In a rare moment of levity in yesterday’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security hearings into the (inaptly named) foreign fighters anti-terrorism bill, the former independent national security legislation monitor, Bret Walker SC, noted that the only bill he had been asked to comment on in the three years that he occupied that position (most of it under Labor) was the bill abolishing his position, earlier this year.

As it turned out, that bill was pulled by the government after it decided to keep the position, a decision announced on July 16. Nearly three months later, the government has yet to announce who will replace Walker, whose term ended in April. Within those three months, the government has introduced two major sets of far-reaching national security measures and foreshadowed a third, on mass surveillance.

For someone who was gung-ho to get rid of the INSLM until mid-July, Attorney-General George Brandis is awfully possessive of that office, repeatedly insisting that the whole idea was the Coalition’s (in fact, it’s a copy of the UK Independent Review of Terrorism Legislation) despite it being established by the Rudd government. But his enthusiasm hasn’t translated into a timely appointment to enable independent advice on the raft of draconian proposals he is bringing forward.

Walker yesterday repeated his opposition to preventive detention — something he called for the outright abolition of in an early report — which is to be extended in the current bill. Walker also opposes the current laws for control orders, believing them to be unfit for their intended purposes. But, significantly, he also explained that the drafting of parts of the bill in effect might criminalise joining an organisation that, however peacefully, might damage Australia’s international relations, not just its defence or security, opening up the application of the bill to, for example, human rights activists. There’s a broader theme of overreach in the bill, given that earlier in the day, Labor’s Anthony Byrne had teased out how a journalist working undercover, or trying to protect a source, might not be able to take advantage of one of the intended defences against the crime of being in a designated zone, that of public interest journalism.

Meanwhile, the controversy around the new provisions for “special intelligence operations”, contained in the now-passed first set of reforms, continues to rumble on, with mainstream media figures belatedly finding their voices on the possibility that journalists revealing information about SIOs, even unintentionally, could be jailed for a decade. This week, even security agency stenographers like Cameron Stewart and Greg Sheridan at The Australian have expressed concerns, contradicting their own editors’ relaxed and comfortable stance on censorship and the chilling effects identified by critics of the legislation. Sheridan had to have a crack at the ABC along the way (with his article in the dead-tree edition right above a piece from Senator David Leyonhjelm criticising Media Watch for not exploring the issue earlier), and Sheridan even suggested the whole thing was the fault of the “Left” for opposing the government’s Racial Discrimination Act, but on the basis that free speech advocates don’t have the luxury of picking their allies, it’s good to see Sheridan attacking a seriously flawed piece of law.

“Much of the impact of WikiLeaks and the work of Glenn Greenwald and others is exactly because they offer journalism that many outlets no longer provide — journalism that is appropriately sceptical of what governments and security agencies claim …”

But one of Sheridan’s arguments goes part way to giving the game away about why some mainstream journalists are suddenly concerned about SIOs and the possibility of jail. Sheridan contrasts what he calls “normal, responsible national security journalism”, of which Sheridan claims to be a practitioner, with “gonzo journalism”. Poor Greg’s “gonzo” terminology appears stranded in the 1970s, and wouldn’t have even been accurate then, but presumably he’s harking back to the distinction made time and again by mainstream media critics of first WikiLeaks, and then Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who broke the Edward Snowden revelations, the distinction between real, responsible mainstream journalists and online “publishers” (granting them the status of “journalists” was a step too far for many, and may have made prosecution difficult) who were by their very nature irresponsible, placed people’s lives in danger and damaging national security with their — to use the charge levelled at Chelsea Manning — “wanton publication” of leaked material.

This distinction relied heavily on allegations that WikiLeaks’ publication of Manning’s diplomatic cables and other material placed lives in danger, a contention eventually acknowledged to be incorrect by the US government, and unevidenced claims that Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance on Americans somehow alerted actual terrorists that they might be under surveillance. It overlooked that both WikiLeaks and its mainstream media publishing partners, the journalists and outlets publishing Snowden’s revelations (including such radical outlets as The Washington Post), gave governments the opportunity to make the case as to what material should be redacted before publication.

But it also overlooks — quite deliberately — that much of what Sheridan terms “normal, responsible national security journalism” is simply stenography for the security state, unthinking reportage of what security agencies insist to be true by “journalists” unwilling to seriously challenge the institutions and sources that feed them material for fear of losing their privileged access. Much of the impact of WikiLeaks and the work of Glenn Greenwald and others is exactly because they offer journalism that many outlets no longer provide — journalism that is appropriately sceptical of what governments and security agencies claims, journalism that is willing to identify the lies, inconsistencies and self-interest of agencies with vast budgets and enormous powers. That is exactly what mainstream media stenographers won’t do. And they see the SIO provisions as reflexive government response not to their own “journalism” but to that of outlets like WikiLeaks: in their view, they might be collateral damage, an innocent bystander in the government’s wholly justified war on Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald and Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Peter Fray

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