Getting to the truth

It is important to remember that these stories did not risk national security. They invited criticism, not danger. The raids on the ABC and the home of a News Corp reporter were about government embarrassment.

The warrant executed at the ABC was obscenely broad. It allowed police to “add, copy, delete or alter” material held by journalists there. The raid related to leaks that showed Australian soldiers had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan. The story was of enormous importance. It created accountability. It put no one at risk.

The earlier raid in Canberra related to a story showing plans to allow the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on citizens without a warrant. The story said that the spying would happen with the approval of the minister for Home Affairs and the defence minister. This plan was secret and its being reported was very clearly in the national interest.

Peter Dutton says he had no prior knowledge of the raids. While that may be true, the police were acting on referrals from his department. “The AFP have an important job to undertake,” the Home Affairs minister said, “and it is entirely appropriate they conduct their investigations independently and, in fact, it is their statutory obligation.”

Scott Morrison said: “No one is above the law.” He said: “I can understand why these issues can cause great anxiety, particularly to members of the press, but at the moment what we are dealing with are two separate investigations following a normal process and any suggestion these were done at, with the knowledge of, the instigation of, government ministers, is completely untrue.”

In a press conference on Thursday, the acting commissioner for the federal police, Neil Gaughan, said it was a crime to publish classified information. He said he was “not going to rule in or rule out anyone subject to further charges”.

Australia has extraordinarily weak protections for the media. For whistleblowers, it is even worse. We do not have a bill of rights. We do not have any special freedoms for reporting or speech beyond mild notions of public interest.

The government is working to make these protections even more tenuous. These raids are intended to scare potential whistleblowers. They are intended to keep the work of security agencies secret. There is no other way to look at them.

It is not enough to say that the police were following the law. The law is wrong. Its intentions are debased. A government honest about freedoms, about the journalistic work that keeps democracies functioning, would be changing these laws. The Morrison government has no plan for this. The opposition does not either. The culture of fear around national security means mainstream politicians will not speak against it. It leaves our society poorer.

We should be angry. We should not accept the unacceptable. We should not let the orderly conduct of these raids disguise their vulgar purpose. We should rage at how much in our society hangs on governments acting justly and how little compels them to do so.

The safest way to communicate with a journalist is still through the post. The fewer secrets our government has, the safer we will all be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 8, 2019 as "Getting to the truth".

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