(Via Melbourne Press Club)

Laurie Oakes has taken aim at an editorial in The Australian for downplaying the risks to press freedom posed by new national security legislation.

Delivering the keynote speech at the Melbourne Press Club’s Press Freedom Dinner last Friday, the veteran Channel Nine journalist and News Corp columnist used an editorial from the paper a year ago as a prime example of how the profession had been too slow, timid or dismissive of threats to press freedom.

The Oz‘s editorial took aim at The Guardian‘s Katharine Murphy, the ABC’s Mark Colvin, and Oakes for what it dismissed as alarmist commentary on the amendments to section 35p of the ASIO Act, which, when passed last year, expanded the prohibition on reporting on “special intelligence operations”, with jail sentences for journalists who report on such operations even after they have taken place. Because such operations are, by their nature, covert, journalists will not be told when something is designated a special intelligence operation. Oakes said the laws left journalists reporting on national security open to an unacceptable level of risk: the effect of the laws would be to discourage reporting on all matters of intelligence and national security.

On Friday night, Oakes described The Australian‘s editorial as having included:

“… a sneering reference to [Murphy] having been enthusiastically praised by ‘the usual suspects on Twitter’ … The editorial quoted me as arguing that fighting terrorism is obviously important but accountability journalism is important too. And it said [I] ‘made a sweeping statement that journalists could go to jail simply for holding those in authority to account’. The kicker was that I could have been singing from the same songbook as the Greens. When The Australian compares you to the Greens you know you’re really in bad odour. The threat of terror in Australia was genuine, the paper said, and new laws were needed to deal with it and journalists should understand this.”

Concerns about the impact on journalism, Oakes said, had been dismissed by the paper with a sentence:

“We do not believe that our investigative reporters including those who regularly write on defence and security matters will have their work significantly affected by these new laws.”

But as Oakes noted, this characterisation contradicted News Corp’s own later position on the matter  (in submissions on the law to the Independent National Security Monitor by a coalition of media organisations including News and Fairfax), and comments made later by the Oz‘s own journalists, including Greg Sheridan and Cameron Stewart. “News Corp is now one of the media organisations who have joined forces to have section 35p changed — with a submission describing it in almost exactly the same terms that attracted the ire of the newspaper when I used them,” Oakes said. “I wish The Australian had been saying that. I wish all of us had been saying that, when the proposal reared its head.”

The Australian‘s editorial concluded by noting it was up to government to find the right balance between freedom and security. But governments, Oakes said, would never prioritise press freedom, so it was incumbent on publishers and broadcasters to argue the case. “It’s not going to be given any weight by governments otherwise.”

And Oakes says The Australian is not the only one at fault. Many journalists, himself included, have not, in recent times, been alert to the threats posed by new counter-terrorism legislation until it was too late. “We tend to sit back and blame the government for infringements on press freedom. The point I make today is that we also should blame ourselves,” he said. “If we’d gone into battle earlier, serious and united, we might have gotten somewhere. We were too slow to recognise the threat — too late and too polite in pushing back.”

The amendments to the ASIO Act prohibiting reporting of special intelligence operations weren’t the only example of the media being complacent on threats to journalism in Australia. Freedom of information, for example, was being hobbled, with the office of the information commissioner defunded by the last government after attempts to outright abolish it failed. “When an event was organised to mark the 30th anniversary of FOI in Australia, no minister attended or made a contribution,” Oakes said. And when the commission was defunded, Commissioner John McMillan spent eight months working from home. “It was a disgrace,” Oakes said. “And the media were pretty much silent throughout.”

Part of the problem was that such changes came in by degrees. For example law enforcement agencies had been able to access metadata for years. But technology made it far more potent in the identification of sources and the surveillance of journalists. No longer was it necessary, Oakes said, to drag journalists before court — their metadata revealed all. But the issue wasn’t a burning one in the mainstream press until the very end. With the exception of some, including Crikey‘s Bernard Keane, few in the press gallery or the mainstream press wrote extensively on the subject.

“It’s clear in retrospect we should have been alarmed and tried to get protection for sources much, much earlier,” Oakes said. “This is the great press freedom issue of the internet age. We didn’t need to wait for metadata retention — we could have looked overseas. When we eventually took it up, we didn’t get much.”

Oakes said he was hopeful new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would be more sympathetic to press freedom concerns, noting his history of scepticism of security agencies and his previous caution (while in opposition) on metadata retention.

“I also take some hope from Mr Turnbull’s leading role in the Spycatcher trial. Tony Abbott, although he’d also worked as a journalist for a while, came down heavily on the side of security agencies … Mr Turnbull on the other hand has good reason to be suspicious of spooks … His instincts might augur well for when matters involving press freedom arise in the future.”

“But like any politician on this issue, he’ll have to be watched, and he’ll have to be fought.”

Peter Fray

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