Thirty years ago Sarah Tisdale, a clerk in the British Foreign Office, was jailed for leaking photocopied United States plans to deploy cruise missiles in Britain to The Guardian newspaper. Her action was only discovered after the then editor, Peter Preston, complied with a High Court decision that it should hand over documents.
It is a long established journalistic mantra that you never disclose your sources – a necessary code if we are to have a free press – and Peter, to quote his own words, “was hung out to dry and got a good pasting” from colleagues and critics for letting Ms. Tisdale pay the price for his newspaper’s scoop.
His successor, Alan Rusbridger, faces no such conundrum over the source of shedloads of stolen classified documents received last May in electronic form. He has a team poring through them to discover those that , if published, can cause maximum embarrassment to the British, Australian, Canadian and United States governments. And the source is now a household name, Edward Snowden, a contractor to the Central Intelligence Agency, now living comfortably in Russia under the protective supervision of President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, a former colonel in the KGB, can be confident his own murky past will not feature in Snowden’s gift to The Guardian. We can also be reasonably sure that Chinese espionage will not feature. However, according to The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, the Abbott government is bracing for a new series of disclosures about this country’s intelligence activities, including those against China and other Asian neighbors, and our own citizens.
This is to be expected, and you cannot expect either Guardian Australia or the rest of the media to ignore the revelations, or to heed calls to respect the national interest.
Those who think otherwise should remember the dictum of John Delane, one of the more famous editors of The Times in London, who addressed criticism of his publication of intelligence in a thundering editorial on February 6 1852:
“The press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any government. The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. … The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times: it is daily and forever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion. … The statesman’s duty is precisely the reverse.
“For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.”
A good editor will frame this tract, and follow it. Bad editors, and journalists, will allow themselves to be sucked into elitist groups, and because of this privileged position will allow themselves to be used by governments, party politicians, business leaders and others to betray their role as reporters by “trimming” stories or becoming partisan commentators. Many of the Canberra lobby correspondents in the Gillard-Rudd period fell into this trap, as do those who accept free trips from airlines and others to report so-called “news” from exotic locations unrelated to the subject matter.
Despite the duty of disclosure, the recent brouhaha over the illegal phone tapping of the Indonesian president’s mobile phone, and those of his wife and other aides does give rise to some concerns abourt media behaviour.
One is the news management, or ‘spinning’ by Guardian Australia and the ABC themselves. It is clear they did not follow Delaney’s dictum of publishing “instantly”. The Guardian had been sitting on the material for some months.
Guardian Australia editor, Katharine Viner, claims not to have seen the documentation relating to the SBY phone tapping until “a few days” before publication. That may be true, but as Rusbridger’s number two it’s likely she was aware of its existence. Given that the Rudd government authorized the phone tapping, was publication deliberately delayed until after the election of an Abbott government? It is a question that cannot be brushed aside as casually as did columnist, and former Media Watch host, Jonathan Holmes.
There is then the role of the ABC in what Tony Abbott has described as the national broadcaster acting as an “amplifier”of The Guardian story. That is putting it mildly. Although it had no role in obtaining the documents from Snowden, the ABC actively and very deliberately cooperated in the news management of this story, and planned its release on a high profile television program.
It is perfectly legitimate for the ABC to report the story – indeed it would be negligent not to do so – but that is different from conspiring with a foreign publication to promote its wares by agreeing to joint publication, especially when you have had no part in its origination. Kate Torney, the ABC’s news director, cleverly ignores this aspect of the argument in her feisty defence of her decision to partner with The Guardian.
Torney is, however, right to argue that the Australia Network had no choice but to publish, once the story was in the public domain. This DFAT-funded network, created as ‘soft-power diplomacy’ to promote Australia’s interests overseas, particularly in Asia, would lose all credibility if it had ignored the issue. And credibility, in the world of international broadcasting, is all.
That said, those who have called on the government to retract the ABC’s contract to operate the Australia Network, have a case, but not because of publication of the SBY phone tap. The more obvious reason is that Senator Stephen Conroy, the previous government’s communications minister, broke all the rules of corporate governance two years ago by awarding the contract to ABC, after an independent panel charged with investigating the bids had twice concluded and recommended it be given to Sky News.
A second reason to revoke, or at least re-examine the contract is that the Australia Network is a very poor channel, which fails woefully to carry out its assigned task of presenting Australia to the world. Compared with similar networks coming from other nations, it needs proper scrutiny, and a major overhaul.
It’s not unusual for the ABC to be the subject of criticism, some of it deserved, some not. I personally think it wrong that high profile correspondents should be proffering their own personal views on The Drum, when their time might be better spent on in-depth reporting and analysis. I don’t think frontline presenters like Fran Kelly should be airing her political views on Insiders, or offering advice to Tony Abbott (or Bill Shorten) on how to handle the spying issue, as she did last Sunday.
But management decisions over cooperation with The Guardian, though flawed, hardly justify the onslaught against the ABC from The Australian. This newspaper’s daily attacks on our national broadcaster have now reached absurd proportions.
For instance, foreign editor Greg Sheridan attempted to claim that by publishing the SBY story, the ABC could be held partly responsible for future deaths. His argument was that more boat people might die at sea, following the decision by Indonesia not to cooperate with Australia. (It is Indonesia’s responsibility to protect the safety of boats in its own waters, and if it is not interested in doing that, it is cupable, along with its people smugglers.) Sheridan also argued Australians on death row in Indonesia might be executed rather than afforded clemency because of Jakarta’s unwillingness to show warmth to our countrymen. This argument, by any standards, is a bit of a stretch, and damages Sheridan’s own credibility, as well as that of his newspaper.
Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in New South Wales.