Paul Malone: Media's duty is to serve the public, not the government

Paul Malone: Media's duty is to serve the public, not the government

Potential whistle-blowers must be thinking twice about providing documents to the ABC given the organisation's handling of the "bushie" filing cabinet documents.

It's now history that last year the ABC came into possession of hundreds of classified documents from two Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet filing cabinets.

Intelligence officers from ASIO reclaimed the documents from the ABC.

Intelligence officers from ASIO reclaimed the documents from the ABC.

Photo: ABC

The finder of the documents – identified by ABC journalists as a "bushie" who lives in a house outside Canberra – wanted some of the material made public.

According to an account of events written by the ABC's head of investigative and in-depth journalism, John Lyons, the ABC handed the documents back to the government with many stories going unpublished.

"We could have told hundreds of stories over weeks or months," the ABC's news director Gaven Morris told Lyons. "Instead we chose to be selective and responsible in what we broadcast."


But in doing so the ABC may have damaged its reputation as an independent broadcaster, not only financially dependent upon government but appearing to be a loyal state broadcaster like Pravda or China's Xinhua News Agency.

Experienced investigative journalists, including present and former ABC staff, are horrified by the ABC's actions.

Former senior ABC journalist Quentin Dempster asked his old employer why they did not adopt the "default publish" option with pertinent redactions.

In an opinion piece in The Australian Financial Review, Brian Toohey observed that the ABC made few of the documents public and published nothing from the supposedly large number of national security documents.

"Just as well Daniel Ellsberg did not leak today's equivalent of the highly classified Pentagon papers on the Vietnam war to the ABC," he said.


"Previously, Australian print and television journalists have enlightened the public by reporting highly classified documents without doing any demonstrable damage to national security. It beggars belief that nothing in the documents given to the ABC could be reported in a way that served the public interest without hurting national security."

Another leading investigative journalist Kate McClymont of The Sydney Morning Herald applauded Toohey's article saying it was "excellent" and "excoriating."

She told Fairfax Media: "When the ABC paid more attention to how it came by the filing cabinet, rather than its contents, it failed in its primary role. Journalists' primary concerns should be the public's right to know. This can be done without breaching national security."

More than anyone, Toohey has found ways to cast light into the dark corners of government.

Without him the Australian public and sometimes even the government of the day would not have found out what the joint US/Australian bases at Nurrungar and Pine Gap actually did and how they increased Australia's attraction as a nuclear target.

Nor would we have heard about the discrete mass of half a kilogram of plutonium buried at Maralinga. Thanks to Toohey's report, based on information drawn from the Top Secret Pearce Report, this terrorist-invitation-waiting-to-happen was safely removed and secured.

Toohey's past practice also provides the road-map that could have enabled the ABC to publish stories from the highly classified documents without endangering public safety or national security.

In November 1988 the government discovered that Toohey and his colleague, William Pinwell, were about to publish a book on the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

So little was known about this organisation that as late as the 1980s two former prime ministers, John Gorton and Billie McMahon, said they had been kept in the dark about its activities. Gorton said he never really knew much about the service: "I still don't know what they did in ASIS" and McMahon said: "I received absolutely no co-operation from the organisation and I was not informed of its activities."

The public had a right to know.

But as the manuscript was about to go to the printer the government took out an injunction which would have stopped publication. Toohey and Pinwell reluctantly accepted vetting of their manuscript, negotiating the final text with ASIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Toohey says in the end only a couple of small redactions had to be made.

In his published account of the filing cabinet leak Lyons says the ABC first got wind of the documents last year when the "bushie" rang Freedom of Information editor Michael McKinnon.

McKinnon is a highly experienced investigative journalist, born and raised in Canberra, with a former department head father and a brother, Allan, who is deputy secretary in charge of national security in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

McKinnon advised the bushie to get legal counsel. When the bushie called again and said he wanted to meet, McKinnon called his boss Craig McMurtrie, the deputy director of news. McMurtrie told Lyons: "From that first conversation we were extremely conscious of the national security implications and continued to be mindful of that through the editorial process."

McMurtrie added that as journalists their job was to report good stories and serve the public.

McKinnon is also quoted as saying "reading those documents that night, it was clear to me there was a public interest in the public knowing this material."

The Lyons' account raises many questions but the ABC has gone to ground and refused to answer specific questions put to it by Fairfax Media.

Why in the end did we, the public living in a democracy, hear little of what was in the documents? Is it now standard ABC policy to seek prior government clearance before publication of any stories drawn from confidential, restricted, secret, top secret or AUSTEO documents?

Why did the ABC choose to reveal so much about the source of the documents? And did Michael McKinnon discuss the matter with his brother Allan, deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet?

Asked directly, McKinnon told Fairfax Media, "At no stage did I speak to my brother. I never discussed the cabinet files with him before publication."

He would not make any further comment.

It's far from clear who made the decision not to publish the claimed hundreds of stories.

The ABC says it was "selective and responsible" in what it published. The ABC "reported the stories that passed the tests of being both significant and in the public interest, and did not reveal sensitive information which might have unjustifiably endangered public safety or national security with no overarching public good."

The ABC went through the normal editorial and legal processes and reached an agreement with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on securing and returning the documents. "This has been achieved without compromising the ABC's priority of protecting the integrity of its source and its reporting, while acknowledging the Commonwealth's national security interests," an ABC representative said.

It's believed that in negotiating the deal the ABC received an undertaking from the government that they would not go after or prosecute the "bushie".

Just as well, because from what we've been told, investigators would have had little trouble finding him.

Lyons says the "bushie" rang Michael McKinnon after researching who might be interested in this sort of thing. The "bushie" bought the cabinets after attending a second-hand auction in the middle of last year at a shop that sold second-hand government furniture. The cabinets came from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

So no trouble for investigators: go to PM&C and from its records identify the shop and the date of sale of the cabinets; go to the shop and get its mid-year sales records; get the name of the man who bought the two cabinets for $10 each (there won't be too many of these); check the man's telephone records to confirm a call to McKinnon at the ABC; and ….. ..well the ABC might just as well have given the authorities his name, address and phone number.

(The Australian Federal Police are investigating the leak and a review of PM&C's security procedures is under way but at the time of writing no official account of what happened has been released.)

It is of course possible that the man paid cash and was extremely cautious in how he contacted McKinnon. But even so the ABC has played fast and loose in providing so much information about its source. Can it honestly claim to have done everything to protect the bushie?

There's a view from some with knowledge of the ABC's internal workings, but no direct involvement with the documents themselves, that the ABC is now risk averse.

One former ABC employee told The Informant he suspected that the old practice where a journalist and an executive producer made decisions together had been replaced by a committee system which tended to be over cautious. Sensitive material that might be controversial was "upwardly referred" so that the powers that be know what is coming.

Another was appalled at the handing back of the documents and the self-congratulatory exposure of how the documents were obtained. Everyone is agreed that personal details or material endangering national security should be redacted.

There's an age-old journalists' saying that news is what someone doesn't want you to print. All the rest is advertising.

What led the bushie to believe that politicians say one thing and do another? We should not have to wait until what is in these documents is irrelevant to find out.

It's now history that Prime Minister John Howard took us to war in 2003 based on his false claim that Iraq had an arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. His statements were not supported by the intelligence from his own government agencies.

Forty years earlier Prime Minister Robert Menzies claimed to have had a request from the South Vietnamese government for military assistance and committed Australia to a war even though at the time of his speech no formal request for assistance had been received. Even worse, Menzies seemed to think we would be fighting the Chinese, a traditional foe of the nationalistic Vietnamese.

More recently leaks have revealed Australia's reprehensible bugging of the Timor government's cabinet room in order to gain an unfair advantage in negotiations over our international border and oil and gas rights in the region. This leak will hopefully lead to settlement of a fair agreement with our impoverished neighbour.

The ABC's actions stand in sharp contrast with western media's proud publishing tradition, best illustrated by the handling of the Pentagon Papers. When in June 1971 the Nixon administration sought an injunction to stop The New York Times publishing the papers, The Washington Post took up the challenge. When The Post received an injunction, 15 other newspapers took up the cause, publishing the documents and risking prosecution.

Katharine Graham, left, publisher of The Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, leave U.S. District Court in Washington after getting the go-ahead to print the Pentagon papers on Vietnam.

Katharine Graham, left, publisher of The Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, leave U.S. District Court in Washington after getting the go-ahead to print the Pentagon papers on Vietnam.

Photo: AP

Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and many others have maintained this tradition. The ABC was at the forefront in last year reporting from AUSTEO classified documents that revealed special forces actions between 2009 and 2013 in which special forces troops shot dead insurgents, but also killed unarmed men and children.

Currently the government is considering a bill that threatens Australians right to know what is going on in this country. The bill would make it a crime for anyone to receive and handle certain national security information. A journalist in possession of a top secret document could face 20 years in jail — even if nothing was published or broadcast. Attorney General Christian Porter says he is considering amendments to strengthen the defence for journalists who publish what they consider to be information that is in the public interest.

The bureaucracy has an inbuilt inclination to over-classify and suppress information. If possible, it hides its waste, failed programs, cost over-runs, missed-deadlines and negative assessments of government programs and policies. Our intelligence services have, in the past, bungled operations and illegally eavesdropped on Australians.

The media's duty – including that of the ABC – is to the Australian public. Publishing and broadcasting is its raison d'etre.

Paul Malone is a former political reporter and public servant.

Paul Malone is a former political reporter and columnist for The Sunday Canberra Times.

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