Boldly 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.
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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.
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“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.