The ABC’s treatment of what it calls one of the “biggest national security breaches in Australian history” is a disgrace. It put the identity of its source at risk, but reported very little from the documents, preferring to talk at length about how it got them and handed them over to the government.
In promoting its coverage, the ABC said, “Journalism like this relies on brave confidential sources and we’ll protect their privacy at all costs”. It didn’t. Instead, it effectively put the identity of the source at risk. The key to source protection is never to say anything about how the information was obtained.
But he the ABC revealed it had received phone calls from the source about the documents he’d found in a locked filing cabinet sold by a Canberra second-hand shop. Government investigators can legally access phone data that reveals the location of the caller. The ABC gave the irrelevant detail that its reporter dined on steak and beer at the source’s home. The source explained he wanted the ABC to make information in the documents it public.
In fact, it made very little of the cabinet documents public and not a single word of the supposedly large number of national security documents. Just as well Daniel Ellsberg did not leak today’s equivalent of the highly classified Pentagon papers on the Vietnam war to the ABC. Although these papers exposed how the public was being deceived about the war, it seems likely they would never have seen the light of day before a timorous ABC handed them back to the Pentagon. Previously, Australian print and television journalists, have enlightened public by reporting highly classified documents without doing any demonstrable damage to national security.
It beggars belief that nothing in the documents given to the ABC could be reported in a way that served the public interest without hurting national security. A former defence department deputy secretary Patrick Gourley told this column it was a “gutless effort” by the ABC, adding, “It is difficult to think of a single instance of a national security leak that has done any great harm”.
The ABC boasted it had obtained “hundreds of top secret and highly classified cabinet documents. Now they’re yours to explore [online]”. Almost none were. Far from being highly classified, some documents, such as one about how ministers rejected proposals to slash welfare benefits, were merely marked “protected” “, sensitive” and “cabinet in confidence”. In reporting another document about the cabinet retaining the “right to silence”, the ABC seemed unaware did that the Howard government had given the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation the power to detain and question innocent people who faced a severe jail sentence for refusing to answer questions.
The ABC made a big fuss about how vital it is to keep most cabinet documents secret for 20 years, rather than arguing for much earlier public disclosure. In New Zealand, many cabinet documents are routinely released within a few weeks of the government’s decision. The “father” of the H-bomb Edward Teller proposed a reasonable benchmark – nothing should be kept secret more than two years.
Disturbingly, the ABC has seemingly adopted a new rule that no document should ever be reported if some anonymous official has stamped with a national security classification. Instead of performing a watchdog role on behalf of the public, this rule would conceal abuses of power by security agencies and disastrously false intelligence – examples of which the media has routinely reported in the past. The ABC said it is determined to do nothing to endanger public safety or national security, whatever that often contested concept means. Nothing the media has published in past from classified documents in Australia has led to anyone been killed or injured. However, sharing secret intelligence, sometimes of dubious accuracy, with some overseas governments can get their opponents killed.
The ABCs pious pronouncements about how it reported nothing from the national security documents it received come against the backdrop in which media organisations and the Law Council are mounting powerful arguments that the latest government legislation will make it almost impossible for the journalists to publish anything the government doesn’t want published.
This should never be acceptable in an open and democratic society, even of some senior ABC journalists seem eager to toe the government line.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review