According to the last few weeks of media reporting, George Orwell’s 1984 has come to roost in Australia. A headline in yesterday’s The Age announced that “This country’s treatment of whistleblowers has strong echoes of Orwell”. While acknowledging Orwell’s novel is set suspiciously in Oceania and that ‘Big Brother’ was headquartered on the Gold Coast, I reckon that the population of Hong Kong have a better understanding of the Orwellian State than we Aussies.
I am thankful for the fact that we live in a country where the press has the freedom to report issues. They don’t need to hide under a blanket and with a pseudonym, uploading stories to those who are brave enough to click on them This is not the case in every nation, and it’s a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted.
Journalists perform a vital task in modern societies: to investigate and to inform people of news stories. Media is a key source for attaining information regarding all manner of news items, and so it is essential that they have freedom from Governmental control and influence (and indeed, freedom from the control of big business and influential identities). I’m suspect that self-interest sometimes serves as a journalist’s catalyst which can encourage boundaries to be pushed or even crossed, whether it is fame, extra clicks and likes, or corporate profit. I’m also sure that many work with personal convictions and integrity and are seeking to do good for the public interest.
There was been a strong and immediate reaction to two raids made by Federal Police over the last couples of weeks, one in a journalist’s home and the second at the ABC’s Sydney office. Authorities enacting newly introduced laws that are aimed at protecting information sensitive to national security.
In today’s The Australian, Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally said,
“When freedom of the press — a basic tenet of our democracy — is seen to be under attack, the government must speak up.”
While not all journalists are concerned by this ‘news’, across the media’s ideological spectrum there has been a fairly unified expression of concern.
In an interview on ABC radio Melbourne last week, Kerry O’Brien commented
”people have to be really clear about what’s at stake here”.
“If they care about democracy, this does go to the heart of democracy and the democratic process”.
Richard Flanagan’s piece for Guardian goes even further,
“The AFP media raids aim to suppress the truth. Without it we head into the darkness of oppression
If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?
And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?”
Professor Peter Greste has offered what appears like a more even-handed analysis, suggesting that,
“We are not suggesting that those laws be repealed – clearly, we need to update our national security framework to deal with evolving threats – but if in the process of trying to make us safer, we undermine the very system that has made us one of the safest countries on the planet in the first place, something has gone terribly wrong.”
The legislation, if accurately summarised by Damien Cave in the New York Times, does seem needlessly broad and vague.
“The most recent expansion of governmental secrecy came last year with an espionage bill that increased criminal penalties for sharing information deemed classified, even if a document happened to be as harmless as a cafeteria menu, and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests.”
It’s a little tricky to work out what all the relevant parties think about the Federal Police raid on the ABC. For example, both the Coalition and Labor last year supported the legislation which gave license to this police investigation. It was also last year that Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, called for Parliament to introduce legislation to crack down on journalists who were allegedly engaging in “hate speech” (by which he meant, social commentary that he didn’t agree with). Last week, he was whistling a very different tune.
The Age newspaper ran with the headline, “without fear or favour”. It is a perfectly sensible ideal and many journalists aim to live up to this high standard. The benchmark is, of course, an impossible one, for no media corporation is without bias and no reporter is morally or politically neutral. Indeed, as society becomes more polarised, we are seeing a diminishment of this kind of “without favour” reporting, with many journalists spouting popular ideology and replacing evidential and reasoned reporting with sloganeeing, sometimes without the faintest idea of the subject matter that they are talking about. The topic of religious freedom is an all too obvious and rather ironic example of this.
There is more than a touch of incongruity in the middle of this public outcry. Many of the same voices who are today yelling grave concerns for journalistic freedoms have been quite prepared to deny similar freedoms to religious people when it comes to speaking and persuade in the public square.
Parallels between media freedom and religious freedom
Indeed, I suspect some members of the press would squirm at the realisation that there are striking correlations between the media and religious communicators.
Firstly, both groups have little protection under Australian law. Professor Peter Greste explains,
“Like a lot of people, I’m really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that’s really unhealthy.
“That’s why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”
Two South Australian Senators, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, have announced plans to introduce legislation to amend the Constitution in order to give the press similar protections to those enjoyed by American journalists under their Constitution.
At the same time, legal experts have also been calling for the Government to give protection to religious organisations, schools, and churches so that they can continue to adhere to their values and to speak, without fear of Government intrusion and without businesses defining appropriate religious belief, as we have witnessed in the recent Israel Folau case.
Secondly, both groups have a role and responsibility to broadcast and communicate a message.
It is worth noting that the Biblical language for religious speech is not dissimilar to that of the reporter. To preach means to herald a message. To teach is to inform and to impart information of importance to others. The preacher may analyse social events and cultural trends but foremost they are to present the truth of Jesus Christ without “fear or favour”. In this way, I can empathize with journalists who feel as though the Government is attempting to intimidate and control.
Some of our media have mud in the eye today, or is that a plank? Sadly, I don’t think they’ve spotted it as yet. Freedom for the press, but not freedom for religious speech. Freedom from Government intrusion, unless you’re a religious organisation in which case the Government has every right to interfere. If only some of our most vocal journos practiced what they preached, “without fear or favour”, they might be receiving a little more sympathy today. Despite their lack of concern for the freedom of other Australians to present, speak, and persuade in the public square, other Aussies understand that there is an important principle at stake for both groups. With that in mind, might I suggest the following 5 points.
5 Points for Consideration
As I calculate the actions and reactions in light of the police raids, here are 5 thoughts for consideration:
1. Freedom of the press is paramount for sustaining a liberal democracy. We ought to defend the media’s freedom to pursue and publish stories that are of public interest and importance, without undue external pressures being applied.
2. Journalists shouldn’t work outside the law (I’m not saying that’s the case here with the ABC. The fact is, we don’t yet know).
3. We should be slow to impute bad motives on our police (and on the Judge(s) who signed the warrants)
4. We should be cautious about making unsubstantiated judgments about Governmental interference. Rumouring and speculating don’t aid the cause of the media, nor that of the public. If we are truly concerned about ‘fake news’, we mustn’t let rhetorical flair escape the evidence at hand
5. If recently instated laws are unnecessarily inhibiting journalists from setting about their work with integrity and thoroughness, it is appropriate for the Government to reevaluate these laws (as well intended as these laws may be).