I’d like to start by acknowledging Annette Olle and her family, who have continued to support this scholarship. Like those before me, this opportunity has changed the course of my career and I’m eternally grateful.
Thank you to the ABC and David Anderson for their ongoing commitment to this scholarship. I’d like to thank Jo Puccini, Justin Stevens and John Lyons for giving me a go, and Ann Newton and Georgia Spokes for their support.
Thanks also to Nino Bucci, Pat McGrath, Sarah Curnow, Dan Oakes, Jeremy Story Carter and Chris Gillett. And the late Steven Alward for giving me my start.
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Like Twitter, I must stress that the following comments are my views and not the ABC’s.
Some months ago, I spoke with someone who manages work health and safety for a major media organisation. I asked this person what the biggest risk to their organisation was.
“Journalists,” they said with some exasperation. “Because the story takes priority over everything.” I felt bad for not feeling bad.
But it’s true, in the hours and minutes before deadline, we are consumed. There’s simply the weight of bearing witness, and the compulsion to tell someone what we’ve seen. If a story is in the public interest, we pull the trigger. Rarely are we gun-shy.
But the events of the past few months have given all of us a reason to pause before publishing.
I spent the first part of this year working at the ABC’s 7:30 program, before joining ABC Investigations. I feel privileged to have worked with some of the finest journalists in the industry, who have been incredibly generous with their time and contact books. Until yesterday, I sat near Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.
I was only a few months into my stint with ABC Investigations when federal police officers, armed with a warrant, raided the ABC, looking for the source of a story they’d done.
Two years ago, Oakes and Clark filed an investigation into the actions of Australia’s special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. These soldiers were accused of killing unarmed men and children, and cutting the hands off dead Taliban fighters. In other words, they were accused of war crimes.
Shortly after raiding the press, the AFP’s then-acting commissioner, Neil Gaughan declared the force was “a strong supporter of press freedom”.
“I reject the claim we are trying to intimidate journalists,” he said.
This of course came after federal police officers, who were armed, raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst. Her story was about a proposal for new spy powers which would allow the public to be monitored for the first time.
If it wasn’t for the vision of federal police officers streaming past Big Ted and Humpty Dumpty in the ABC’s lobby, many of us would have sworn these raids were not happening in Australia.
Afterwards, The New York Times published a story with the headline: “Australia may well be the world’s most secretive democracy”. It brings a new perspective to the prime minister’s question: how good is Australia?
Journalism is often about shades of grey, but this is black and white. There is simply no question. Both these stories passed the public interest test.
Some may call me an extremist, but I believe Australians have a right to know they are being monitored. I also believe they have a right to know what troops are doing in their name in the throes of war.
These stories were written because men and women with access to privileged information were so alarmed that they felt compelled to risk their livelihood and freedom to ensure it entered the public discourse.
And as the people whose job it is to hold the mighty to account, we verified and published these stories because it was the right thing to do. To me this is democracy. To our police and our government, this is illegal.
And so we were raided. And the threat of charges loomed. And a message was sent: let injustice lie, lest it be illegal to speak about it. For a nation which holds correcting injustice so close to its national identity, it is a disgraceful contradiction. It is incredibly un-Australian.
Since the raids, the attorney-general has issued a directive that prosecutors will need his approval before charging journalists under secrecy laws. But this simply gives the power to charge journalists to the people that arguably need the most scrutiny.
We, the press, are able to operate in this country because journalism is an established tradition. The public expects us to rack muck and report on stories that is in their interest to hear. But we do so with little legal standing. We simply have a social license.
Today, that social license is regularly coming into conflict with oppressive national security laws, which criminalises the work we do and threatens the sources we speak with. As a result, in newsrooms across the country, journalists and editors are being forced to ask the same question: does this story matter enough for us to break the law?
It is time to end this conflict.
In order to ensure the press can continue to report without fear or favour, we must have a media freedom act, as is being proposed by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. By doing this, we would protect journalists and their sources from government overreach and politically motivated actions.
We would enshrine the integral role the press has in safeguarding democracy. We would defend the public’s right to know. We would shield journalists from ever having to reveal their sources.
And we would ensure that people who had the courage to speak up are not punished in a country like Australia. Because in Australia, no government, no police force, no corporation, should be shielded from the scrutiny of its citizens.
Otherwise, democracy will die in darkness.
ABC journalist Danny Tran delivered this speech at the 2019 Andrew Olle Lecture. He was named Andrew Olle Scholar for 2019.