What is in the public interest?
This has been getting a good run by the journalist class this past week in the wake of the AFP raids.
Apparently breaking laws and reporting of classified documents is ok if there is a public interest to the story. This is the get out of gaol free card for journalists. But how is public interest defined and better still by whom?
From what I can gather public interest is deliberately undefined because it is considered a balance of contextual factors.
As to who determines public interest it would seem that that is a decision for the courts and hence that is why Annika Smethurst is in a spot of bother. Publishing or reporting on classified material is a crime so now a court must decide if it was in the public interest for her to do so.
There are no easy winners here. Having an unelected judge determine what we get to read in the public interest seems undemocratic, however, leaving it up to journalists to self-regulate is clearly self-serving and unworkable.
Listening to Smethurst and other journalists elevating themselves as the custodians of public interest has been nauseating. Their trite argument is little more than if I publish something and someone reads it, it must ergo be in the public interest.
But what was the public interest aspect of Annika Smethurst’s article that landed her in hot water?
According to Smethurst it was merely that the powers of the ASD could have been expanded. In other words it was public interest merely because a conversation within government was taking place.
As it turns out Smethurst was wrong about the nature of the proposed changes. Moreover, the government categorically rejected ASD powers be expand to include spying on Australian citizens.
So it turns out there was no public interest to this story because it was in fact a bogus non-story.
This brings us the so called “whistleblower”. This person broke the law and deserves to be punished.
Lets be clear. It wasn’t whistleblowing. No decision had been made. There was nothing inappropriate about having a policy discussion. There was no cover-up or corruption involved.
To the contrary it was the routine business of government.
Hence why this is a serious case. Here we have a unscrupulous employee who breached national security and engaged in a duplicitous attempt to influence a decision of government and / or embarrass and damage a government for personal political purposes.
This is why Annika Smethurst should not have published the story but allowed the proper functioning of government to take its course. Her reporting was grossly irresponsible, tantamount to gossip.
If during that course a decision to significantly expand the jurisdiction and powers of the ASD was made, and if the public were kept in the dark about it, then at the point the story would have been arguably in the public interest.
Government’s are entitled to canvas a whole range of policy options in confidence before they arrive at decisions. When public servants betray that confidence they undermine the functioning of government and undermine democracy.
A free press doesn’t mean, or shouldn’t mean, a free pass on responsible reporting.
Good reporting holds governments to account and is vital to democracy. Unfortunately, much of what passes for journalism these days is shoddy, biased bordering on propaganda, and fake that seeks to undermine democracy at every turn.
The AFP raids far from having a chilling effect on a free press are a welcome wake up call for higher standards.