Freedom of the press, security of the nation

Australia must not pit the pillars of liberal democracies against each other

James Mortensen

PHOTO: AAP

Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia

11 June 2019

While debates around freedom and security are crucial to democracy, there are bigger issues around the role and behaviour of Australia’s government at stake, James Mortensen writes.

Over the last couple of weeks, the eyes of both national and international journalists have been firmly set on Australia. The latest string of raids cements the government’s newfound reputation for absolute information control, especially when the information in question impacts national security.

Tighter restrictions on whistleblowing, journalism, and public statements made by government employees have been rolled out over the past five years, with the resultant prosecutions usually justified by concerns for national security.

Beyond the inevitable scrutiny from domestic journalists, it’s worth noting that this trend has made headlines overseas. High profile international media outlets have taken a keen interest in the government’s recent behaviour.

The New York Times suggested that the raids were the latest acts of a government that “seems determined to frighten whistle-blowers into silence,” while the BBC and Washington Post both reported that the government’s actions demonstrated a lack of whistle-blower protection and raised questions around press freedom.

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The unfolding events in Australia have captured the world’s imagination as they represent the front lines of the battle between freedom and security – especially the freedom of the press.

But this ideological battle helps very little in reaching an understanding, especially considering that the argument rests on pitching the two pillars of liberal democracy against each other.

While arguments regarding the realisation of these ideals are crucial to our democracy, in any given moment, Australians want and deserve as much of both as they can get. Arguably, it is the responsibility of every citizen and their representative governments to ensure that this happens.

It is crucial, therefore, that we strive for both freedom and security at all points, and if they are mutually exclusive, resist the urge to retreat to a rhetorical battleground in which the two are pitted against each other.

Not only does the allure of rhetoric polarise our discourse and hamper our chances of enjoying both, but it also distracts us from the more nuanced issues at stake in moments of decision. This is certainly the case today; while journalists and politicians argue over freedom and security, there is a more concerning argument sitting below the surface.

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Beyond these raids and prosecutions sits a basic proposition: the Australian Government should decide the public interest. Journalists and whistle-blowers argue that the information they seek to report on is vital to the Australian people.

However, not only does the government disagree with this, but it also believes that the release of such information harms the interests of the nation. By prosecuting individuals and institutions on this view, the government is not simply limiting the capacity of the press, but it also claims the right to decide the public interest.

There is a strong argument to support the idea that the government has the greatest capacity and responsibility to determine and manage the public interest. As the keeper of secrets and classified information, it is easy to argue that it is best positioned to judge the impact of sensitive information, and as the ordained protector of the people, it has the most to lose by their insecurity.

There are, however, strong arguments to the contrary. The government – or the individuals that constitute it – has the most to lose from the dissemination of such information. As such, it is hard to trust that instances of harsh punishment for those who bring light to events that involve the abuse of power are not simply attempts by politicians and bureaucrats to save their own skins.

Further, the quality and authority of a government is severely hampered if the people who have elected it are unaware of its actions and capabilities. The more control a government has over information in the public space, the less democratic authority it can enjoy.

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Lastly, and most simply, believers in self-determination would argue that the only legitimate interest a country’s people can have is one they choose for themselves. If the government, on the other hand, stands separate from the public – which Australia’s current government seems to believe it does – then it can no longer make a legitimate judgement on what the public interest is.

While arguments over control of the public interest may be as irreconcilable as debating freedom and security, it holds the great benefit of practicality.

Instead of attempting to pit two absolute ideals against each other, we can instead ask specific and practicable questions. Who should determine what is or isn’t in the public interest? Can the government be trusted to regulate what its people know about it? Can the media, researchers, and public servants be trusted to determine that interest without adversely affecting the government’s capacity to secure the people?

The gravity and intensity of recent events, evidenced by the wide international scrutiny they have received, demand a thoughtful and convincing response. Australia needs to turn from the temptation to play tug-of-war with the concepts of security and freedom, instead examining more practical questions.

This is the case considering the pace and reach of government efforts to control public discourse moving forward. Not only that, but it has been punishing ‘breaches’ long forgotten – an ironic effort considering the Liberal government’s own tendency to lose classified information to second-hand shops, and the responsible and measured reaction of the public and journalists who uncovered it.

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One Response

  1. Godfree Roberts says:

    An alarmingly low number of Americans say they trust the media.

    Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry.

    The Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press‑NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, helps establish that trust is an important differentiator for building an audience.

    By late 2018, says the American Press Institute, ”Just six percent of Americans say they have a lot of confidence in the media, putting the news industry about equal to Congress and well below the public’s view of other institutions.” https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/trust-news/

    Nobody trusts our ‘free’ media. Everybody trusts government media. End of story.

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