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February 01st 2018 print

Geoffrey Luck

The Real Story is the ABC

The provenance of those filing cabinets stuffed with secrets is a hell of a scoop in itself, but the ABC has covered that angle only with gloss. Rather, it sifted and focused on stories that damned the Coalition. In doing so it demonstrated it is above the law and a spineless government beneath contempt

filing cabinet rat IIBoldly pursuing its goal to become the premier and pre-eminent news organization in Australia, the ABC has latched onto the “exclusive” story to boost its ratings and influence. But as so often happens, overweening ambition out-runs competence, honesty, morals and ethics. Take its latest sensation, the “Cabinet Papers”. Even the name is designed to imply deep historical significance, redolent of the Pentagon Papers, with smug reporter Ashlynne McGhee displaying delusions of grandeur in aspiring to imitate its sanctified whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg.

The mischance by which these confidential documents came into the public domain is itself a terrific story, a potential scoop of which any journalist could be proud. It seems incredible that two filing cabinets of confidential, top secret or AUSTEO classification could have been sold off to a second-hand shop, and left unopened for months. It’s what happened next that raises awkward and damaging questions for the ABC. Here are some of them:

  •  When did the ABC first receive the documents?
  •  Did the ABC buy them from the person who legally acquired the filing cabinets?
  •  Who made the decision to evaluate the documents for news value, instead of handing them to a government agency?
  •  How were decisions made on the order in which stories were published?
  •  How did the ABC convince ASIO that the documents were its property?
  • Why were some documents dispersed to Brisbane?
  • Why are the original documents not available for public inspection on its website, as the ABC has boasted, only summaries?
  • What qualifications do ABC reporters have to decide what is, or is not a risk to national security?

The first question is important, because it’s now obvious that ABC News sat on the cache of documents for quite some time while staff combed through them to choose topics to build into news stories. This relates to the third, ethical question at the heart of the matter. Once journalists started sniffing through the papers, they would have realised the potential top secret cabinet papers had for sensational exposures, with the prospect of inflicting political damage.

Tony Thomas: At the ABC, hypocrisy on stilts

So, the ABC broke news of the existence of these documents not by telling the story of their disposal and accidental discovery, but – Wikileaks style — by selecting for their sensationalism stories reflecting harshly on the Liberal-National government and its ministers. Consider the order in which these reports were released.

The first report was an exposé aimed at Tony Abbott. It alleged the ‘razor gang’ in his prime ministership considered banning anyone under 30 from accessing income support – a proposal for the 2014 budget. It named Abbott, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann as the villainous authors. Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews was requested to find ways to prevent “job snobs” from receiving welfare payments. It then reported that Andrews, described as a factional ally of Abbott, counseled that such a policy would meet a backlash.

The second report based on the documents was chosen as a reflection on Treasurer Morrison. It revealed that as Minister for Immigration, he rushed through changes to prevent asylum seekers arriving by boat from ever being granted permanent protection in Australia. To that end,  he agreed his department should ask ASIO to delay security checks on up to 700 boat people so they would miss the deadline to apply under the existing legislation.

The next report claimed John Howard’s government “gave serious consideration” to removing an individual’s unfettered right to remain silent when questioned by police. This was based on a proposal by then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, to modify the right to remain silent in a terrorism investigation.

Roger Franklin: Midnight in the Mansion

“I would also like the NSC to consider whether amendments should be made to a suspect’s right to remain silent to allow a court to draw adverse inferences in a terrorism trial where an accused relies on evidence which he or she failed to mentioned when questioned by police”, Mr Ruddock wrote.

Perhaps someone realized this was becoming a one-sided attack on the Coalition; if so, Kevin Rudd’s infamous Energy Efficient Homes Package provided documents that could avoid allegations of bias. There was a report in the files that Rudd, Gillard and two senior Labor ministers were warned in April 2009 about unspecified ‘critical risks’ of the home insulation scheme. Although the ABC’s report quoted Rudd’s statement to the royal commission into the insulation programme: “I have no familiarity with that other than that I would assume that’s the normal thing a department would do”, this was apparently insufficient. Rudd has announced he is suing the ABC for defamation; the ABC added to its web page his disclaimer that he had not been warned about safety risks.

There was also a small item about 195 foreign affairs documents having been left in Penny Wong’s office after Labor lost the 2013 election. But the ABC did not receive those files, only a report that they had been left behind, and Senator Wong was quoted as saying she had never before heard of the matter.

In one of the most flagrant cases of virtuous posturing seen in Australia, the ABC has boasted about ‘one of the biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history’, yet has gleefully exposed the contents of cabinet and National Security Council documents.  In a holier-than-thou piece to camera, federal political reporter Ashlynne McGhee explained that documents like these were meant to remain secret for twenty years – so cabinet ministers could speak openly and frankly in the sanctity of the cabinet room. Yet, thanks to her ‘brave confidential sources’ she had been able to bring them to the light of day, justified by the people’s right to know. The contradictions escaped her.

McGhee’s pretentiousness was eclipsed by ABC News Director Gaven Morris. He explained that the co-ordinated 1AM delivery of safes to newsrooms in Canberra and Brisbane was not a raid, but a co-operative effort  with government “to ensure that as quickly and safely as we could, that these documents could be secured,  that there was no question of there being any further threat to national security or to any other cabinet-in-confidence breaches.”

Morris ignored the weeks of exposure within the ABC.

Citizens have a right to know why this weak-kneed government did not send in a team to recover the documents. They will ask how ASIO could describe them as the ABC’s property. And they should be calling for an commission of enquiry into ABC News and Current Affairs, which tilts the balance between its responsibilities to national security and the delectation of news exclusives so far to the left.

Comments [7]

  1. en passant says:

    I am at a loss to explain the acronym for TREASON AGAINST AUSTRALIA’S NATIONAL INTERESTS. I know what IBM stands for, ASIO, ADF, ATO, LoL, IMHO, but how did Treason become “ABC”?

    The incompetence of our public servants is legendary, but nobody will lose their job, their seniority, their prospects of promotion or a single dollar for this debalcle. To MOGA (MAKE OZ GREAT AGAIN) we need to drain the Swamp.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      En passant, I’m sure that back in your day (which overlaps mine) one of the major problems was over-classification, just as message priority was abused by many to get their stuff through over-loaded comm centres. It was very difficult to impress people, both military and civilian, that such inflationary behaviour was in itself a security risk. But that said, despite many years in middle-ranking staff posts in Defence, with TS clearance for most of those years, I never saw a Top Secret document and only twice handled a draft Cabinet submission, and that on a strict need to know basis. Access to that sort of stuff was very carefully controlled in my part of the world.

      So, unless standards have slipped dramatically in the last few decades, I find it hard to believe that mere incompetence is at play here. Smells like enemy action to me, and the first head to roll should belong to the Secretary of PM&C – Martin Parkinson.

      • gardner.peter.d says:

        I also had TS clearance and access to an unusually large number of compartmented areas within TS. I once sent out a TS report on a very small circulation in UK and the USA and, on arrival in the USA shortly afterwards for an intelligence conference, I was sent for together with the British Defence Intelligence Liaison Officer. We were wheeled before the director of NSA for abusing my privileged position and risking the security of the United States by disclosing US classified information without authority – to senior officers of the United States Navy with a clear need to know since it concerned the capabilities of Soviet Ballistic Missile Submarines and the implications for the tactics and operations of USN attack submarines. I found, as I expect Australian officers do too, that one’s role is very often to counter the harmful effects of inter-agency rivalry in the USA. But there is a price to be paid for doing so.

        • Doubting Thomas says:

          Our Crimes Act covers all that, and there is nothing to sign as far as I know. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

          Speaking of incompetence, it’s probably safe 50 years after the event to recount one of the sillier events in my experience with highly classified material. For my sins I was Duty Operations Officer one Friday night at RAAF Richmond when I got a late night call from a senior officer at Operational Command up on the Blue Mountains escarpment at Glenbrook. He told me to expect a P3B Orion earlyish the next morning with film to be developed, printed, marked SECRET, and then packed securely and delivered safe-hand to Command ASAP. We rounded up as many RAAF photographic people as we could from those on the base who hadn’t been quick enough to make themselves scarce on their day off, and we waited. In due course, the crew dropped the film off with me and the troops set about the task which consumed several hours of their off-duty time.

          Eventually, they and I worked, behind locked doors, on the long Ops Room counter rubber-stamping the dozens of prints with the necessary SECRET copyright stamps, production-line fashion. At one point during this process, the Wing Commander CO of the Orion squadron, peered trough a small window in the locked door but was gone before I had a chance to open it for him. We packed the photos securely in accordance with the rules, rounded up some poor, unsuspecting junior officer from the Mess, and sent him on his way with them up the mountain. I thanked the troops, sent them home and then went off duty myself.

          Comes Monday morning and I turn up to work to find that the boss wanted to see me. Such calls rarely signified anything good. Sure enough, he said he’d had a serious complaint from the CO of the Orion squadron that I had civilians in the Ops Room with SECRET photos on open display. Who? Me? I explained that there were no civilians in the room. They were RAAF photographers in their off-duty civvies. Furthermore, I said that he had been outside the locked door and only had to knock to be let in to satisfy himself that there was nothing amiss.

          But the icing on the cake was that at least two of the “SECRET” photos (of a disabled Soviet KILO Class submarine off North Queensland) had been released to the media by Operational Command in time for the Sunday papers where they made the front page.

          Doh! My boss had words…

  2. gardner.peter.d says:

    If I had found the documents and seeing that they are marked SECRET or TOP DECRET (clearances which I used to hold) still posted the contents on my Facebook page I would rightly be in prison by now. Being a dual citizen and therefore officially second class in Australia, I am amazed to find that unlike the foreign power I share my citizenship with, Australia does not have an official secrets act. However I have found this:
    “Regulation 2.1 of the Public Service Regulations sets out the general duty of an APS employee not to disclose official information where it is reasonably foreseeable that the disclosure could prejudice the effective working of government. ”
    Source: https://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/3-overview-current-secrecy-laws/specific-statutory-secrecy-provisions
    Will heads roll? With secrecy law in such a mess and as weak as that, I doubt it.

  3. Christopher Saitta says:

    The insidious reporting style of the ABC gives rise to civil unrest and unjustified sedition. The ABC is nothing more than a serious headache for a government that wishes to sow the seeds of harmony for all Australians. The most prudent course of action for the government is to be targeted and selective with funding to ABC programs, and only endorse programs like Landline that are unbiased and impartial towards politics.

  4. padraic says:

    This is not the first time the ABC had been caught doing this type of stunt. In “The Australian” on 23 October 2017, Jennifer Oriel wrote an article under the headline “Our ignorant broadcaster is guilty of soft treason”. It dealt with, inter alia, their linking the Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie with war crimes allegations in order to discredit him. How would these characters react if a war broke out? I think Section 44(I) should be applied to them to ensure a modicum of political objectivity and patriotism.