The government has given a new direction to the Australian Federal Police to prevent repeats of the recent raids on the media when leaks are being investigated.
The number of investigations will also be cut back, because departments referring leaks of official material to the police will have to outline the harm the disclosure poses to national security.
The changes, announced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton late on Friday, follow a backlash against the government after the Australian Federal Police raided News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC over separate leaks.
The direction applies to both current and prospective investigations, so would likely mean the police will drop off their pursuit of the media in these instances, although the ultimate decision rests with the AFP.
Smethurst’s story revealed confidential correspondence about a proposed change in the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate. The ABC reported confidential documents relating to the behaviour of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
After the raids the AFP refused to rule out prosecuting the journalists. The media organisations launched court action challenging the validity and use of the search warrants.
Dutton said he had issued a “ministerial direction” to the AFP Commissioner.
This set out the government’s “expectations” for the police when a journalist or media organisation had a leak from a serving or former Commonwealth official.
Dutton said the directive did not constrain investigation by the AFP of an unauthorised disclosure. “A key function of the AFP is the enforcement of the criminal law, without exception,” he said.
But he said he expected the AFP “to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation” in relation to a leak.
“Where consistent with operational imperatives, I expect the AFP to exhaust alternative investigative actions prior to considering whether involving a professional journalist or news media organisation is necessary.”
Dutton said he expected the police to continue to seek voluntary assistance from the media.
He has also told the AFP “to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required” from departments and agencies when referring leaks.
Departments “will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security”.
The upshot is that rather than departments routinely referring leaks to the police, disclosures that do not carry national security implications will not be sent.
Sources pointed out this would not stop a department using its own internal processes to find out who had leaked and taking disciplinary action against them.
The opposition declared the changes just “window dressing”.
Shadow minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally said Dutton had announced what he “expects” of the police when the media and the public had demanded guarantees from the government.
She pointed out the announcement had come just days before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held public hearings into press freedoms.
“This is a cowardly act,” Keneally said. “It’s taken Mr Dutton too long to speak out and there are still many unanswered questions”, she said.
“Can the Morrison government confirm they will not charge or prosecute any Australian journalist – such as those at the ABC – for doing their job and reporting in the public interest?”
In the first week of June, the AFP raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters.
The raids concerned stories published over a year earlier, based on documents leaked from the Department of Defence. This week, the ABC and News Corp launched separate legal challenges to those raids. As David Anderson explained, the ABC is challenging the warrant “on several technical grounds that underline the fundamental importance of investigative journalism and protection of confidential sources”.
The ABC commenced proceedings in the federal court, whereas News Corp took its challenge directly to the High Court. Nonetheless, both cases will raise similar legal issues, with press freedom at the heart of each challenge.
Both the ABC and News Corp are arguing that the AFP warrants infringe the “implied freedom of political communication” protected by the Australian Constitution. This challenge sets national security and press freedom against one another and could lead to groundbreaking developments in constitutional law.
But a closer look reveals the thinness of the implied freedom as a true protection for press freedom and the need for clearer protections.
The Australian First Amendment? The implied freedom of political communication
The Australian Constitution contains very few rights. None resemble the US Constitution’s First Amendment which protects, among other things, free speech and a free press.
In 1992, the High Court read between the lines of our Constitution to hold that it protects the free flow of political communication. This implication was justified as necessary to protect our system of representative and responsible government and, specifically, to enable voters to make an informed choice at elections.
The implied freedom is not a right to free speech. First, it only protects political communication, not speech generally. Secondly, it is not a personal right that may be wielded against the government. Instead, the implied freedom is a limit on legislative power, and not an absolute one at that. This means the Constitution only prohibits Commonwealth, state and territory governments from passing legislation that unjustifiably limits political communication.
The courts will consider three questions when they determine whether the law that supported the AFP raids violates the implied freedom. It is far from clear whether the media organisations’ challenges will pass this three-stage test.
Step 1: A burden on political communication?
The first question is whether the law burdens (restricts) political communication. In this case, the burden is unclear. The warrants were issued to further investigations into government leaks and the handling of classified information, but the leaks had happened and the stories published over a year earlier. In this sense, the political communication had run its course unhindered. If no burden on political communication is established then the challenge will fail.
On the other hand, the execution of the warrants is almost certain to stifle public interest reporting. The raids may deter journalists from investigating and publishing stories based on classified materials, even where they reveal corruption or misconduct.
Even more seriously, the raids will deter potential whistleblowers from speaking out. This impact may be too vague for the High Court to engage with – after all, how could a lawyer present evidence of a general chilling effect? Nonetheless, it is a serious and severe consequence of police crackdowns on media, with a direct impact on each voters’ capacity to make a true and informed choice at the ballot box.
Step 2: A legitimate purpose?
If there is a burden on political communication, the second stage of the test will ask whether the burden is for legitimate purpose – that is, a purpose compatible with our system of government.
While some may criticise the AFP raids as reflecting an illegitimate purpose of targeting journalism critical of the government, the warrants also undoubtedly had a legitimate aim: the maintenance of national security by ensuring the integrity of government secrets.
Step 3: A proportionate measure?
This third stage of the test is the trickiest. It asks whether the restriction on political communication is justified and proportionate in light of its legitimate purpose. Is it tailored to that purpose? Were there alternative, less-restrictive measures that could have been adopted? In this kind of balancing exercise, reasonable minds can, and will, differ.
National security is a serious concern that goes to the very existence of the nation. It is universally accepted that some rights and freedoms must bend to the security of the nation.
Press freedom, on the other hand, including source confidentiality and the capacity to report on government misconduct, is critical to the rule of law and our democratic system. The courts will be faced with the question of when national security justifies the erosion of press freedom, and when it does not. This is no easy or predictable task.
In the context of the AFP raids, the present threat to national security posed by the published articles appears to be weak. On one view, the burden on political communication was severe and arguably unjustified, provided the court accepts the chilling effect that the raids will have on journalists and whistleblowers.
Alternatively, the limit on communication may be nonexistent, as the raids didn’t prevent the stories from being published. There are likely to be further interests and facts that weigh into this balance.
On available information, it is only clear the ABC and News Corp will face a number of complex and unpredictable hurdles in convincing a court that the warrant powers violate the Constitution.
The protection of press freedom
The implied freedom of political communication serves an important purpose in protecting political speech from unjustified infringement. Its capacity to protect press freedom remains untested before the High Court, and this challenge presents a golden opportunity for the court to recognise the place of the fourth estate within our constitutional framework.
But the implied freedom is not a right to free speech or a free press. It hinges on the concept of “justification”, and when national security is placed on the scales it is difficult to find a counterweight to meet it. Hence national security is regularly invoked to justify infringements of our basic rights and freedoms, and it is difficult to know how and when these infringements are unnecessary.
Robust protection of press freedom in Australia is unlikely to be achieved through the interpretation of a Constitution that makes no reference to the fourth estate, freedom of speech, the rule of law, or other basic rights or freedoms. Clearer protections are needed. This could take the form of legislative recognition of press freedom.
Charters of Rights such as those in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland also operate to ensure basic freedoms are taken into account, not just in court but in parliament and across all public sector decision-making. This approach has clear advantages over the technical and unpredictable application of implied constitutional freedoms months after the event.
In the absence of these kinds of reforms at a national level, we wait to see if the High Court will once again read between the lines of our Constitution and recognise a central place for the free press in Australia.
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
The federal opposition is continuing to call for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s resignation, claiming she misled parliament this week after repeatedly telling a Senate estimates committee that neither she nor her office had any involvement in tipping off the media about a police raid.
Cash’s senior media adviser, David De Garis, later confessed he had leaked information about the raid on the Australian Workers Union’s offices to the press. Cash retracted her statements and De Garis resigned.
Labor frontbencher Tony Burke argued that “the wrong person has resigned”. But Cash has refused to resign, claiming she was unaware of her staffer’s actions. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has defended Cash, saying she acted properly.
Who are these advisers?
Ministerial advisers are partisan staff who are personally appointed by ministers and work out of the ministers’ private offices.
The number of Commonwealth ministerial staff has increased over the years from 155 in 1972 to 423 in 2015.
Ministerial advisers undertake a wide range of functions. Tony Nutt, a long-time former adviser, has said:
… a ministerial adviser deals with the press. A ministerial adviser handles the politics. A ministerial adviser talks to the union. All of that happens every day of the week, everywhere in Australia all the time. Including frankly, the odd bit of, you know, ancient Spanish practices and a bit of bastardry on the way through. That’s all the nature of politics.
The question is what happens if advisers overstep their roles?
Ministerial responsibility and political advisers
According to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, ministers are responsible to parliament for the acts of their departments.
British academic Sir Ivor Jennings wrote that the “act of every civil servant is by convention regarded as the act of the minister”. And British MP Lord Morrison proclaimed that the “minister is responsible for every stamp stuck on an envelope”.
But it is doubtful that this principle has ever reflected reality. It is rare for ministers to resign or even accept responsibility for the actions of their department, where they were not personally involved.
Ministers should also technically take responsibility for the actions of advisers in their own offices, who are at an even higher level of direct ministerial control than departments.
Even more than public servants, advisers are seen to be acting as alter egos of their ministers. This means ministers should be accountable to parliament for the actions of their advisers – even those they did not authorise.
But what happens in reality is that ministers tend to use their advisers as scapegoats and blame them for controversial events. This is consistent with “public choice” theory, which predicts that politicians have the incentive to deflect all the blame that comes in their direction while accepting the credit for anything that goes right.
Sanctions under the standards are handled internally within the executive through the Prime Minister’s Office. This means any breaches of the standards by ministerial advisers would be handled behind closed doors, without the scrutiny of parliament or any external bodies.
Ministerial advisers have also refused to appear before parliamentary committees on their minister’s instruction. This has impeded the investigations of significant parliamentary committees, including the Children Overboard affair.
Australia thus has minimal legal and political regulation of ministerial advisers. This has led to an accountability deficit, where ministers have been able to utilise their advisers to escape responsibility for public controversies and scandals.
There are a few forms of regulation of advisers. The first is restrictions on the employment of advisers, either through a cap on the numbers of advisers, as in the UK, or a cap on the total budget for advisers, as in Canada.
Second, regulations can restrict the actions of advisers themselves. For example, in the UK, there is a prohibition on advisers leaking confidential or sensitive information, which would have been applicable in this scandal.
Canada has post-employment restrictions banning advisers from becoming lobbyists for five years after ceasing their employment.
Third, transparency measures also exist, such as requirements that departments disclose all meetings that advisers have with the media (as in the UK) and what hospitality these advisers receive (in the UK and Canada).
Ideally, the Australian regulatory framework should be reformed so it is policed externally from the core executive. In Canada, the conflict of interest and lobbying provisions are policed by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who has been independent and ready to criticise the government.
And, in the UK, the rules provide for political advisers to appear before parliamentary committees. Similar guidelines could be drafted to facilitate the appearance of advisers before Australian parliamentary committees.
In the last 40 years, ministerial advisers have become an integral part of Australia’s system of government. But the law and rules have lagged behind, and our system should be reformed to ensure greater accountability.