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Plugging the leaks

By Peter Coates - posted Monday, 29 September 2008


The search of Canberra Times journalist Philip Dorling's house by Federal Police on September 23, 2008, may be justifiable.

On June 13, 2008 the Canberra Times published an article "Revealed: our spy targets" by staff journalist Philip Dorling.

In a small city like Canberra the media, public servants, politicians and the law are all very sensitive about the possession and publication of classified material. Hence the imminent release of Mr Dorling's article would have been discussed at length by Canberra Times editors and management.

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By classified documents this might mean unique facts only available from classified sources or it may mean sensitive government analyses which may, or may not be based, on classified sources. Normally classified analyses are based on a wide variety of open and classified sources.

I am not sympathetic to the contention of the Canberra Times and other newspapers that this search, which apparently used a legal warrant, constitutes "a threat to press freedom" or restricts "the public's right to know".

Far from being a "legal assault" the search would have been considered likely by the journalist, his employers and his lawyers, sooner or later.

I suspect it would have come at the end of a long series of official and unofficial requests by the Australian Federal Police, Attorney-General's and other Commonwealth bodies to hand over the original classified documents or extracts and reveal the source of the leak.

I believe a newspaper should not base a story on stolen or leaked classified documents unless a newspaper can clearly demonstrate that it is protecting someone's human rights. Hence I was a strong critic a critic as Plantagenet of the AFP's (see this comment in On Line Opinion) conduct of the Haneef affair where near leaks (such as police records of interview) occurred.

The Haneef Affair appeared to be a use of legal resources and intelligence agencies for pre-electoral political reasons. The Mr Dorling matter is not like that.

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The blanket "the public has a right to know" argument isn't enough. For what reasons? It’s too broad? Protecting “whistleblowers” doesn't seem relevant to this matter. Blowing the whistle on what?

Because the circumstances of a leak and the actual information leaked is unique I argue that only a court case can assess the legal merits. A blanket law of leaks and whistleblowing could not handle the complexities.

What noble cause was the leak and publication of "Revealed: our spy targets" for? To advertise that there is a nuclear arms race in Asia or that Japan is a nuclear power in waiting?

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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