ABC head of investigations, John Lyons

Twice last week Australian journalists and media organisation executives had the opportunity to shine a light on how our government operates. Twice they decided to instead cooperate with the government and pander to an obsessive hostility to transparency that hides under the name of “national security”.

According to an account of the ABC’s handling of the “cabinet files”, which were brought to its attention last year by their discoverer, the ABC last week handed the documents back to the government, after publishing a handful of stories that editors, journalists and ABC executives deemed in the national interest. Coincidentally, last week the Canberra Times handed back to Defence a notebook lost by a senior Defence official. In both cases, “national security” was the justification for media organisations co-operating with governments to suppress information. 

In the case of the ABC, the argument put forward by John Lyons, seemingly as the authorised account of the handling of the documents, was that the ABC only had three choices:

[T]he first was to ‘do a WikiLeaks’. The second option was to hand all the material to the police, and the third was to do journalism — go through the documents and examine whether there were stories of public interest.

The self-serving framing of that choice — Lyons goes on to detail the sins of WikiLeaks, clearly in contrast to the “journalism” that the ABC did — obscures that the ABC had more options than the one it ultimately chose, which was to act as gatekeeper, publishing only stories from a subset of the documents and then collaborating with the government to return them to obscurity.

If the ABC didn’t want to “do a WikiLeaks” and publish the documents in their entirety, it could have followed the example of The New York Times in its handling of the Chelsea Manning material. Having obtained the WikiLeaks material from The Guardian, The New York Times offered to go through the documents with State Department representatives and redact documents when officials were able to make the case that publication would cause significant harm. That is, The New York Times made the decision that the public should see the documents, but also that the State Department should be given the opportunity to make the case where individual documents might cause significant damage. If it made the case well enough — and not merely asserted — the documents were redacted. But the NYT’s default position was to publish them. 

As it turned out, by the admission of the US government during Manning’s trial, it could find no evidence of any harm done by the publication of the documents. Not for the last time, the claims of grave breaches of national security reflexively made by government officials were shown to be false. Interestingly, Lyons didn’t mention the Manning materials in his discussion of the options open to the ABC. But the ABC took a decision to play gatekeeper. The documents would not be published. The ABC itself would decide what it was in the interests of its readers and viewers to know, and then they would be handed back to the government.

The Canberra Times adopted the same reasoning — except it didn’t publish anything at all about the contents of the notebook. It wouldn’t even tell us which bumbling senior official had risked causing — we’re told — such huge damage to national security by losing it. At least the ABC gave us some tidbits to embarrass Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong. Rudd, of course, is now suing the ABC.

It’s possible that existing laws that criminalise journalism — such as those introduced by George Brandis in 2015 — might have acted as a check on publication of the documents. In neither case, however, was this claim made. For its handling of the documents, the ABC duly got pats on the head from foreign policy thinktanks and News Corp for being “responsible”. Except, we don’t know how “responsible” the ABC was. We will never see the documents, so we can’t see whether the decisions about the national interest made by its journalists and executives about what should be revealed make any sense. We simply have to trust the gatekeepers that they know best.

And it’s “responsible” only if you pretend that there isn’t a war on transparency being conducted by the government, one that it is winning. We know far less about the activities of our intelligence and security agencies than Americans or Brits do about theirs. Laws preventing intelligence officials from revealing wrongdoing, and preventing journalists from reporting it, have been put in place. The cloak of operational secrecy is draped over an absurdly broad range of activities to preclude the potential for media scrutiny of the kind taken for granted in the United States. We have no Bill of Rights or European Convention on Human Rights to provide institutional support for press freedom. Senior bureaucrats call for the rollback of freedom of information laws and, with government support, bitterly resist releasing any material that might reveal their activities. 

The ABC and Fairfax had, by good luck, the opportunity to strike back in this ceaseless war on transparency. Both decided, instead, to “play fair” and hand the weapons they had obtained back to their enemy. Getting brownie points for making nice with a government committed to undermining a free press and eradicating scrutiny helps no one.