Margaret Court (Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

A few days before Australia Day, a source told me Margaret Court was set to be appointed an AC, Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest of the Order of Australia honours.

It pissed me off. Court has used religion to attack gay and transgender people for years.

So I began to write an opinion column for Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

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Public knowledge of the honour was trapped under a media embargo until the official announcement on January 26, and my plan was to write it up so it’d be ready.

I tapped at the keyboard loudly and angrily, but then I stopped and wondered why I was waiting.

And I started to get pissed off for a different reason.

The people giving Court the honour would know the ruckus it would cause. The tennis great had been polarising, controversial and unyielding in her damaging views. They were relying on the embargo to protect them until Australia Day.

By then it would be too late. She would be decorated with the gold pin and the unelected people who gave it to her could retract into obscurity.

So to hell with that. The debate needed to be had before January 26.

As a freelance writer and broadcaster I was in a unique position: I did not receive the embargoed list and the information didn’t come from any organisation I’m involved with.

I’ve accepted the terms of many embargoes and received a lot confidential information in the past. I have never broken one and never would. But I wasn’t a party to this one. It was not my embargo to break. And I wouldn’t have done it if Court was merely an interesting choice. I did it because a large section of Australia would hate the idea.

So I got information from sources, worked to get the facts right, considered the public interest and assessed any possible damage to innocent parties, and released the story on Twitter on January 22.

Anyone trying to guess the sources need only imagine how many other people were pissed off by the Court decision. I was far from alone. Her views are despised by many in government, the public service, the media, and beyond.

The idea that the information was embedded inside some kind of Da Vinci Code contraption — seen only by an anointed few — is just crap.

Within an hour of the tweet, the question was being asked of state premiers — mainly Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, who was angry. His quotes were grabbed by every media outlet and the story was away.

The prime minister was then ambushed at a press conference.

“I have no official knowledge,” was Scott Morrison’s line. Clearly he was also relying on the embargo — and perhaps the talking points on Court had yet to be written.

Meanwhile, any media outlet that had momentary annoyance at any perceived breaking of the embargo quickly got over it and joined in the coverage.

The story was reported across the country before getting picked up by The New York Times and the BBC.

Then past recipients — such as Canberra GP Dr Clara Tuck Meng Soo — began returning their honours in protest, and journalist Kerry O’Brien rejected his AO before they even had the chance to give it to him.

The debate soon became thick with irony. Members of the Order of Australia Council leaked to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald “on the condition of anonymity”, saying Court’s honour was to rectify a gender disparity that came after Rod Laver got an AC in 2016.

So it seems some leaks are OK and some break an embargo — it all depends on your agenda.

The weekend after Australia Day, I spoke to council chair Shane Stone about this on a podcast. He said he did not approve of the leaks, and although there was a gender imbalance that wasn’t a matter for the council. The problem, he said, came from too few female nominations.

The Court debate raised important question about these honours — not just about who gets them and why, but who gives them out.

Possibly it’s also smoked out those with strong sympathies for Court’s views. There are far more of them than should make us comfortable.

As for the embargo, arrangements like this should exist to coordinate a celebration. It shouldn’t be there to help control divisive information that’s in the public interest. That’s not an embargo. That’s just a secret they’re trying to keep from the rest of the country to be released only on their orders. That’s hardly a way to celebrate a national day.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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