Big Issues: Press Freedom, Whistleblowing and National Security

Press Room Contributor Georgia Symons review’s Saturday’s Big Issues Panel – Press Freedom, Whistleblowing and National Security with Frey Newman, Emily Meller and Paul Farrell

Expertly chaired by Emily Meller, this panel tended to move back and forward between Freya Newman’s experience of whistleblowing and Paul Farrell’s practice as an investigative journalist, drawing out common talking points from their disparate experiences of the interplay between press freedoms, whistleblowing, and national security.

The conversation began with a recap of Freya’s experiences as a whistleblower in the Frances Abbott case. Freya mentioned that her initial legal advice suggested that no criminal charges could be brought against her. Ultimately, she was given a charge of hacking under some obscure section of the law usually reserved for creepy police who use their position to stalk ex girlfriends. The panelists mentioned that this case highlighted the ways in which, whilst there are some (some) protections for government whistleblowers, there are none at all for whistleblowers in the private sector. Freya speculated that, whereas many interpreted this case as Abbott making an example of her, she doesn’t believe this was the case. She and Paul agreed that this case was not good for Abbott’s public image, and Freya said that she had a stronger impression of the Whitehouse School being the ones who were taking an active interest in the case. Paul also pointed to the important detail that this case wasn’t about Freya or Frances, it was about the Prime Minister, and the suitability of his actions in terms of not declaring the scholarship through the appropriate parliamentary channels. Paul’s perspective as a journalist was that journalism that turned the story into a conflict between Freya and Frances was shameful and should be condemned.

One of the most interesting things that Paul spoke about was his own struggles in protecting his sources of information. Paul often reports on matters relating to immigration, and so his sources are very sensitive. He has had to choose not to publish important stories because it would compromise the safety of his sources; he has also had to decide to publish stories knowing there was a risk to his sources. He has put in Freedom of Information requests and found out that a number of his stories have been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation, with a view to finding and charging his sources. The panel also spoke about data retention laws. Paul mentioned a small protection that journalists have under the new laws: as I understand it, if a journalist’s metadata is being accessed by the government in the course of an investigation, that journalist’s interests will be represented by a lawyer. But the journalist will not know this, and will not know that they are being investigated. Emily joked that it all sounded quite Kafka-esque, which got laughs, but is also pretty fucked up and scary. I walked away from the panel feeling pretty frightened by the current and future state of press freedoms, but armed with a little more information and insight on the subject.