Captive media: what does the submarine scandal tell us about our “defence correspondents”?

Oct 26, 2022
A submerged submarine with an AUKUS symbol depicting the flags of Australia, the United States, and United Kingdom. Image: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell

Why did no Australian media outlet tell us the easily discovered truth about the compromising of the integrity of the Australian submarine decision process revealed by US journalists last week?

On October 18th the Washington Post published a closely documented article by Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones titled “Former U.S. Navy Leaders Profited From Overlapping Interests On Sub Deal”.

In unarguable detail Whitlock and Jones laid out the role played by a veritable squadron of retired US admirals and former senior US defence officials in the Australian decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

The opening paragraphs of the Washington Post article make clear the extent to which the Australian submarine procurement decision has been hopelessly compromised and indeed corrupted:

“Two retired U.S. admirals and three former U.S. Navy civilian leaders are playing critical but secretive roles as paid advisers to the government of Australia during its negotiations to acquire top-secret nuclear submarine technology from the United States and Britain.

“The Americans are among a group of former U.S. Navy officials whom the Australian government has hired as high-dollar consultants to help transform its fleet of ships and submarines, receiving contracts worth as much as $800,000 a person, documents show.

“All told, six retired U.S. admirals have worked for the Australian government since 2015, including one who served for two years as Australia’s deputy secretary of defense. In addition, a former U.S. secretary of the Navy has been a paid adviser to three successive Australian prime ministers.

“A Washington Post investigation found that the former U.S. Navy officials have benefited financially from a tangle of overlapping interests in their work for a longtime ally of the United States. Some of the retired admirals have worked for the Australian government while simultaneously consulting for U.S. shipbuilders and the U.S. Navy, including on classified programs.”

Former Defence official Mike Scrafton responded by calling for an urgent public review, saying:

“On the evidence it appears that the nuclear powered submarine decision process was heavily influenced by a clique of former US Navy Admirals with potential conflicts of interest, and who were generously paid by the Australian government. What confidence can Australians have in the soundness of this opaque, overpriced, strategically unjustifiable, and massively underspecified project?”

Scrafton’s excoriating and incisive assessment missed one important aspect of the explosive Washington Post story.

Why was this extraordinarily important story about the compromising of Australian sovereignty and the integrity of Defence procurement discovered by two American journalists and published in a US newspaper?

The documentation of the Washington Post article is complex and detailed, but almost wholly based on documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act.

The journalists’ work must have been assiduous over a long period, and would have required funding and editorial support from Post management.

But on the face of it, it was a straightforward, albeit brilliant, use of FOIA materials.

Nothing would have stopped our correspondents in Canberra doing the same thing.

Non-US citizens can use the US FOIA, and distance from Washington is no barrier.

Moreover, as Whitlock and Jones indicate, much of the story was lying about the Canberra landscape in plain sight.

Why then did no defence correspondents for the Australian media majors beat the Post to the story? Or have a go at even a small part of it?

The various parts of the News Corp Australia, the sometime Fairfax-now Nine Entertainment, and Seven West Media commercial media companies, as well as the ABC News division, all have dedicated “defence correspondents”, all filing frequently.

Most in reality do little more than rehashing media releases from the bloated Defence and ADF media units and their better-funded military industry corporate suppliers.

It is a long time since any Australian media major has had a proper and well-supported defence or national security correspondent. It is over a decade since the then Fairfax group laid off the best national security journalist of his generation, Philip Dorling.

The failure of our national media to reach even minimal standards of scrutiny of our massive defence spending programs and the lobbying networks of retired politicians, officials and ADF senior officers on the books and boards of multinational arms companies is effectively another case of state capture.

Other Australian instances have been well documented by studies such as the Australian Democracy Network’s Confronting State Capture, and Michelle Fahy and her colleagues in the Undue Influence group.

With well documented and carefully argued studies, both groups have demonstrated the vulnerability of Australian democracy and sovereignty to undue, illegitimate, and unacknowledged influences – especially in defence.

The Washington Post documentation of the compromising of the Australian submarine procurement program is a devastating example of Australian state capture by foreign influences – state and corporate – in the case of Australia’s planned largest-ever defence spend.

But the Australian media are missing in inaction.

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