The Guardian • Issue #2099

David McBride: five-year sentence for whistleblowing

Major David McBride and Richard Titelius.

Five years and eight months in jail. That’s how long David McBride has been sentenced to for the crime of trying to protect the innocent, and revealing war crimes. This is a tragedy for a man whose motives were to reveal the truth. It’s also a black day for Australia. As Associate Professor of News and Political Communication Emma Briant has said, this decision will create an over-cautious press at a time when strong journalism matters.

When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus talk of transparency, the response should be a hollow laugh. Dreyfus always had the power to intervene, but didn’t. Under the Judiciary act, Dreyfus could have discontinued the case. Dreyfus refused to do this because, in his words, only “exceptional circumstances” would justify using his powers. It seems that for our Attorney-General, there’s nothing exceptional about uncovering murder by Australian forces. Now a man whose actions have lead to the discovery of war crimes has been jailed before any of the actual war criminals have. In McBride’s own words:

“Afghan civilians were being murdered, and Australian military leaders were at the very least turning the other way and at worst tacitly approving this behaviour … At the same time, soldiers were being improperly prosecuted as a smokescreen to cover [leadership’s] inaction and failure to hold reprehensible conduct to account.”

Dreyfus has talked about the prosecution being independent of the government, trying to slate home the blame to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. That’s just wrong. Dreyfus could have stopped the case, but instead let a truth teller go to jail to discourage other truth tellers.

During the trial the court was told about an Australian Federal Police interview in which McBride said that he thought it was his duty to expose illegal activity. In this country, that’s naive. It turns out that his duty, according to the judge, could be summed up as the Nuremberg Defence: just obey orders. The judge, Justice Mossop, went on to say that deterrence was important.

We’ll get deterrence alright. Anyone uncovering evidence of crimes, including murder, by Australian soldiers, will know what waits for them if they blow the whistle.

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