Reforms of national security laws to protect journalists and whistleblowers have become an unlikely test of just how much leverage News Corp has over the federal government.
Last week News Corp’s Australian boss Michael Miller, Nine CEO Hugh Marks and ABC Managing Director David Anderson came together at a Canberra media event to pitch a reform plan for secrecy laws — particularly national security laws that media have done so much to encourage.
While Nine and ABC went along for the event (and other major media companies signed up to the demands), this was largely a News Corp show (the Tele, with the company’s characteristic modesty, called it “the Miller plan”) driven in response to the AFP raid on the home of their journalist Annika Smethurst early last month.
The proposals are detailed and ready for use — if the government is interested. There’s even a bit of ambition in the package, including a pitch for some progress in much-needed defamation law reform.
Inevitably, the emphasis on journalists and media rights — if implemented — would lead to future debates about just who is a journalist (why, hello, Julian Assange!). Still, the package would be a significant improvement on the current situation.
But while the prime minister has been positive (in a politely non-committal way), the national security infrastructure and secrecy enthusiasts across government would be confident that they have a friend in Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
As minister, Dutton has never seemed to struggle to find a new — and absolutely essential — tranche of national security laws with the concomitant secrecy provisions such a tranche appears to require. As a matter of fortuitous coincidence each successive tranche wedged Shorten’s Labor, burdening them with any flaws emerging from the government’s laws.
Now the Liberals face a choice between the political rewards of that wedge and the demands of their major media backer. While the media’s legislative ask is for journalists’ protection, any reforms will re-open a broader (and needed) parliamentary debate about the scope of national security legislation. Labor could even use it to trigger its promise to reconsider the tranche it waived through late last year.
In Australia, News Corp has never been modest about its political clout. For all its sins, the company has a strong history of using that clout for press freedom, and for standing up for its journalists and whistleblowers. In 2007, News Corp’s then Australian boss John Hartigan brought the Australian players together (there were more of them, then, of course) into the Right To Know coalition.
Between 2007 and 2009 the News-funded RTK built awareness of the cumulative impact of the post 9/11 national security environment, when no pitch from the security agencies was ever a pitch too far. It commissioned a major report on the spectrum of secrecy provisions in legislation and regulation.
Its work met political opportunity with the election of Labor and the appointment of John Faulkner as Special Minister of State. This resulted in reforms to freedom of information laws and the first (albeit far from perfect) whistleblower legislation.
The relationship with Labor didn’t survive for long. By 2012 News Corp was leading the industry in the campaign against the proposals to involve government in media regulation that came out of the Finkelstein review (and, of course, in opposition to potential challenges to its business model such as the NBN).
There’s been more than a touch of self-congratulation about News Corp’s success in putting the old Right To Know band back together.
In fact, for close to 20 years the major commercial media companies have moved in lockstep on press freedom as well as on legislation and regulation that benefited their commercial interests. This culminated in the abolition of cross-media ownership laws in 2017, reshaping the traditional media landscape into two increasingly integrated players — Nine and News Corp/Seven West Media.
That’s no surprise. As capitalism’s prophet Adam Smith wrote:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.
Let’s call it “solidarity”, not “conspiracy”, and — in this case at least — recognise it’s also in the interests of a democratic society.