We are not proposing to be above the law: ABC submission to Security Committee | radioinfo

We are not proposing to be above the law: ABC submission to Security Committee

Tuesday 13 August, 2019
“The ABC thinks national security is important and we are not proposing that we be above the law,” said David Anderson, fronting the national broadcaster’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security

The ABC’s submission, taking place this morning, is focusing on “responsible changes” that could be made to the current laws, so that security issues are taken into account, but that media and whistleblowers can report independently in the public interest.
Key issues identified in the ABC submission include:
  • Decriminialising journalism and whistleblowing,
  • Raising the bar for the granting of search warrants
  • The fact that Australia’s protection for journalists is weaker than other countries in the ‘Five Eyes’ group, such as Britain and the United States,
  • The need to unblock the current freedom of information system.
Director of News Gaven Morris made the point that whistleblowers in various current investigations have withdrawn from giving information to the ABC because they have been “scared off” by the raids on media.
David Anderson said some of the laws that were used in the Afghan Files raid were criminal laws, such as ‘receiving stolen goods.’ This law does not require an external sign off or a public interest test for journalism, often referred to as ‘contested warrants.’
“Attorney General or independent legal sign-off is important.”
Senator Mark Drefus asked: “If you want to make your investigations as thorough and complete as they can be, what is the training for people to understand in details the implications in a classified document?”
Discussing the answer to that question, Gaven Morris said: “When it comes to issues of national security we take responsibility for that above everything else… we are assiduous in ensuring the work we do is as thorough and complete as it can be.”
Comparing Australian laws to protect journalists, media and publishers, Australia comes well behind America and the UK, according to the ABC.
In the UK, the police must apply to a judge to get a warrant to investigate journalists. UK law recognizes the protection of sources and, if a warrant is issued, journalists must be told about the warrant. “None of those principles apply in Australia,” said Anderson.
In America, freedom of the media is enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution.

While media freedom is important, so is the protection of Australians from foreign interference, something which the more recent current laws is trying to protect. There is a potential tension between this need and media freedom.
“[Security] Agencies tell us there is an unprecedented level of foreign interference. What do you do to guard against this?” asked one of the committee members.
“We apply journalistic rigour and do our best to verify sources and information before publishing, then we do a public interest test,” replied Gaven Morris.
The ABC also made the point that they act further in the public interest to make people aware of the threats of foreign interference. “We put these issues on the agenda in the first place by reporting on foreign interference, we do that diligently and assiduously in accordance with our editorial policies,” said Morris.
Committee member MP Julian Lesser asked: “Should we be giving foreign media organisations the same level of protection as we would give to Australian media organisations?”
The discussion around this question addressed the idea that if media and publishers are acting responsibly then whether they are foreign or Australian they should in principle be protected in the same way, however, if they are acting maliciously then there may be other sanctions for that.
The ABC made the point that the laws as they are currently applied, start from the assumption that the media is doing something wrong. This is the wrong priority according to the national broadcaster.
“We can’t say to a source any more that we can guarantee their security… that is very different from where it has been previously.. We are advocating that public interest be considered up-front to assess whether a warrant is granted,” said the ABC

The ABC's full submission to the committee is here.

In a subsequent submission, MEAA representatives said:

“There were four days of unprecedented attacks on media freedom earlier this year, it has been noticed by the world…
“If Australia is setting this example it just serves to embolden anti-democratic regimes. We have a role to play as a long standing liberal democracy to show our values to the world.”
“Adopting a default position of over-classification of documents can result in official information being limited or delayed… A regime of transparency strengthens our democracy.
“Public trust is more likely if the public believes journalists are freely available to expose wrong doing when it is needed.”
Also this morning, Peter Fray from the UTS Centre for Media Transition told the committee:

“No one is seeking a free-for-all for media, but we think the scales have tipped too far against a journalist’s capacity to act for the public’s good.”

The UTS team also made the point that the public interest advocate is not an advocate for the media… “there is no certainty that the media’s views are being represented by the advocates at all.”

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