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'The Backstory' transcript: Trust and press freedom

Telling the truth about Australia's media landscape

I’m Nance Haxton.

In this episode of The Backstory, I speak to some of Australia’s most respected journalists about their concerns, as they are caught in the crossfire of the press freedom debate in Australia.

This podcast complements the 67th edition of Griffith Review, examining Matters of Trust.

I will investigate how recent developments such as the spread of the coronavirus, the collapse of AAP and last year’s raids by the Australian Federal Police on ABC and News Corporation reporters are raising questions about whether the entire system of checks and balances underpinning Australia’s democracy is under threat.

Renowned author and journalist of thirty-five years Matthew Condon says he’s horrified by the progression he’s seen in recent months.

MATTHEW: Is this the new ‘new’ – that if you write a story that upsets the bureaucracy, then your entire career is an open book to be sifted and analysed and removed? ...It’s the most basic tenet of why we do our work… So, this is the whole point of press freedom. There are bars, and once you cross those lines you can never go back. So, it is up to the community to take this seriously, otherwise they’ll be missing what they once had and it will be gone.

NANCE: Has the Australian public become a bit blasé about press freedom? How do we communicate the importance of that?

MATTHEW: Yes, I think so. I read many website and many noble websites, the journalism union and great material and fantastic stuff and warnings, the precisest detail of 'this is what’s happening at the moment'. Who is reading it apart from other journalists? How do we disseminate the message that we are on dangerous ground here and you need to listen?

Australian bureau chief of The New York Times Damien Cave has reported from locations around the globe, from Mexico to Baghdad.

He says at times the lack of press freedoms for journalists in Australia make it feel more like an authoritarian regime.

DAMIEN: It shocked me, but I think it shocked me less, frankly, than it shocked a lot of other people. Because even prior to that, I’d been writing about Australia as this extremely secretive democracy that lacks transparency in a whole bunch of different ways, and it had really empowered the state to keep information from the public. So to me, that was just confirmation of what I’d already seen. I'd seen it in the Pell trial with suppression orders, I’d seen it in public records requests that are either rejected or cost literally thousands and thousands of dollars for information that should be much more accessible than that. And even just in the way that officials speak to you, the idea that there are so few public officials who were paid by tax dollars who are willing to go on the record and just put their name to what they’re saying is astounding. I mean, I think as a country, I think [Australia's] greatest struggle with journalism is this culture of secrecy. I think it’s a huge problem. As somebody said to me, ‘Australia's basically built an authoritarian system, it just doesn’t have an authoritarian in charge.’

NANCE: That's an interesting way to look at it. What do you think is the way to deal with that, too? I know that it frustrates many journalists, but it's trying to get the public along with us.

DAMIEN: I think that's the enormous struggle. I think, again, to my point about trust, how do you explain to people why this is valuable to them? Sometimes I tell people, ‘Listen, secrecy and transparency is not just about national security or intelligence. It's about… Maybe there's a teacher at your school who's doing something really wrong around your kids, and you'll never get that information because it's secret.’ And you know, you have to think about it almost at a really micro level, and understand that it really seeps all the way down. I mean, police departments are extremely secretive. If you have an abusive cop, you might never know it. And that cop might be moved around ten, fifteen times before anything happens. And so the trust in the system here, I admire Australians' trust in government, it's much greater than it is in the United States, and I think that there are a bunch of benefits that come from that. But by the same token, if you don't have openness and transparency, then there's no accountability. And you need both.

NANCE: And seeing the way the Pell trial rolled out must have been an incredible shock, I suppose, as well? Or did you see that coming too?

DAMIEN: Oh, it was an enormous shock. For me and my editors, we were stunned at the idea that a single judge could basically define what information was accessible to the world about one of the most senior and powerful figures in the Catholic Church. And the idea that that was possible and accepted, I think stunned the editors of The New York Times, and frankly stunned the world. And I think it was really an example of the way Australia works, and [it] sometimes doesn't even notice how much of an anomaly it is. I mean, even compared to the UK, compared to Europe, compared to Canada, compared to United States, this is a more secretive country than all of them.

Matthew Condon agrees that Australians are remarkably blasé about press freedom in this country, when the ramifications of that blurring of the lines can be seen so clearly in recent history.

MATTHEW: What most people don't realise – which is, it's terrifying and fascinating at the same time – is that there were a series of interviews done by a man called Richard Lancaster and he interviewed Joh Bjelke-Petersen just prior to when he was dumped or sacked as premier, and after that sacking, he did a suite of interviews that are now available, if anyone's interested, in the State Library of Queensland. And in one of those interviews, Joh essentially talks about fake news. I mean, this is 1988, and he had a notion of this, and he had a concept of this and how he would… He was threatening the local newspapers and saying, ‘Watch what will happen to you if you go too far.’ That was the word from the government, from the premier. So we've got a fake news apparatus happening in this country decades before Trump. It's just a fascinating…an interesting historical moment, the way the press was massaged and managed for decades leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

NANCE: Feeding the chooks.

MATTHEW: It was unbelievable.

It’s not just journalists who are concerned about whether they can still hold government and health authorities properly to account at a time when reliable information is so needed, with the spread of coronavirus now seen as the worst crisis since World War II.

But the seeds of press freedom’s demise were sown long before coronavirus spread.

In June 2019, the AFP raided the home of News Corp. reporter Annika Smethurst after seizing documents from ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, triggering a major debate over press freedom.

The Federal Court recently dismissed the ABC’s bid to stop the Federal Police examining the documents seized from those raids.

Griffith University Professor of Journalism and Social Media Mark Pearson specialises in media law, and warns we have reached a tipping point.

MARK: So the AFP raids were… It was surprising, I suppose, the boldness of it. But I think from ’04, ’05 I was recording occasional raids on journalists over their work. I recall one on Philip Dorling [in] Canberra at one stage, one on the National Indigenous Times office at one stage, all to do with sources and confidential information. So it's not new, but it is concerning and it's even more concerning because of all of the new powers. So it's one thing to have the power to raid a premises. It's quite another to also have the power to access the telcos' metadata as well, and you start to get these powers coming into alignment, which really make both journalists and their sources much more wary of entering into that relationship.

NANCE: Does it really blur that line between state, the powers police, the government, the judiciary? Does it have the potential to do that?

MARK: Oh, very much so and I've recently helped the Journalism Education & Research Association do their submission to the parliamentary inquiry, the committee looking into this, and I pointed out that separation of powers was only… The problems within that were only exposed in Queensland a couple of decades ago with good old-fashioned investigative journalism by the ABC and The Courier-Mail. Interestingly, the two organisations that have been just raided in recent times, News Corp. and the ABC, but it was top public interest journalism that got that commission, the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and scores of other royal commissions and parliamentary inquiries have been triggered by this very kind of public interest journalism, usually using some level of confidential sources. And what is democracy going to lose? I mean, in Queensland in that situation, we had the police commissioner, some members of Cabinet, and various other officials and criminals jailed. The downfall of a government.

Separation of powers was in tatters and it means that with these laws, the criminalising of journalism through the holding and dealing with data that we've found through this AFP situation – but we're also seeing internationally with the Assange Wikileaks situation – it seems that in Western democracies the value of Fourth Estate journalism has become markedly eroded.

Two federal parliamentary inquiries into press freedom in Australia are ongoing, and while submissions have closed, neither has handed down their final report.

It’s clear that current events are unfolding faster than the inquiries can keep up with.

It seems the effect of the gradual erosion of press freedoms in Australia is only being felt now, in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, just when the public is crying out for reliable information.

Gerard Ryle is the head of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, overseeing a worldwide team of journalists who have worked on some of the biggest investigations in journalism’s history, such as the Panama Papers.

He says Australia is now one of the most difficult countries in the world to report from.

GERARD: When I worked here for like twenty years, it always struck me that this was one of the most difficult places in the world to be a journalist. I think that all I'm seeing now is confirming my views. We do not have press freedom in Australia, because the defamation laws here prohibit you being a journalist. But I also think that's led to a lot of very sloppy journalism. A lot of the journalism that is practised here is not very good, because there's no incentive for it to be good. I mean, in America, for instance, as long as you're fair to the person, you're not showing any malice – it’s very difficult to sue. But that requires you then going to the person that you're about to write for, sometimes weeks in advance, and giving them the entire context of what you're about to do. I think that makes for better journalism in the end. Whereas here, the practice is always to confront someone, sometimes even the night before you're about to go to publication. That can lead to mistakes. It can also… I think it can lead to worse journalism, if I can put it that way, because you're not giving the proper context. I'm saying that, because I did that myself in the past. Because you were always worried about getting injuncted, and so therefore, an injunction would stop you publishing. So you would go as late as possible to the person you were writing about, because that was the way it was. Then afterwards, you would fight it out in court. That, I think, has led to poorer journalism.

NANCE: Yeah, it's got a real circular effect, doesn't it?

GERARD: Yeah, it does.

NANCE: That cause and effect, yes.

GERARD: Yeah. But it also has led to the concentration of the media here, because you need to have very deep pockets to be a media owner in Australia, because you are likely to be sued. I mean, it was quite common to get a legal letter the day after publication here if you were an investigative journalist, so it was totally accepted. I was very shocked to learn that in America if you get a legal letter, you really have to worry about that legal letter, because it means that you have, in someone's eyes at least, shown malice. A court case over there can be very expensive. So –

NANCE: Whereas in Australia…it's relatively common.

GERARD: Well, in Australia, it's incredibly common. Almost every investigative reporter in Australia right now is fighting some sort of legal case involving some story they've done in the past.

More than two dozen journalists have now added their voices to The Journo Project, and [there is] growing disquiet about the protections in place for media and whistleblowers in Australia.

Investigative journalist Kate McClymont has been at the forefront of many of the pivotal investigations that have changed the face of New South Wales.

She now wonders whether the Australian media will be able to continue to expose corruption and keep the powerful to account, describing it as a chilling effect.

KATE: People deserve to know. The public has a right to know these things, and if we turn away then justice isn’t being done really.

NANCE: So do you think the public has realised the implications yet or do we need to get better at communicating that?

KATE: I think unfortunately for the media we are not as a profession held in great respect by members of the public. So in some ways, I think some areas of the public think it’s just journalists bleating…

NANCE: Whinging…

KATE: And also you know, they look at trashy magazines that make things up on a regular basis and I think we all get lumped into the one boat. I think it’s that thing – there is the quality media and the bottom end of the market, but we as a profession have to do more to gain the trust of members of the public. I think that is incumbent upon us – we have to behave better in order to earn the trust.

Our society is becoming so polarised I think it’s really worrying times. And I think at the moment [with] the uncertainty around COVID-19, you don’t know what the social and financial ramifications are going to be. I think it’s major and very uncertain times.

But I think with the decline of local newspapers the amount of corruption in local politics is extraordinary. That’s where the real corruption is. Giving the mayor a discount car [or] you get another five floors or you get spot rezoning or the council car park gets given to you, all those things are just not being covered adequately enough.

NANCE: Well that’s right, talk about press freedom – I think people forget the implications on a regional level because how important is [it] that these stories are not being reported because there aren’t the people on the ground anymore.

KATE: No, exactly. The other thing that we haven't mentioned is the demise of AAP. I just think people probably don't realise how much of, not just The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Courier-Mail is filled by AAP. And AAP provides the most incredible services, photographs, press conferences. They were there every single day for the royal commissions. When other journalists had to go off and do things, there was AAP providing coverage. I just think it's a huge loss.

[For] those small papers who can’t have a correspondent in Canberra, AAP had a whole raft of correspondents supplying all the regional papers with copy ... I think most of the regional papers consist of AAP court reports, political reports, sports reports; it’s going to have a chilling effect on journalism in general and people’s ability to know what’s going on.

Internationally renowned journalist Peter Greste says the Australian legislation created in the war on terrorism was so loosely framed that’s also had a detrimental effect.

PETER: Clearly Australia is not Egypt, and not about to become Egypt anytime soon, but – and there is a but here – if you think about what happened to us in the abstract, where the government used national security legislation and framed it so loosely that it could be interpreted in a way that criminalised what would normally have been considered legitimate journalism, then we're seeing actually the same kinds of trends taking place here in Australia. Ever since 9/11, Australia has passed more than seventy pieces of national security legislation, more than any other country on earth, and a lot of those are so loosely drawn that they criminalise legitimate journalism. This is not an abstract idea.

When we saw those raids by the Australian Federal Police on News Corp. and ABC journalists, I realised that this was always going to be coming. In fact, I've started some research programs here at UQ looking at precisely these problems. I've got some researchers over at the law school examining the ways in which those national security laws intrude on press freedom. I've got another researcher at [the] School of Communications and Arts looking at the experience, lived experience, of journalists and the way that their work is becoming ever more constrained by national security legislation. We could see that coming.

So even though Australia and Egypt are two very different places, the political trends, the political imperatives which are driving and increasing the security state – and in the process, limiting press freedom, limiting journalistic freedom, limiting freedom of speech and civil liberties – are the same, the same imperatives are there. So understanding that has actually made me feel quite concerned.

NANCE: It sounds like you’re saying really that erosion of laws has led to the situation that we’re in now – that gradual erosion of press freedom in those security laws.

PETER: That is a fair conclusion.

Presenter of ABC’s 7.30 report Leigh Sales says people aren’t paying enough attention to what’s at stake.

LEIGH: I think we're mistaken if we think that this is a recent thing. I mean, I remember straight after 9/11 there was a lot of reporting about the curtailment of civil liberties in exchange for enhanced powers for security agencies in the war on terror. And there was a lot of controversy at the time about things like control orders and people being able to be detained for longer periods of time without charge and so forth. And there was a lot of debate around it. And then over time I think we've come to accept the normalisation of information being kept more and more secret, security agencies being given more and more powers, a lack of transparency around that. And I feel also like when I was in the United States, they had much more of a culture of the public's right to know than what we have here.

NANCE: Do Australians take that for granted a bit do you think?

LEIGH: Yeah, massively, massively. And I think that that has gotten worse in the past nineteen years, eighteen years, since 9/11. And I think that people that think, oh its’s the Coalition government – bullshit, it's been across governments of both stripes, this practice, and a lot of it's passed in a bipartisan way. And I think so much of what happens in this country ... I had more access to Guantanamo Bay than I've ever had to, say, Villawood [Immigration] Detention Centre in Sydney. That is unbelievable to me that we have more security around asylum seekers than the US had around the worst of the worst at Guantanamo Bay. I mean, that's unbelievable. But that's the culture of it.

This issue crosses the public broadcasting and commercial broadcaster divide that often also divides journalists.

Veteran Channel 10 newsreader Sandra Sully says without a free press, democracy is compromised.

SANDRA: Look, for as long as I’ve been in journalism I’ve heard about the demise of our profession. And it's challenged like never before, probably, but in a different way. These things morph and evolve and at the moment press freedom is probably the biggest challenge. And fortunately just about all media organisations, for the first time in a long time, have joined forces to make the point. We just need the public to get it. I think the problem we have is the perception, maybe, that it's driven by self-interest and really, if you don't have good-quality journalism, and if you don't have a free press, you don't have a strong democracy. And things like the Banking Royal Commission would never have happened. There are so many stories that are current right now that wouldn't have happened without strong journalism. And I think the public are getting it.

A little over three decades after the Chris Masters’ Four Corners exposé, ‘The moonlight state’, the revelations of which ultimately brought down the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, I wonder how much the lines are again being blurred between the pillars of legislature, executive and judiciary, and if the growing acceptance of surveillance as the norm could take us back to those dark days.

Respected multi-Walkley Award-winning ABC investigative journalist Mark Willacy says the recent developments are worrying not just for journalism practice, but [for] democracy in Australia.

MARK: I think we’ve got to watch the surveillance state, the police state, that’s developing in this country. I worry that politicians are getting a little bit too far ahead of themselves.

I think we're one of the few democracies that doesn’t have freedom of the press enshrined in some form of constitutional right or Bill of Rights, and that, to me, is a worry, because politicians, even the most shrill authoritarian versions of them, I think admit the press play an important role. And again, how would they even get their message out without a free press? I suppose they’d just get on Twitter and talk to their stupid followers wouldn’t they.

I think it's time for this debate to happen in Australia that maybe we need to enshrine freedom and independence of the press officially in our Constitution or in a bill of rights of some form.

One of the greatest concerns for Griffith University Professor of Media and Culture and Publisher of Griffith Review Julianne Schultz is Australia’s lack of legislative backing for the right of the media to report.

JULIANNE: I think it’s been building for a long time. What we’ve seen since 9/11 has been a rapid increase in surveillance and security legislation Australia has some of the most extensive security and surveillance legislation in the world.

It's not just media freedom. I mean the fact that we don't have a constitutional bill of rights is at the core of this. Our acceptance of the freedom of political speech in the media is an implied acceptance. It's something which the High Court only ruled on in the 1980s. It is not something which is longstanding. It's not been there since the beginning of the federation. It’s something which was read into the Constitution by the High Court in the mid-1980s.

So while everyone walks around now saying, ‘Oh yes, this, we've got a democratic right, we've got a constitutional right to this’, actually, it's very flimsy. While you are depending on one High Court ruling and then the ones that have followed it to establish that principle, it’s not robust.

Channel 10 Political Editor Hugh Riminton says the lack of protections intimidate not just journalists, but whistleblowers.

HUGH: What we have to understand here is that we have a situation where people who find information out, that is really damaging to our fellow citizens. If they blow the whistle on it, they get punished.

They might use the media to get it out, but they get punished. There are court cases at the moment where people are facing long periods of time in jail. A tax officer who revealed appalling practices within the tax office is now facing 160 years, potentially, in jail. And having gone public with it, they've had to change the way the tax office works. He did a good thing for the country and he risks going to jail.

And all of these things are in the public interest to know how our government works, and that they've got a mechanism in place that will jail people for years for doing good things for the country and then harass and intimidate journalists.

Everyone should be aware that, when people in good faith find out things that are wrong about the way things are operating, they have to be allowed to speak up for the good of the country and not face going to jail at the behest of some really unattractive bullies that we've allowed to take positions of power in this country.

Peter Greste is now the UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication based at The University of Queensland, and director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. He says we need to get better at communicating what’s at risk. 

PETER: If we asked Australians, ‘Hands up those of you who would feel perfectly comfortable without a free press. Who thinks that all we need to run our democracy, all we need about the information about what takes place inside government, are the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and senior civil servants? Hands up who is comfortable with that idea?’, I don't think you'd see too many hands.

I think most people would understand that even though the media works imperfectly, even though they don't trust us a lot of the time, for reasons that I completely understand, the alternative is a good deal worse.

That's what we need to argue for. We need to recognise the importance of news as a public good. We need to understand and remember why it matters to our democracy.

Celebrated author and multi-Walkley Award-winning feature writer Trent Dalton says the critical issue is the lack of understanding of journalism’s critical role in society.

It's that terrifying notion, that Orwellian notion that gets back to those fundamental reasons why Steinbeck wrote and why Orwell wrote…they were going for truth. And these raids stand at the heart of truth.

I'm talking big picture, philosophical, what is at the heart of this? …there is a truth that they are trying to get at, and [that] we are trying to get out. And they're trying to hide it, and we are trying to get at it.

Head of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Gerard Ryle, who coordinates teams of investigative journalists around the world, says Australian press freedoms have slowly disintegrated for decades, making it almost impossible to expose wrongdoing in society for fear of being sued.

NANCE: How do we establish that trust with the public again then? Because that is such a problem now, isn't it?

GERARD: Well, I think that we're basically… When you see debates about this here, where everyone's always taking a very narrow view and saying, ‘The defamation law is wrong’ or, ‘This is wrong’ or ‘That's wrong’. I'm saying to you, the whole system here is wrong, and then we need broad reform. We need to concede that we need to do a better job as journalists. It would be harder to be a journalist, [to] come to this new regime where you have to actually go to people you're writing about, give them a full right of response, show that you're not showing any malice. That could be a new way of doing work here.

NANCE: Do you think it could be possible?

GERARD: I think it needs to happen, because otherwise, it's going to continue to be what you're seeing now. You're seeing, with AAP closing, an even narrower field. You've got fewer and fewer media outlets here. You're not going to see an online outlet here take on any of the big guys, because one lawsuit will wipe them out.

You can listen to the audio of this podcast here.

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