News National Political will to defend press freedom is lacking

Political will to defend press freedom is lacking

morrison press freedoms
“Remember journalists are not your friends," Scott Morrison reportedly told the party room. Photo: AAP
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A pumped-up Scott Morrison had some streetwise advice for his jubilant party room after their miraculous election win.

The Prime Minister warned his troops: “Remember, journalists are not your friends”.

To his new backbenchers as well as the more experienced in the room, he warned them not to be flattered by invitations to go on various TV or radio programs but always be alert to the fact the media is there for the gotcha moments and to embarrass the government.

That was the clear take-out of some in the room.

  • Read more about what TND has uncovered on the AFP raids here 

Mr Morrison didn’t quite say “the media is the enemy of the Australian people” to paraphrase Donald Trump, but he certainly believes the people’s right to know should be constrained as much for the government of the day’s political convenience as the national interest.

Mr Morrison’s default position was best illustrated by his refusal to brief the media – the people of Australia – on how he was stopping the boats. “On-water matters” were out of bounds.

The suspicion was because the bright light of day may well expose our “on-water” behaviour to be in breach of international law eroding our self-belief as a model world citizen.

Freedom of the press is the basic foundation of a free society.

One of Mr Trump’s more illustrious predecessors Thomas Jefferson wrote and spoke extensively about it.

Mr Jefferson’s warning was that the press – or news media these days – cannot be constrained without our liberty itself being diminished.

Mr Morrison’s reflex response to the police raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s apartment was that it “never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.

Next day in light of another raid, this time on the ABC, and the fierce backlash, especially from many of his media mates at News Corp, the Prime Minister was less emphatic, saying if there are “any issues that we have to address, then I am open to discussing those”. 

On Monday, the PM  even suggested he was open to a Senate inquiry into the raids.

AFP officers raided the ABC headquarters in Sydney last week, a day after raiding a News Corp reporter’s home. Photo: AAP

What should give our politicians pause for thought is the fact Australia has slipped two places in the World Press Freedom Index conducted by Journalists Without Borders. We now stand at 21 on the list.

The index found that our defamation laws and a decade of ever-more restrictive national security and terrorism laws make covering these issues “almost impossible”.

Internationally renowned constitutional human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC in the Nine newspapers last week wrote: “Australia, unlike all other advanced nations, has no constitutional charter or rights protecting press freedom.”

Mr Robertson is calling on Parliament to “enact a proper shield law to protect journalistic sources” and to end the “secret rubber stamping of national security warrants”.

Better still, he says, would be a charter of rights like those that exist in the United Kingdom and Trump’s America.

The pity of it all is the nation’s leaders have spent the past 10 years playing even more partisan politics with our precious freedoms.

Every Liberal prime minister since John Howard has tried to wedge Labor, and the opposition has chosen the path of least resistance lest it appear weak on “keeping the nation safe”.

The new Labor leader, Anthony Albanese says he “wants to make sure legitimate journalism is not a crime”, but he’s leaving it up to the government to take the initiative because “they’re the government”.

It begs the question, what is the opposition then?

But before we get into more political “parlour games”, this is not simply a matter of black letter law.

The government is surely responsible for protecting the press freedom it espouses.

Ministers and the relevant agencies must use judgement and apply discretions to ensure the media is protected.

As one senior legal figure told me: “Whether out of crudeness, arrogance or witlessness, Morrison and Dutton have failed to achieve this.”

Is this because “journalists are not their friends?”