“We arrived home from school and watched as our clothes, books, diaries, underwear, everything, were rifled through,” she wrote. “Cupboards were searched, the refrigerator, even the toilets in the hunt for stolen government documents. Anne [Newton’s then wife] had to watch them empty every drawer. No words could describe our feelings of powerlessness.”
The courts eventually ruled in Newton’s favour, declaring the police warrants invalid. But the raids had taken a heavy personal toll.
Then, as now, journalists were up in arms about the government’s heavy-handedness.
Indeed the broad themes of the current Right to Know campaign being waged by Nine (owner of this masthead) and other media outlets are strikingly similar to the protests of 50 years ago. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised in June 1969 that “what governments regard as secret is not necessarily what the press or public should regard as secret. And if governments choose to have secrets, the onus is on them to keep them. They have only themselves (or their public servants) to blame if the information leaks out”.
The then Commonwealth Public Servants’ Association made the acid and accurate observation that “it is felt in public service circles that the test is not national interest, but whether the material is politically damaging”.
Those sentiments ring as true now as they did then. Australia, unlike the United States and Britain, does not have laws enshrining the freedom of the press, free speech and access to information. The struggle between government’s desire to control information and the media’s mission to expose and challenge remains perennial in this country.
What has changed is technology – the capacity to track sources and contacts through digital footprints – and a growing array of legislative amendments in recent years that leave journalists at risk of being jailed for doing their jobs and that are designed to intimidate and deter potential sources.
Something else has changed too: a greater antipathy towards media at senior levels of government and the bureaucracy.
This appears to be a cyclical phenomenon. Veteran journalist Brian Toohey, a former Canberra and Washington correspondent for The Australian Financial Review and one-time editor of The National Times, says that there’s been a growing “willingness to enforce the law at a lower threshold” in addition to the hardening of the laws themselves.
Toohey recalls that when he revealed highly confidential cabinet submissions in 1978 about plutonium contamination at the British nuclear testing site at Maralinga, Malcolm Fraser was keen to root out the leaker. But the prime minister was counselled against too severe a witch-hunt by senior officials who pointed out that more members of the ministry had received the briefing documents than public servants.
Again when Toohey got his hands on top-secret documents relating to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Fraser wanted Toohey’s phone in the Parliament House press gallery tapped. But ASIO head Harvey Barnett refused, on the basis, Toohey says, that Parliament was “the pinnacle” of the nation’s governing institutions.
That respect for the inviolability of Parliament appears to have waned, given police raids on federal parliamentary offices in 2016 in search of the source of leaks to the Opposition about cost blowouts in the National Broadband Network. Toohey accuses the police of “trampling the Parliament for something that wasn’t even classified”.
Laurie Oakes, a doyen of the press gallery for more than 40 years, broke a series of startling stories in his decades as political correspondent with relative impunity.
One was an expose of the Rudd government’s FuelWatch scheme, which the government had trumpeted as a way to lower petrol prices. In fact, secret cabinet briefings from four separate departments leaked to Oakes revealed the scheme might have the opposite effect.
After the story was published the head of the prime minister’s department ordered a probe and police were called in. Oakes’ phone records were pored over. But he was never prosecuted, though (he later found out) the government was advised it could have taken that action.
When the Australian Federal Police interviewed Oakes over the affair, it was remarkably civilised. The call came from deputy commissioner Tony Negus and, as Oakes wrote later, progressed as follows.
Oakes: “I don’t think I’ve got anything to say that could help you, Tony.”
Negus: “Are you prepared to tell me whether you are still in possession of the document?”
Oakes: “I’m not in possession of it.”
Negus: “Well obviously there are circumstances around which we might have to take some kind of action if that was the case. But if you’re telling me that you’re not in possession of it then that’s fine.”
Later that same year, though, The Canberra Times national affairs correspondent Philip Dorling had a very different experience when he wrote a story based on leaked defence documents saying Australian intelligence agencies were spying on close ally Japan. Police seized his laptop, a hard drive from a second computer and combed through his house, including going through the garbage and searching the roof cavity.
The temptation to throw the cloak of secrecy over embarrassing developments on the grounds of national security has a long and inglorious history. Oakes cited another example when he addressed the Melbourne Press Freedom dinner in 2015. In 1975, five Australian journalists covering the invasion of East Timor were shot dead in cold blood by Indonesian troops at Balibo, near the Indonesian border.
The Whitlam government feigned ignorance about the circumstances of the deaths. But Oakes was told by government staffer Bill Pinwill, who was then working in the defence minister’s office, that he had seen a top-secret Indonesian communique referring to the bodies.
Pinwill, said Oakes, had “almost certainly committed a crime in talking to me but he was shocked – both by the deaths and, I assume, by a decision to throw a cloak of secrecy over the whole matter”.
“The Australian government pretended it knew nothing about the fate of the journalists.”
Another insider who memorably reached out to Oakes in defiance of secrecy rules was Andrew Wilkie, who in 2003 was working as a senior intelligence analyst inside the Office of National Assessments.
Wilkie, a onetime army officer, felt strongly that the impending invasion of Iraq was a dangerous error. He resigned and approached Oakes to go public with his concerns. The resulting interview in The Bulletin magazine rocked the government and the intelligence establishment.
Wilkie, who later became an MP, has since said such a disclosure would have been harder in today’s environment.
This year’s raids on Smethurst and on the offices of the ABC revert to the worst kind of heavy-handedness that government has within its power to unleash against journalists.
Smethurst’s story, based on a leaked top-secret letter, revealed a contentious proposal from the Home Affairs Department that would have expanded the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate to allow cyber-spying on Australians. At present its mission is restricted to overseas targets.
Police trawled through her belongings for seven hours trying to find clues to her source. She’s since revealed having had to move house because her apartment no longer felt like a safe haven. Last month, she wrote of the stress of waiting to see what or whether legal proceedings will flow from the raid: “I have woken up each morning knowing there is a possibility I could be arrested and even go to jail.”
ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, whose “Afghan Files” stories in 2017 revealed allegations of misconduct and unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, are living with a similar threat over their heads.
Police raided ABC headquarters in Sydney in June this year, poring through computers and servers to hunt down the origin of those stories. At one stage police were also seeking to take palm and finger prints of the pair.
Media companies argued in their recent joint submission to the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security that it was not “far-fetched” to conclude that the raids on Smethurst and the ABC were intentionally intimidatory.
Looking back over the history of major leaks from official sources in Australia, one theme that emerges is the unsettling unpredictability of when governments or heads of agencies will choose to strike at journalists and their sources and when they will let things pass. When stories based on high-level leaks serve the agendas of those in power, there is rarely a call for an investigation.
Again, a telling story comes from Oakes. One day, out of the blue, he got a call from a government minister. “They are talking about raiding your house,” the senior politician told him. “Burn everything I have ever given you.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter has said he is “seriously disinclined” to green-light the criminal prosecution of journalists. Better yet would be changes to the law to create clear exemptions for public interest reporting, and to strengthen the underpinnings for a presumption in favour of the Australian people’s right to know.
Memorable government leaks
- 1975: Melbourne Herald reporter Peter Game exposes ongoing secret loan negotiations between energy minister Rex Connor and moneylender Tirath Khemlani, helping trigger the downfall of the Whitlam government.
- 1980: Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes is leaked the entire federal budget prior to delivery.
- 1984: The Age publishes leaked extracts from sensational tape recordings illegally made by NSW Police. They heavily compromise then High Court Judge Lionel Murphy and lead to the Stewart royal commission.
- 1978 and 1984: Brian Toohey is leaked cabinet submission on the risks posed by plutonium left behind by British nuclear testing at Maralinga.
- 2004: The Bulletin magazine publishes entire contents of a highly confidential review by Captain Martin Toohey of claims of incompetence inside Australia’s intelligence agencies.
- 2008: Cabinet leaks to Oakes derail the Rudd government’s FuelWatch scheme.
- 2010: Lenore Taylor, then of the Herald, reveals Kevin Rudd’s fatal decision to walk away from an Emissions Trading Scheme.
- 2010: Oakes receives leaks out of cabinet against then prime minister Julia Gillard which seriously damage her election campaign.
- 2014: The ABC and Guardian reveal attempts by Australia to bug the Indonesian president’s mobile phone, drawn from documents released by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
- 2018: Annika Smethurst uncovers a push to have the Defence Department’s cyber spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, target locals. ASD is only meant to spy on offshore targets.
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.