Congratulations to the mainstream media for working out that Australia has become a police state where governments, and their powerful friends and donors, suppress embarrassing information under national security, defamation and corporate law and suppression orders. Even News Corp, which has cheered on the relentless extension of national security laws at the expense of basic rights.
The recent history of national security laws across the Western world, however, is that they are very rarely rolled back.
It happened in the wake of the Snowden revelations in the US, but Americans already have constitutional protections for their basic rights, and those protections are championed by right and left alike. Here, there’s a bipartisan refusal even to engage in the kinds of debates over national security laws that Americans take for granted, let alone consider restoring some of the protections removed in the 17 years since the Howard government began rolling back our rights in the name of protecting us from terrorists.
Australians, without any political or historical culture of basic rights protections or even a language of how to describe them, are entirely apathetic; journalists are no better regarded than the politicians they report on. A bill of rights might change that, given time, but in Australia, inexplicably, the kind of rights framework that unites Americans is treated as a partisan issue.
So what could the media do to force governments to think seriously about restoring some of the basic protections lost in recent years? There’s one tactic that will alarm and enrage federal politicians who are eager to deter, and punish, unauthorised leaks: stop reporting authorised leaks.
For every unauthorised leak, or act of whistleblowing, that exposes misconduct and failure within government — whether war crimes in Afghanistan, illegal spying in Timor-Leste, misconduct within the ATO, abuse of asylum seekers, NBN’s failed rollout or proposals for more spying on Australians — there’s an authorised leak designed to serve the government. This can include national security information far more damaging than what prompts AFP raids.
Needless to say, these leaks are never investigated; either there isn’t a complaint by a politician or public servant, or the AFP conveniently decides that it can’t investigate. On the rare occasions when the AFP is embarrassed into investigating a self-serving leak, it will never ping any culprits.
There’s one group, however, in a strong position to address the absurd imbalance between unauthorised leaks, which draw the full fury of a police state, and authorised leaks, which go through to the keeper: journalists and editors.
They could deprive politicians and senior bureaucrats of this insidious source of political spin, by refusing to publish them. Until the imbalance between the treatment of unauthorised and authorised leaks is redressed, they could not publish the latter.
Imagine politicians not being able to leak against their enemies — internal or in the opposition. Imagine them being told by a journalist “I can’t run that, you’re always insisting leaking damages national security and the ability of government to receive frank and fearless advice, so I best ignore it”.
Of course, that might seriously impair the work of quite a few press gallery journalists who are more like stenographers for ministers than journalists. But if they’re serious about #righttoknow, why not?
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