Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo holds up a copy of the Sunday Telegraph (Image: AAP /Lukas Coch)

Journalists who reported leaked national security documents would be required to submit their work for the approval of government media managers under a proposal floated by government MPs in the current media freedom inquiry.

Parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security is conducting an inquiry into media freedom after Federal Police raids on ABC and News Corp journalists. In evidence yesterday from Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo — the subject of the Annika Smethurst’s brilliant scoop that led to the AFP swarming through her apartment for six hours — two government MPs flagged compelling journalists to have departmental media staff vet their work if it related to national security. Pezzullo — who has attacked the media and labelled journalists “bottom feeders” first flagged the issue by claiming that journalists should “reconnect” with the government.

…in the spirit of constructive engagement with the media sector… there probably needs to be a reconnection of the government sector with the media sector. With the changing nature of the media sector we have younger journalists coming through perhaps not having some of that deep background and not having access to practitioners who can thoughtfully, carefully and in a cautious way explain what different classifications mean, what harm might be caused when certain reports are published in terms of threats to life, capability, sources and methods… Is there a way that perhaps the more dangerous, risky or life-threatening elements can be redacted or dealt with? I think there is plenty of scope to engineer a solution to that conundrum.

Government MPs then took up Pezzullo’s idea and went further. “Without your intuition, experience and mastery,” chair Andrew Hastie said to Pezzullo, “say, you’re a journalist who believes a document that you’ve received is in the public interest—it would be difficult to discern how that interacts in the larger ecosystem that you’ve described and what equities it might reveal that would be better off protected and left secret,” following up with “if a media organisation came to you with such a document that they were in possession of and were seeking to publish, these are the sorts of things that would be discussed, obviously?” adding “right now there’s no real mechanism for that? …Is there scope to formalise or create some way of streamlining that process?”

Pezzullo declined to be drawn, saying he’d reserve his advice for government. But Liberal senator and committee veteran David Fawcett went further again. “If a person voluntarily went to the agency and said, ‘I have this information. I’d like to explore what I can or can’t use in the public interest,’ and they think there is a public interest, would it be possible for that to become either an exemption or a defence against possible prosecution? …if the law provided a pathway where they said, ‘If you come and voluntarily disclose it and discuss it, then you’ve got that exemption'”

Fawcett then crystallised the proposal for an exemption from prosecution if journalists allowed the government to censor their work:

What I’m seeking is: is there a way we can make that an overt pathway so that… all media organisations would, by default, go, ‘Because of that provision in the law, we will, on every occurrence, go and speak to the agency and double-check that what we’re looking to publish won’t harm the national interest’?

What does it all mean?

This would impose a de facto censorship scheme on all media, newspaper, broadcast, online, local blogger, and override the normal issues around government regulation of the media, by making it an exemption from criminal prosecution: any journalist and media outlet publishing leaked material would be prosecuted unless they gained an exemption by permitting the government to vet and censor what they intended to reveal.

While draconian, the prospect is also highly amusing for anyone who has dealt with the media affairs areas of departments like Home Affairs or Defence, where requests for responses from the media are frequently not even given the courtesy of a reply declining comment. Flagging a story with government bureaucrats would also give the government time to obtain an injunction censoring the outlet from publishing the story.

Damaging business interests

Nor would this apply only to what everyday Australians regard as national security. As bureaucrats of the Attorney-Generals Department appearing before the committee yesterday indicated — in defending their warning letter to Nine to engage in “self-assessment” — “national security” includes something that might harm major Australian companies. Sarah Chidgey, deputy secretary of the area responsible for the threatening letter, told Labor’s Mike Kelly about documents that are marked “Top Secret” that the classification wasn’t limited to security issues but “it could be about other organisations or individuals if it had a national impact.” “So this,” Kelly asked, “applies more broadly to national enterprises, business enterprises, private enterprises and national infrastructure?” “Yes; whole of economy impacts,” said Chidgey.

That means journalists could also be prosecuted for revealing leaked information that has a significant impact on a major Australian company — say, for instance, revelation of criminal activity or major corruption in a large Australian resource company or major bank — which led to a sharp fall in its share price, could be construed as having a “whole of economy impact”, especially if it occurred in one of Australia’s many highly concentrated markets where large companies dominate.

That too would require permission from government censors to be published under the kind of scheme floated by Hastie and Fawcett.