KERRY O’Brien – Paul Keating’s reminiscence man and Gough Whitlam’s former press secretary – told the audience at last night’s Walkley Awards that the polarisation of journalists as left or right-leaning was a trend that “has to be resisted”. O’Brien – the current Walkley Foundation chairman – said that if unchecked by legislative reform the kind of Federal Police raids that gave rise to the recent Journalism Is Not a Crime campaign could be authoritarian harbingers of a descent into “fascism.” The very opposite, one supposes, to “the little burst of sunlight” that warmed O’Brien’s heart when Malcolm Turnbull overthrew a democratically elected leader in 2015. Those June raids came about because of the ABC’s use in 2017 of the so-called Afghan Files for a series of stories about alleged crimes, up to and including murder, committed by Australian special forces on operation. These documents – classified AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only) – were handed over by a party or parties so far unidentified. “Hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC,” was how the national broadcaster itself described them. Attempts by authorities to apprehend the dishonest criminals responsible bear no resemblance to authoritarianism or fascism. If a burglar stole O’Brien’s Gold Walkley and sold it to a pawn-broker for $20, police would investigate and visit the store. They’d seize the statuette, fingerprint the counter and take the CCTV footage. Touché, Duce? Hardly.
“For journalists to call out the powerful of any political colour for their abuses of power is not about ideology. It is simply journalists doing their job, practising their craft.”
– Kerry O’Brien’s speech in full: This government must be held to account on press freedom.
But we’re not talking about a spray-painted trophy. Nor, for that matter, are we even talking about a cover-up by the government. The Afghan Files reportage concedes that accusations of unlawful killings in Afghanistan were already being investigated. I use concedes advisedly because the ABC surely hoped the real story out of the leaked documents would be that a scandal-wary ADF was taking no action. Or even that defence officials had concluded such crimes had been committed but would not be publicised or prosecuted. Neither version was so. That left reporters Dan Oakes and Sam Clark with nothing but the documents themselves and the unproven claims at issue. There is no “whistleblower”. This distinction hasn’t been made in discussion of the raids or of the ABC’s supposed public interest right to receive and use stolen information. Regarding the source, his or her motivations – even possible loyalties to other countries – are unknown. How do security agencies know the same person won’t pass on material again – leverageable information – to, say, China? They don’t. In this case, then, the state’s right to catch the offender trumps the right to report perfectly legal protocols being followed by the ADF. In different circumstances, the ABC might have a stronger claim (like Annika Smethurst’s). With the Afghan Files, however, they gorged themselves like choc-a-holics in a Tim Tam factory. Not because there was anything the public needed to know but just because they could. Well they can’t.