The extraordinary nature of the ABC’s journalistic failure on the so-called “Cabinet Files” cache of sensitive documents has been revealed in answers to Senate Estimates Questions on Notice. The broadcaster has admitted the files totalled “hundreds of documents consisting of thousands of individual pages”.

The ABC claims to have obtained the documents from a rural New South Wales resident who accidentally acquired the documents when he bought locked cabinets from a Canberra ex-government furniture store, and subsequently contacted journalist Michael McKinnon. The broadcaster handed the documents back to the government after publishing only a small number of stories about them, including stories riddled with errors and misinterpretation. One of them, about Kevin Rudd and the Housing Insulation Program, had to be retracted and was the subject of an apology to the former prime minister.

The handling of the documents by the ABC — including the failure of the broadcaster to involve its senior investigative journalists and instead leaving the handling entirely to McKinnon and junior press gallery journalist Ashlynne McGhee — has dismayed and angered many ABC staff who believe a rich journalistic resource was handed back to the government untapped, in response to government pressure.

Appearing at a Senate Estimates callback session this morning, ABC officials were unapologetic, claiming that there were no further stories in the public interest in the thousands of documents they had beyond the nine stories they published. Head of editorial policy Alan Sunderland — who appeared to dismiss criticism as being the result of journalistic jealousy — said that McKinnon and McGhee were the appropriate team to handle the documents and management believed there was no reason to recall more senior journalists from summer leave to look at them, despite the ABC having the documents from October onwards.

The ABC also claims to have made its own decisions about the national security status of the documents, without advice from government. It raises the question of how the ABC assessed the national security impact of stories and whether it accepted the classification of the documents — public servants are notorious for over-classifying documents, often in an effort to avoid being captured by Freedom of Information — at face value.

Sunderland was adamant that “every last ounce” of journalistic value had been obtained from the trove, and insisted that the bulk of the documents were ordinary internal cabinet documents of no journalistic value. This is a position at odds with the alacrity with which the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet moved to retrieve the documents, the ABC’s own secretive handling of the documents (in which the mere existence of the documents was kept secret from other journalists and editors), and Sunderland’s repeated statement that the ABC was concerned about being injuncted in relation to the documents.

The sensitivity and value of the documents appeared to change during the hearing depending on which question Sunderland and ABC MD Michelle Guthrie were answering.

Sunderland also maintained that the ABC faced only three choices: publishing all the documents WikiLeaks-style, refusing to publish anything about them, or doing what it did. He rejected the suggestion that the ABC could have adopted the same approach as The New York Times did with the Chelsea Manning cables. The NYT published documents after giving government officials the opportunity to make the case for redaction or non-publication, which enabled other journalists and citizens around the world to explore and write about the cables in ways no single outlet could ever have done. 

The most bizarre moment, however, was when Sunderland claimed that the rural resident who provided the documents actually wanted them returned to the government all along. This sits oddly with the ABC’s own version of the circumstances in which they were found, in which the finder “thinks that all politicians need to lift their game, but as he read some of the documents showing that some politicians had been saying one thing and doing another he decided the public had a right to know all of this stuff” and that he “wanted some of the material in the public domain”.

None of the documents made it into the public domain, and we’re left with a small number of less than earth-shattering yarns from thousands of pages. ABC staff are right to be despondent at the debacle.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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