Intelligence and Security Joint Committee Report

September 01, 2020

Deputy Speaker, what a pleasure to see you in the chair. I don't think I'll forget the disbelief I felt back on 5 June 2019 when John Lyons at the ABC started tweeting that an AFP raid was underway at the ABC. This was my husband's old workplace. I know many ABC journalists. I think my bewilderment was probably tenfold within the walls of ABC's Ultimo headquarters as the raid was happening, and John Lyons brought it to life for us. He told us about the coffees that were being brought in for the AFP officers. He gave us some insight into the conversations that were being had over what I think was a nine-hour raid, where they went through and determined what they were going to take and what they weren't. He described the special AFP sticky tape, the evidence-sealing tape, as they began sealing bags with USBs. I think that was a shock for everyone like me who's been a journalist, because that is not common practice in Australia. We do not have a history of having our offices raided.

Since those extraordinary raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst's home—not her workplace, her home—and that ABC headquarters, the Morrison government has maintained that the law was fine, the law doesn't need to change, there's nothing to see here, there is not a problem. But clearly there was a problem, and we all know now that he was wrong to maintain that the law was fine. That there is a problem with the law, and this Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report has unanimously rejected the view that things are fine. There is something to see here, and there is something that needs to be addressed.

As a journalist originally, my initial response to the release of these findings by the committee was one of relief, because the pressures on journalists are bad enough without an additional fear that you'll be locked up for reporting something. I don't think people appreciate this, but, as a journalist, you are busting a gut to make sure that not only do you have the story before one of your competitors or your colleagues but that you can turn it into something that's able to be broadcast or published really fast. And not only do you have to do all that, you have to get it right, or as right as you possibly can, in the time that you've got. So I can't imagine what it feels like now, in this really fast-faced media environment compared to the one I worked in 30 years ago, to see the senior people that you respect facing raids on their offices and their homes. That is not doing anything to bring a sense of confidence to journalists, that by doing the right thing they will be okay. So the bipartisan recommendations in this report are really welcome. I think, if they were implemented, they would go a long way to be a really significant improvement for the legal protections that journalists have.

A key change is the way federal warrants that relate to professional journalists and media organisations are issued and contested. So while now this report is saying that we can't have journalists know about the warrant before it's issued, what we can have is a public advocate who can appear before a senior judge—and we're talking about a judge, as is recommended in the report, of the Supreme Court or the Federal Court. So while the agencies, the media organisations, won't get advanced notice, there will be someone who can actually challenge the warrant and the legality of it—a public interest advocate who can speak on behalf of journalists and media organisations. So that's a really good step forward.

The Committee has also recommended a review of how national security legislation is applied as far as the classification of government documents goes. There is a concern that high-level classifications are being put on documents which really don't deserve that status.

It's highly likely that even if just these processes had been in place when the warrants for the three journalists were sought we might have seen a different outcome. A Labor has said, though, we don't believe that the 16 recommendations go far enough to protect press freedom.

A government member: No!

Ms TEMPLEMAN: Freedom of the press is central to a functioning democracy—

A government member: I agree with that!

Ms TEMPLEMAN: It's absolutely essential, and it's great to hear those opposite agree. Freedom of the press is under threat from multiple fronts. The market is so fragmented now that there have been huge consequences for traditional media and a profound loss of jobs in every broadcast and print medium. The journalists and their sources need to be protected so that stories that someone wants kept secret are able to be told. Because news is often what someone doesn't want reported, and to use legal force to prevent that publication should not be possible. It's a journalist's job to find out those stories and to build trust with their sources so that they can share information that they believe is in the public interest. I want to thank Dan Oakes, Sam Clark and Annika Smethurst for being fearless in doing that.

As the union representing journalists, the MEAA, of which I'm a member, says, 'There remains a raft of so-called national security laws that can be used to criminalise journalism and punish whistleblowers for telling the truth.' No-one is saying journalists should be above the law, but even if the recommended changes are adopted, there is still a situation where journalists are considered guilty before the law and are required to prove that they haven't breached any laws—a different standard than for anybody else.
The concern about press freedom isn't the exclusive domain of journalists and media organisations. The third annual MEAA press freedom survey showed that 89 per cent of the 2½ thousand respondents said that the health of press freedom in Australia was poor or very poor, and that there had been a change for the worse to the tune of 18 percentage points. Looking at the trends over the past decade, 98 per cent of people said that it had got worse, compared to 90 per cent in 2019. This shows that this is something we should all care about. It shouldn't just be journalists or ex-journalists who care about this. It's relevant to everybody. The chief executive of the MEAA, Paul Murphy, describes the sentiment as the sort you'd expect to see 'in a despotic police state, not a country that prides itself on being a liberal democracy that chides the failings in others.'

While this is a good first step, there is much more that can be done to make sure journalists are free to do their job, free to hold governments to account and free to uncover things that are being hidden by bureaucracies and private organisations as well as government organisations. I commend this report, but it is just a first step.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Freelander ): I thank the honourable member and I call the member for Goldstein