help to put together voluntary arrangements that “would apply to the publication of sensitive national security and law enforcement matters, where inadvertent or pre-emptive reporting could endanger the life and safety of personnel or the public or could compromise that investigation or operation”.

The arrangements “would not aim to hinder publication or suppress the publication of news” but “facilitate such reporting in a manner that avoids risk to life or safety or compromise of important investigations or operations”.

Robert McClelland’s letter referred to coverage of anti-terrorism raids in Melbourne in August 2009 but the timing reveals the true intent: to establish a protocol for reporting on material emerging from WikiLeaks’s diplomatic cables. Indeed, McClelland himself made the link clear last week when he said that a “discussion might need to take place” between national security and law enforcement authorities and the media about publishing WikiLeaks material.

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The peculiarity of McClelland’s letter is that it is aimed at the exact sector of the media that, on current form, is least likely to provide detailed coverage of the WikiLeaks material. Outside the ABC, the Australian mainstream media’s coverage of the WikiLeaks material has been threadbare, focused on trivia and lacking in analytical substance (and a refusal to link to external sources for the cables themselves). For comprehensive coverage and quality analysis, Australian readers have had to head to overseas websites like The New York Times and The Guardian, or read the work of bloggers with foreign policy expertise or an understanding of new media.

McClelland’s letter is like a message from the mid-20th century, when politicians, journalists and editors formed a cosy club that agreed what was in the public interest and what wasn’t. That it has been inspired by WikiLeaks, a purely online outlet, makes it all the more absurd. If McClelland thinks there is a debate to be had over media handling of national security information, he should throw it open to the media most likely to offer the sort of coverage he appears concerned about.

Peter Fray

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