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(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Many journalists have been happy to tweet that they’ve downloaded the government’s COVID-19 app, effectively offering a public endorsement for software developed by a government that has raided and surveilled them to stop whistleblowing and silence sources revealing information in the public interest.

It’s their personal information, of course, so they can do with it whatever they like, but it makes it more difficult for them to assure those sources who wish to remain anonymous that they are doing everything they can to keep their communications confidential — unless they avoid using their phones for any interaction with sources, which is the best-practice method.

Phones, after all, are just a surveillance device that you can use for phone calls. Indeed a phone with bluetooth on and the screen permanently unlocked — which the COVID-19 app needs to function effectively — is a spy or a hacker’s wet dream.

Some in the media have gone further. They have compared people with privacy concerns to terrorists, to anti-vaxxers, or called them “Twitter cranks and contrarians”. One senior journalist described the app as a “test” for Australians.

Even those deeply concerned about the threat of government surveillance have argued that big tech companies are worse than any government app. Many outlets have reported with an air of triumph about the rapid take-up of the app, although there’s been less of that in the past 24 hours as the initial surge has faded.

The view of app advocates in the media is, perhaps, understandable: they want to play their part in getting Australia through this unprecedented — at least in the lifetime of anyone under 100 — crisis. They’re working for “Team Australia” because “we’re all in this together”. A little cheerleading for the government, if it helps improve uptake of the app, is worth it — after all “the life you save could be your own”, etc.

Journalists are being pandemic patriots rather than crisis curmudgeons.

One problem with this is that it essentially destroys the media’s argument against further extensions of government powers of surveillance and control in relation to national security matters. There is very little difference between public health and national security: in both cases the media must take the government’s word about the nature of the public threat, and in both cases governments claim the right to infringe basic freedoms and hide from scrutiny (remember the refusal to release modelling because it might frighten people?) on the basis of public interest.

Next time the government wants to give itself new powers to collect information, or surveil the population, or undermine cybersecurity, the mainstream media cannot object. Haven’t they led the way in urging the population to surrender some privacy for the public benefit against an insidious threat the government wants to protect us against?

Indeed, hasn’t the media compared privacy advocates to terrorists — a practice normally reserved for politicians who like to argue anyone resistant to the loss of basic freedoms is on the side of terrorists or pedophiles — and suggested they’re as delusional as anti-vaxxers? Aren’t the tech giants much much worse anyway?

The next extension of surveillance powers so the government can better track down journalists’ sources will be a test for the media: whose side are they really on?

The broader problem is that it’s not the media’s role to be pandemic patriots. It is the job of the media to hold the powerful — and particularly governments — to account. At a time when governments are handing themselves truly extraordinary powers of coercion and withdrawing basic freedoms from the population, this is more the case than at any time in recent decades.

When it proposes to place a surveillance app on the phone of — it hopes — the entire population, the case for vigorous interrogation of its proposal is especially strong.

Some ABC journalists, to their credit, have done their job. Linton Besser and Dylan Welch have exposed the fact that data from the app was within reach of US security agencies courtesy of far-reaching US laws that presume to override those of other countries.

In doing so they also exposed the distressing fact that Australian politicians and bureaucrats knew much less about US laws  and their extraterritorial intent than journalists did.

This has been something of an exception at the ABC which has enthusiastically adopted a “Team Australia” approach to its coverage, including senior journalists criticising Australians for failing to rigidly adhere to the often absurdly draconian lockdown laws imposed by state governments.

It’s not merely the nature of the powers governments are arrogating during the crisis that necessitates journalists being watchdogs rather than cheerleaders.

The media itself, enduring an existential crisis that is smashing its beleaguered business model, faces a future in which it will be more dependent on government favours — via grants programs and regulatory relief — than at any time in its history.

The Australian commercial media’s future may very well depend on continued government support. This will be a dangerous time for accountability. Will media outlets balk at standing up for press freedom or challenging failed policy or corruption if they perceive it might endanger their success in the next grant round?

The times call for public interest journalism and vigorous watchdogs, not “Team Australia” and cheerleader journalists. And that call will only grow stronger as media revenue crumbles.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

What will be left? What do you want to be left?

I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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