Last week, in response to Guardian Australia journalist Paul Farrell’s report detailing over 200 pages of AFP files related to tracking down sources of his for a single story on border protection policy, the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance said the AFP would “trawl the metadata of journalists”. CEO Paul Murphy said this was what the union had been told by the government and AFP during meetings around the mandatory data retention legislation almost a year ago.
The AFP has hit back, however, stating on Saturday that the MEAA’s claim was “not accurate”, and that since the legislation came into effect in October last year, the AFP had not accessed or applied to access the metadata belonging to any journalist. The comments, the AFP said, were that in the 18 months to March 2015, the AFP had received 13 referrals for investigating leaks, but in the “overwhelming majority” of these investigations, there was no need to access journalists’ metadata and accessing a journalist’s metadata was “rare”.
The language used is very precise, and interestingly, the AFP does not confirm or deny that it has received referrals for investigation since October, just that it hasn’t applied for access, or accessed any journalist’s metadata since October.
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The telling part of the statement is that the AFP says that because a journalist is not a Commonwealth officer who could be in breach of the Crimes Act for leaking confidential information, they are not the subject of the leak investigations. This means that the AFP could still be pursuing leaks handed out to journalists, but rather than trying to get at the journalist’s own metadata, the AFP can simply look into the metadata of public servants in the area of the leak, and then see which one of those contacted the journalists — assuming that they didn’t take adequate precautions to protect themselves.