Delusion runs deep in the Victorian court system, in a state where suppression orders rain down on the media like confetti. It has taken a year for the Victorian Supreme Court to recognise reality and lift the suppression order on details of the involvement of the offices of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, in corruption involving the Securency bank note scandal.
The story, which embroiled the highest levels of the Reserve Bank and has brought prosecutions and convictions of some of those involved, has principally been driven, over the course of several years, by Fairfax’s Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.
In June 2014, on the instigation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Supreme Court issued a suppression order gagging Australian media from reporting allegations about the involvement of a range of regional leaders, including Najib and Badawi, in the case, based on an affidavit by senior DFAT official Gillian Bird. And the order was a British-style superinjunction: even publishing its existence was itself suppressed, as well. A month later, WikiLeaks published the complete order.
The allegations were widely aired in media outside Australia, including by online media in Malaysia, which currently ranks 125 places below Australia on the press freedom index. Even Gillian Bird’s Wikipedia entry included details of the suppression order. Australian media, however, have had to skirt round the story, with even censorship apologists having to choose their words carefully. With the suppression order lifted, McKenzie and Baker have been able to reveal that the Malaysian government isn’t co-operating with Australian requests for assistance on the matter.
DFAT had sought the gag order in order to “prevent damage to Australia’s international relations”, a claim immediately proven false by the lack of any repercussions with Malaysia following publication. In any event, our relationship with Malaysia has been dominated by the twin disasters of MH17 and MH370 since last year. At no stage has DFAT — our least-transparent government department, which was criticised by a parliamentary committee for the secrecy with which it conducts trade negotiations — sought to justify its censorship.
But if the Supreme Court has finally worked out what’s been obvious for nearly 12 months, it still suffers from a widespread delusion of many in the legal industry, that its writ runs outside its jurisdiction. The gag order judge, Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth, attacked WikiLeaks for “a clear and deliberate breach of law”, which appears to assume the Victorian Supreme Court has sway in the UK, where WikiLeaks is based. The Australian Federal Police were investigating WikiLeaks, Hollingworth averred, presumably meaning some lucky AFP officer had scored a trip to London.
Superinjunctions came and went as a legal fashion in the UK because of the threat of online exposure. Those who benefited from them — initially companies, and then, later, wealthy male celebrities and sports stars, usually looking to cover up marital infidelities — came to realise that obtaining one would create a Streisand Effect of drawing more attention to what they wanted to hide. DFAT and Hollingworth ended up suffering the same fate with their suppression order.
This demonstrates the ongoing value of WikiLeaks, which, in defiance of the pressure placed on it and Julian Assange, has this year enjoyed its most productive period since the Chelsea Manning releases. It insists on releasing documents that show us how the world really is, not how powerful, well-connected elites — foreign affairs bureaucrats, the upper echelons of the legal industry — want us to believe it is. And it allows citizens to make up their own minds about issues, rather than infantilising citizens by determining what they can and cannot hear. It’s a direct challenge to the 19th-century world view of the Victorian courts and DFAT that they should be allowed to control all information because they’re the only ones who can be trusted with it.