The ABC’s selective publication of classified documents: “gutless kow-tow” or responsible journalism?

Feb 12, 2018

The ABC has been blasted by journalist critics over its selective editing of the national security classified and Cabinet-in-secret documents it received from a “bushie” who discovered them in discarded filing cabinets.

The Australian Financial Review’s security correspondent Brian Toohey wrote that the ABC was gutless and had “kow towed”  to the government after the trove of documents, described as the biggest security breach in Australia’s history, had been handed back to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“The ABC’s 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 journalists to publish anything the government doesn’t want published.

“Just as well Daniel Ellsberg did not leak today’s equivalent of the highly classified Pentagon papers on the Vietnam war to the ABC.”

Also outraged at Turnbull government draft espionage and foreign interference legislation said to criminalise journalists and media outlets  who ‘communicate’ or even ‘deal’ in leaked security classified information, Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote:  “Getting brownie points for making nice with a government committed to undermining a free press and eradicating scrutiny helps no one”.

John Lyons, former middle east correspondent for News Corp’s The Australian and now head of the ABC’s 30 strong investigations unit, has written that the decision to return the documents was made only after PM and C’s Martin Parkinson agreed that the ABC’s source would be protected.  Mr Parkinson is soon expected to announce the result of an internal investigation to identify the negligent public official who authorised the disposal of the filing cabinets through a Canberra second hand store without first having retrieved all the documents.

In prime time TV news and 7.30 coverage the ABC told its audience that thousand of pages it had assessed revealed the inner workings of five separate governments and spanned nearly a decade. “Nearly at the files are classified, some as ‘top secret’ or “AUSTEO”, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only”.

What the ABC and Fairfax then published over subsequent days covered what appeared to be only domestic embarrassments or interesting discussions including:

* The AFP was reported to have lost nearly 400 national security files in five years “according to a secret government stocktake contained in The Cabinet Files”.

* Nearly 200 top secret code word protected documents had been left in a safe in the office of senior minister Penny Wong when Labor lost the 2013 election. “The 195 documents included Middle East defence plans, national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia’s neighbours and details of counter-terrorism operations”.

ABC website browsers were invited to “explore the full list of documents left in Penny Wong’s office”.  But while  the list was extensive the actual documents themselves could not be accessed.

* The cabinet documents were reported by the ABC to reveal  that then Howard government Attorney General Philip Ruddock had pushed for a range of new terrorism offences with “serious consideration”  given to removing an individual’s unfettered right to remain silent when questioned by police.

* The documents were said to reveal that News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt was asked how to stop the Racial Discrimination Act’s “unreasonably restrictive “ reach which had then recently affected him.  Mr Bolt denied to the ABC he had ever been consulted on changes to the Act.

*  The documents were reported to include the then Labor government’s 2009 NBN strategy which showed  how desperate the cabinet was to have Telstra buy into the project on the government’s terms.

*  “Former prime minister Tony Abbott ignored the advice of his own department and the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) when he ordered confidential (Rudd Labor) cabinet documents be handed to the home insulation royal commission”.

* Based on the ABC’s initial reporting of The Cabinet Files then PM Kevin Rudd had been warned about “critical risks” of the home insulation scheme before the deaths of four young installers, implying that Mr Rudd had ignored them.   The ABC last week apologised to Mr Rudd for having misrepresented the facts. The warnings referred to were  financial risks and not safety risks, an evidentiary point already reported by the royal commission.

At a time of intense interest in Australia’s foreign policy development as the United States warns of security threats from China and Russia assessed as now greater than terrorism, the ABC has not drawn public attention to any insights which might have been available in the national security classified documents.

Brian Toohey in the AFR commented:

“The ABC boasted it had obtained ‘hundreds of top secret and highly classified cabinet documents. Now they’re yours to explore. Almost none were”.

Bernard Keane in Crikey argued that the ABC’s default position should have been full publication of the documents online with appropriate and considered redactions.    “(The ABC)  could have followed the example of The New York Times in its handling of the Chelsea Manning material. Having obtained the WikiLeaks material from The Guardian, The New York Times offered to go through the documents with State Department representatives and redact documents when officials were able to make the case that publication would cause significant harm. That is, The New York Times made the decision that the public should see the documents, but also that the State Department should be given the opportunity to make the case where individual documents might cause significant damage. If it made the case well enough — and not merely asserted — the documents were redacted. But the NYTs default position was to publish them”.

The controversy about the ABC’s handling of the cabinet files comes as the Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep movie The Post  has reminded audiences here about the US Supreme Court first amendment press freedom precedent won by The Washington Post and The New York Times in 1971 over  publication of the Pentagon Papers.  The US press has the right to publish leaked security classified documents.  The Pentagon Papers, leaked by State Department employee Daniel Ellsberg showed how US governments from JFK to LBJ to Richard Nixon lied to the American people  about failing strategies and the original misjudged justification for the war in Vietnam.  Military and civilian casualties from the conflict were horrendous.

Last week on behalf of The New Daily  and following up on the strident criticisms of the ABC from Messrs Toohey and Keane I emailed John Lyons at the ABC:

“Hi  John,

I’m writing a piece for The New Daily (deadline noon Friday) about the Cabinet leaks.

Have noted the criticisms of Keane in Crikey and Toohey in the Fin Review that you/ABC should have posted all the documents  rather than the selective methods you’ve adopted, leaving the public to blindly trust your editorial judgements about the content/import of all the documents.

I sympathise with your reasoning and tactics to protect the original source.  Also note you have cleverly neutralised any strident anti-ABC attack from Boris etc at News.

(I well remember the job News Corp did on the ABC when ABC dared to go in with Guardian Australia on the Susilo ASD bugging scandal dropped by Snowden in 2013/14.  Julie Bishop used that in part as her justification to terminate the Australia Network contract, devastating ABC’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific region).

Can you perhaps answer these questions for me on the record:

The entirety of the Pentagon Papers were made available to the American people after Daniel Ellsberg dropped them to the NYT and then the Washington Post and other media.  You’ve referred adversely to Wikileaks practices and said ABC did not want to follow that.  But Wikileaks first authenticates the documents it has received and upon authentication has a default position of publication – with redactions only of information and names identifying operationally active (at risk) people.  Can you please explain in more detail why you didn’t adopt the DEFAULT PUBLISH option with pertinent redactions?

Presumably the ABC has retained a full copy of the documents.  Would you consider full publication at a future time in the public interest?

Is there a case for the 20 year embargo on all Cabinet documents, including national security classified documents, to be published in a much shorter time – say two years?

You’ve recently arrived at the ABC from News Corp.  Did your intimate knowledge of the sometimes aggressively rivalrous thinking within News Corp. inform your editorial decisions on just how you would handle what you’ve said is the biggest security breach in Australia’s history?

We’re waiting now for PMandC’s  Martin Parkinson to finger the negligent public servant involved, so this story still has a way to run.

Hope you can engage.  Regards…”

I have yet to receive a response from Mr Lyons.

Most responsible news media organisations now have encrypted ‘drop boxes’ in which whistleblowers and informants can deliver documents and information while protecting their identities as the source.

The ABC also has an encrypted procedure for its informants to make contact with its investigative staff.

While Australia does not yet have a Bill or Charter of rights which would, like the US first amendment,  help protect press freedom here,  mainstream media outlets like the ABC should consider forcing the issue by adopting a default position to publish all public interest information it receives, particularly including national security information…  with appropriate redactions.

That would deliver both freedom of the press and help democratically elected governments think more seriously about accountability through transparency.

That is the historic lesson from Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Quentin Dempster, a former ABC journalist,  is contributing editor of The New Daily





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