Press gallery veteran — and Australia’s most trusted journalist — Laurie Oakes was correct when he told the Melbourne Press Club’s Press Freedom Dinner on Friday night that the Australian media have failed to respond effectively to threats to press freedom.

By and large, the media’s coverage of the government’s anti-terror laws, which have established new offences relating to whistleblowers and journalists and will shortly provide a vast trove of data for agencies to exploit, has been too little, too late.

Data retention, for example, has been on the public policy agenda since at least 2012. Yet the mainstream media only belatedly woke up to the fact that it will enable the authorities to hunt down whistleblowers and journalists. In-depth coverage of the issues, and the threat to media freedom, was left for the most part to Crikey, the tech press, and, once it was established locally, The Guardian.

Oakes singled out The Australian for criticism. It’s true that The Australian, which purports to support a free press and free speech, was extraordinarily hypocritical in its support for the extensions of already-draconian anti-terrorism laws.

But the Oz was by no means alone: all major outlets have devoted too few resources and given too low a priority to the relentless march of national security agencies in Australia. Too little attention has been paid to the way the so-called “balance” between freedom and security only ever tips in favour of the latter. Too little journalism has tried to test the often exaggerated, sometimes simply fictitious claims of intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their puppets in the Attorney-General’s Department. And too many journalists are content to act as stenographers for them.

Australians deserve better from their media: better national security coverage, and a media that is more determined to defend itself against attempts to curb what’s left of our press freedom.

Peter Fray

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