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A free press is valuable, no matter what it costs

<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

What do Ani Yudhoyono's mobile phone, Nathan Rees' sex life and my pay packet have in common?

Yes, like many modern conundrums thrown up by the technological revolution, this one sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke; all three are items or concepts that have contributed in some way to the past week's multipartisan punch-up about privacy, leaks and and the public interest.

All three are items or concepts whose custodians were until recently lolloping happily along under the impression that their privacy would be maintained, and were entirely mistaken.

Mrs Yudhoyono has now discovered - courtesy of a chain consisting of Australian intelligence agencies, the US National Security Agency, a 30-year-old computer specialist and international fugitive now resident in Russia, The Guardian newspaper and my own employer, the ABC - that the Australian Defence Signals Directorate in 2009 targeted her Nokia E90-1 for purposes of espionage.

Former NSW premier Rees picked up The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday to discover that details of an affair he had conducted with a constituent had - thanks to a disclosure from that constituent to the Tele - found their way on to the front page, along with the headline: ''NATHAN SLEAZE''.

Slightly less racily, The Australian's front page on the same day published the salary details of many ABC employees, including me; their scoop came thanks to a freedom-of-information response from the ABC to a South Australian politician, in which the salary details were inadvertently embedded. The information found its way to a local reporter, who no doubt high-kicked all the way back to the office with delight, having secured by good fortune what her paper had long and fruitlessly formally sought.

(The emergence of this rather mundane tale of administrative error quickly extinguished the far more entertaining theories that had hitherto blossomed among conspiracy theorists; that the government had leaked the salary details to punish the ABC for Operation YudhoyOhNo! and so on.)

Of the three disclosures, the third was the least challenging, ethically. Of course The Australian was entitled to publish the ABC salary details, having obtained them.

I don't much enjoy my new ''ABC Fat Cat'' workplace tattoo, but have always thought journalists should not whinge too much about low-grade offences against their own privacy, lest such hurled pebbles turn out to have consequences for the crowded and delicate glasshouse in which we foetidly coexist.

(Plus, I was grateful for The Australian article's indisputable assistance on some nagging workplace etiquette issues, such as ''When sharing coffee with Quentin Dempster, who should pick up the bill?'')

No one, to my knowledge, has questioned The Australian's right to publish the salaries. Certainly not Mark Scott, who merely - like any chief executive without rocks in his head - moved to investigate how the confidential data leaked out of his organisation in the first place.

He was rewarded with an Australian editorial - so squealingly high-pitched in its outrage that loyal readers in the bat community are understood to have asked for their money back - accusing the ABC of caring more about salaries than national security.

But it's Mark Scott's job to make sure confidential information doesn't leak out of his organisation.

Just as it's the Australian intelligence services' job, one would have thought, to ensure that secret surveillance remains secret and not - ahem - converted into PowerPoint for ease of circulation.

And it's not The Australian's job to spare the blushes of the national broadcaster, just as it's not the ABC's job to protect the Australian government - whatever its stripe - or its security agencies from the disastrous peculiarities of its information management systems, which delivered a PowerPoint slide replete with detail about the DSD's phone-hacking activities into the hands of a junior computer programmer on the other side of the world.

When faced with a similar question in 2004 - ''Is it our job to protect the Australian government from the ignominy of the Australian Wheat Board scandal?'' - The Australian made a similar call.

And it's not The Daily Telegraph's job to save the Rees marriage, either, though for my money there's precious little public interest in snuffling through the rather mundane personal infidelities of a politician, especially when doing so reinforces the impression that people of common human frailty are not welcome in public life.

But that's the thing about these decisions; they're subjective. If I were editing the relevant organs, I would have published the salaries, and the spying stuff, but not the Rees affair.

The extent to which you agree or disagree with the decisions that were made will probably influence your choice of media as a consumer. And that's what a free press looks like.

Annabel Crabb writes for ABC Online's The Drum and is the host of Kitchen Cabinet. According to The Australian, she is paid $217,426. She tweets as @annabelcrabb.

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8 comments

  • Complete and unmitigated shash. The revelation of bugging is 4 years old. It may have been news then; its an embarrassment now. Fails the public interest test. Who cares if Nathan Rees is having a bit on the side; if on the other hand he was a Fred Nile type preaching morality and fire and brimstone for sinners it may have been worth running. Fails the public interest test.
    What ABC presenters are paid is matter for them and their employer as such it was a gross intrusion of privacy. Fails the public interest test.

    Commenter
    Uncle Quentin
    Date and time
    November 24, 2013, 5:07PM
    • I actually think that we should judge published information not only in terms of public interest but also in terms of harm such information might cause. If somebody wanted to have an affair with a married person, it is up to them - public shouldn't be involved in that, unless an abuse of power took place. Countries spying on each other is old news. What was the aim of publishing such information? And what is the outcome? Years and efforts of building relationships with Indonesia are now wasted and animosity between countries created. Yes, our PM could have responded differently but this is not the point. Journalists have responsibilities too - don't do harm.

      Commenter
      NMB
      Date and time
      November 24, 2013, 5:25PM
      • I'd love to know how much those News Ltd hacks are paid, just so I can compare it to the ABC journos. Why did Bolt hang up the phone when Fairfax asked him how much he was paid?? A few double standards going on there. If that so called politician from South Australia had any morals at all he would have returned the documents to the ABC. The bias and hypocrisy of News Ltd plumbs new depths every day. A bigger story on the same day than Rees was Murdoch getting divorced - again.

        Commenter
        Richard Skinner
        Location
        West Bondi
        Date and time
        November 24, 2013, 5:57PM
        • Whenever I see the words 'free' and 'press' together particularly in a headline in an Australian imprint it makes me chortle. Delusions are great aren't they?

          Commenter
          Satire the blu-ray version
          Date and time
          November 24, 2013, 7:41PM
          • The great problem is that to make a name in publishing these days, at least in The Murdoch Bunker one seems to be obliged to conduct character assassinations, on a national and global letter; until they finally got caught in the UK!
            Perhaps this is a gee up to take attention from the abominable behaviour of the Murdoch Cabal.
            Their speciality is phone hacking. I can't imagine that this been limited to the UK; and with such a culture spread through their organisation like an avian flu, privacy and integrity are like a "dickie seat" in a Model A Ford, yes they talk about it, but ideals get a very rough ride and seldom a part of their communication process.
            I don't need to know any peoples' salaries unless I have shares in an organisation, I certainly don't need to know Nathan Rees' indiscretions or anything to do with his family, and the viral behaviour of that organisation regarding Indonesia, a spectrum "white australia" disorder.
            Obviously, the Australian has forgotten to read its own Code of Ethics, I refer Section 4, Clause 01.
            I do need to say Annabel, you manage to get information in a fair and open way, people tell you things because they know you will not leave the context on the editing floor!

            Commenter
            Richard of North Sydney
            Date and time
            November 24, 2013, 8:35PM
            • The article did not live up to it's headline. What would it cost to have a free press in Australia? Certainly I would like to know if it is affordable. A press gallery that are basically prostitutes for the real estate industry we have already, and presumably that is fairly cheap. But a truly free press I imagine costs quite a deal more.
              Can I suggest a follow up to this article that lays out how much that would costs us? Surely it would be worth it.

              Commenter
              shocked and awed
              Date and time
              November 24, 2013, 8:42PM
              • Sooner or later Australia will be free of the 82 year old Murdoch. It will be interesting to see how the Murdoch media will change after the current era passes. I hope to be around to see what happens.

                Commenter
                John of North Lakes
                Location
                Queensland
                Date and time
                November 24, 2013, 10:24PM
                • The problem with a Public Interest Test is who decides?
                  In the commercial world I make a determination by choosing to purchase the paper or not.
                  But what about publically funded organisations such as the ABC? They receive $1.1bn dollars a year whether I consider what they produce to be in the Public Interest or not.

                  Commenter
                  Suresh
                  Date and time
                  November 24, 2013, 11:27PM
                  Comments are now closed
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