(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The inquiry by Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) into press freedom has ended — not entirely surprisingly — with recommendations that fall far short of what media companies demanded, especially in relation to shield laws for journalists and the contestability of warrants that affect journalists.

Nonetheless the main recommendations represent a start in expanding the current Journalist Information Warrant/Public Interest Advocate mechanism. At the moment that relates only to warrants for metadata kept under the Abbott government’s data retention regime, and requires secret consideration of whether a warrant for metadata about journalists is in the public interest, with the involvement of a Public Interest Advocate.

The committee thinks that process should be expanded to cover all police and intelligence warrants relating to journalists, and beefed up by requiring more senior figures to participate as Public Interest Advocates. It also recommends elevating the authority to grant warrants relating to journalists to senior judicial figures.

That will annoy the Australian Federal Police, who seem to prefer “where do I sign?” type local registrars to approve their raids on journalists’ underwear drawers.

These sort of protections should be extended beyond the media to lawyers, to politicians themselves and to other professions where confidentiality is a job requirement, but that was outside the scope of the inquiry, and you certainly won’t hear the self-obsessed media discussing anyone other than themselves.

In addition to exemptions from some national security laws for public interest journalism, media companies wanted the law to be changed so that media companies were actually told about the Public Interest Advocate process and a pending warrant. The committee, however, accepted the arguments of security bureaucrats that that would allow journalists to destroy and hide evidence.

The committee also wants an overhaul of training in relation to classification of governments documents, and a review of how classification is done in intelligence agencies — aimed at the routine practice of over-classifying material either out of an abundance of caution or in order to prevent access by the public and the media to it.

(Having as a bureaucrat devised reasons to whack “cabinet-in-confidence” on files in order to prevent them being FOI’d, I know of what I speak.)

All these are mere baby steps, and — as a couple of media executives have said — a good start, at best. But credit where it’s due, to committee chair Andrew Hastie: these recommendations would not have come from previous iterations of the committee, and certainly not when it was under the fortunately brief chairmanship of right-winger Andrew Nikolic (Nikolic, alarmingly, is now at the AAT, and thus would be signing off on foreign intelligence agency warrants to wiretap Australians).

Back then, the committee may well have split on the sort of issues considered in this inquiry, but Labor ended up endorsing the recommendations and proposing that further reforms be pursued beyond them.

In fact under Hastie and committee deputy Anthony Byrne, the committee has continued its slow evolution toward better — though still heavily restricted — oversight of security bureaucrats and a greater scepticism of their claims.

That’s come despite the opposition and juvenile posturing of Peter Dutton and the Keystone Kops of Home Affairs, and the unwillingness of the government to accept the need for greater oversight by the committee of security operations.

There’s an important way in which the committee could be improved, however. It continues to be the preserve of the major parties. The committee needs a non-major party figure on it to ensure it doesn’t function like a Liberal-Labor club. Andrew Wilkie would be the best such figure — he has already served one term on the PJCIS, during the Gillard government, when he negotiated his way onto it.

If Wilkie isn’t available, Rex Patrick would also significantly improve the committee. Patrick has served in the navy and made a career in naval technology. The idea that non-major party committee members would somehow be a security risk because of the sensitive nature of the information the committee sees is ridiculous anyway, but ex-military personnel like Wilkie and Patrick defeat that argument entirely.

The committee is currently short of its statutory limit of 11 members, especially after Labor’s Mike Kelly left parliament. A government that took oversight of security agencies seriously would be ready to improve the make-up of the committee with a well-qualified member from outside the major parties.

This is, however, not such a government, and is unlikely to be in the future.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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