Despite media executives wandering the corridors of Parliament House this week, there are a number of reasons why we’re unlikely to see any changes to the laws around press freedom in Australia, and zero chance of anything substantial. The reality is, there is simply not the institutional or political will or capacity.
After defeating Labor’s attempt to establish a separate inquiry into media freedom yesterday, the government will use the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security to inquire into “press freedom”. This will in effect be an attempt to smother the issue. That committee has no representation from the crossbenchers — something even Labor has pointed out — meaning the only parliamentarians who might be prepared to place press freedom above partisan interest will be absent from any inquiry.
More to the point, that committee is ill-equipped to address the issues created by the government’s war on scrutiny. The committee has grappled with issues relating to journalists and whistleblowers in recent years, and under Andrew Hastie is better now than it was under the thin-skinned reactionary Andrew Nikolic, who outright opposed the idea of even debating whether civil liberties should be protected. But this is an executive-controlled committee that in effect is being asked to inquire into abuses perpetrated by the executive.
Nor do the issues involved stop at the abuse of national security laws to shield wrongdoers within the government from scrutiny. Even the very limited inquiry proposed by the government will extend to the flaws of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, a product of the House Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee, and whistleblowing more generally, something that committee doesn’t have the remit to address.
Above all, the approach of the committee is always to find a balance between national security and rights. And the history of that balance under successive governments is that the balance only ever tips further away from basic rights in favour of meeting the demands of national security agencies and power-hungry politicians and departmental secretaries.
Nor should media companies expect Labor to push hard for changes around national security legislation. It’s simply not worth expending any political capital on. Even as News Corp executives visited Canberra to push for action this week, journalists and editors at The Australian were once again attempting to demonise Labor as soft on terrorism.
An article yesterday by Geoff Chambers and Benn Packham portrayed yet another round of national security laws from Peter Dutton as “challenging Anthony Albanese’s resolve on border protection and counter-terrorism” that “sets up a showdown with Labor”, all under the headline that it would “test Albanese’s mettle.” Chambers, hilariously, recently opined that Labor couldn’t be trusted to protect media freedom because it had caved in so often to the government.
The message from News Corp to Labor is clear — Campbell Reid might parade around Parliament House calling for his journalists to be protected, but those journalists, at the instruction of News Corp editors, will savage Labor as weak on national security the moment they allow any distance to come between them and the government. From Labor’s point of view, why on earth would you bother defending media freedom in national security laws when that same media will savage you if they can for being weak on national security?
That’s a poor outcome for media freedom, of course, but justice of a kind for the mainstream media, which has been mostly uninterested in the constantly growing power of security agencies or, in the case of News Corp, cheering it on in recent years. It took the AFP going through Annika Smethurst’s most personal belongings and spending a day pottering about the ABC’s IT systems to alert them that something sinister has been happening in Australia. Now they want politicians to provide them with special protections.
But why should they defend media freedom when the media itself hasn’t bothered to for so long?