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Mission control: the press gallery squeezed by media-savvy politicians

By Helen Ester - posted Friday, 10 August 2007

Chris Graham edits the National Indigenous Times, a modest but politically robust publication with a circulation of about 10,000 and a website which scores about a million hits a month. It is published out of a downstairs office in Chris Graham's Canberra house.

On the morning of November 11, 2004, Graham was feeling good about that week's edition because it contained exclusive information on the Howard Government's plans to dismantle the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the first policy-making body to be elected by Indigenous Australians. The leaked cabinet documents were a journalist's classic jackpot of good, spin-free primary documents.

But the editor's elation was interrupted by unexpected visitors. Still in his pyjamas, Graham opened the door to two plain-clothed Australian Federal Police officers. He noticed another three standing in his driveway. Graham's partner was called out of bed. Neither was given time to change, and while they were grilled and tape-recorded at the breakfast table, strangers searched their bedroom, rifling through their clothes and belongings and turning over the contents of drawers and cupboards. The officers had a search warrant for the entire house and, although Graham took them straight to the cabinet documents, the hunt continued for a further two hours.


Graham "gave the AFP the documents in the first half-hour. It wasn't hard, they were out on the desks downstairs ... In any event the horse had bolted, the paper was already out. [But] the warrant was for the whole premises. The AFP scoured the entire newspaper office area, my backyard and my car and my partner's car, even though she does not work for the newspaper."

In a related story also involving the National Indigenous Times, it was revealed in July 2006 that a public servant in the Howard Government's Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (OIPC) had been suspended from her position for allegedly leaking information to the Times. Two days earlier the public servant's home had been raided by the AFP apparently in search of documents allegedly leaked from the OIPC veteran gallery journalist Alan Ramsey (Sydney Morning Herald) and reported in July 2006. In October the same year Justice Minister Ellison revealed to the Senate that between 2003 and 2006 a total of 38 cases referred to the Federal Police cost taxpayers $2 million and consumed almost 30,000 staff hours.

These actions of the AFP's "leak squad" are just two examples of the ways in which the Coalition government is restricting information to the media and instilling fear in the public service. Chris Graham believes that fear is now part of the Canberra political culture and that "it works. Many of my regular contacts are too scared to call."

Many journalists talk about a fear factor. Michelle Grattan, political editor of The Age, says she has no doubt that the effect of high-profile police raids is to deliberately intimidate the public service. "The impact of this goes far beyond access for the media - they are intimidated generally, which has quite profound implications for policy."

Geoff Kitney (then head of The Sydney Morning Herald Canberra bureau), believes public servants now find the prospect of briefing journalists "quite scary", and that off-the-record briefings are no longer a standard way of cross-checking facts or following up. "Now when you call a bureaucrat they say, 'Sorry I can't talk to you', and refer you to the press secretary. There's a sort of reporting-back process, which allows the government to monitor media inquiries."

Even journalists whose commentaries are often overtly pro-Howard, such as the political editor of The Australian, Denis Shanahan, point out that while tracking down leakers is not new, the system of pursuit and trying to stop leaks "is much more efficient and ruthless now than it ever was. I'm not talking about people, you know, seeking you out to try and slip you the plans of an atomic reactor or something, I'm talking about people willing to background you on a particular issue - they're just frightened to do it."


In 2005, a senior public servant was charged under the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 with allegedly leaking "unauthorised" information. Details of a Cabinet decision about war pensions had found their way to Canberra press gallery journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey, and subsequently into Melbourne's Herald Sun. At pre-trial proceedings the journalists refused to name the leaker. Their defence - that the journalists' code of ethics requires that they protect the identity of confidential sources - carried no weight and they were charged with contempt of court. Their trial was set down for October 2005, and they faced a maximum penalty of two years' jail.

The week the McManus-Harvey trial was scheduled, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock suddenly intervened, asking the County Court of Victoria to exercise its discretion to dismiss contempt of court charges. At the time, the press gallery stalwart (and Bulletin columnist) Laurie Oakes wrote that "it is the threat of leaks that keeps politicians honest ... they are much more reluctant to lie or act improperly if they know they could be found out ... a society where government has tight control of the flow of information - that is, control of what the public is allowed to know - is not a democratic society."

Complaints from journalists about access to information are not new. Grattan, a political reporter since 1970, said in her 2005 Deakin Lecture "Gatekeepers and Gatecrashers": "It is an old message that media and politicians are both natural adversaries and in a parasitic relationship. Their interests are often at odds. Sometimes they are openly at war, constantly they are engaged in a struggle of wits. What's interesting is how this traditional conflict and co-operation plays out in new circumstances."

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This is an edited extract from The Media Chapter in Silencing Dissent , edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison,and re-published by The Bulletin magazine in February 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Helen Ester is an 2010 honorary visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian University where she is conducting follow-up research to up-date her thesis Systemic Fault lines in the fourth Estate? The Media and John Howard PM.

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