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Issue #1876      July 10, 2019

ABC fights for the public’s right to know

The ABC and News Corporation have launched legal proceedings to nullify warrants that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) used recently to raid the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst, trying to determine who supplied confidential information to those organisations.

The warrants were issued after the ABC broadcast material about possible crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, and after Ms Smethurst reported a proposed extension of the current powers of the Australian Signals Directorate to allow it to spy on Australian citizens within Australia. Both reports were based on leaked government documents.

A News Corp executive said: “…We are determined to fight for journalism and for the public’s right to know. We also invite the AFP to confirm … it is discontinuing its investigation of both Annika and News Corp.”

ABC managing director, David Anderson agreed, saying; “The ABC is asking the court for a declaration that the warrant was invalid on … grounds that underline the fundamental importance of investigative journalism and protection of confidential sources.”

But the ABC is going much further than News Corp. Anderson declared: “We are also challenging the constitutional validity of the warrant on the grounds that it hinders our implied freedom of political communication. … the ABC will be using every avenue … to defend the actions of its journalists and to seek legislative changes that protect the media’s ability to report on matters of public interest.”

If the ABC wins its current appeal to the Federal Court, the government might take matters to the High Court, in a test case as to whether the media has the constitutional right to reveal information in the public interest which the government wants to conceal.

A principle worth fighting for

The ABC and the commercial media have all condemned the AFP raids, on the grounds that such action violates the right of news organisations and journalists to carry out in-depth investigations.

The raids have also sparked international condemnation. The New York Times wrote: “No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say, and the raids are just the latest example of how far the country’s conservative government will go to scare officials and reporters into submission.”

The raids took place not long after the arrest and forcible removal of Australian journalist Julian Assange from the Equadorian embassy in London. He took refuge there several years ago to avoid being extradited to the US for having revealed, among other things, secret information about US war crimes in the Middle East. The US government has now requested his extradition to face trial for espionage.

The case aroused international concern because Assange merely passed on news information received from others. The sensational Wikileaks documents he received were taken from US military sources by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and were then passed on to major US and other news outlets which published them.

Assange’s real “crime” in the eyes of the US government is that he so passionately believed that publication of the information was in the public interest that he was willing to risk imprisonment. His conviction for espionage would set a precedent for criminal prosecution of all journalists for receipt of confidential information.

An institution worth fighting for

By instigating an AFP raid on the home of Annika Smethurst as well as the ABC headquarters, the Morrison coalition government has forced News Corporation and the ABC to contest the raids in court. But the government shouldn’t lose much sleep about the post-raid alliance between the ABC and News Corp, because it’s paper-thin. Their objectives are very different

The ABC charter requires it “to provide innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard … that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and … reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community ...” That requires the ABC to inform the public accurately and without fear or prejudice about news it has a right to know, and the ABC management has taken a principled stance in that respect.

News Corp, however, is primarily concerned with making handsome profits from its sensationalist, rabidly right-wing and often wildly inaccurate publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Sunday Mail, of which Ms Smethurst is political editor.

In a nationwide 2017 survey of all Australian media organisations the ABC scored the highest rating for public trust. The Fairfax Press came third behind the Special Broadcasting Service.

Commercial media organisations other than Fairfax all scored negatively, demonstrating widespread mistrust because of perceived false news, bias, sensationalist stories, pushing a political agenda and too much advertising. News Corp publications are repeatedly guilty of such offences. The company loathes the ABC, and never loses an opportunity to attack it for real or imagined failings.

News Corp has many friends in federal parliament. Last year the Liberal Party’s federal council voted in favour of privatising the ABC. Three Coalition MPs, Tim Wilson, Mitch Fifield and James Paterson, are also members of the right-wing “think tank”, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), which has called for the ABC to be privatised

IPA recently published a book called (in part): Why We Should Privatise The ABC And How To Do It. Reasons given by IPA for privatising the ABC include: “meeting consumer satisfaction, eliminating taxpayer subsidies and [ensuring] competitive neutrality in media markets.” Meeting those objectives would suit the commercial media corporations admirably, but would not serve the public interest.

The government has reluctantly agreed to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the raids but the chairperson is to be ex-soldier Andrew Hastie, whose activity in Afghanistan was subjected to critical examination by the ABC.

Meanwhile, the government has rejected calls to privatise the ABC, but not because it opposes the idea. It knows that privatisation would involve overturning the ABC charter, a very difficult task that would arouse widespread public opposition. But many members of the government doubtless favour privatisation and the government may move in that direction if the opportunity arises.

It’s now up to us to make sure it doesn’t, and to ensure that the ABC continues to protect the public’s “right to know”.

Next article – Academic freedoms must be enshrined in law

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