The Leak Squad

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Chris Graham edits a national bi-weekly newspaper, the National Indigenous Times, a modest but politically robust publication with an audited circulation of around 10,000 and a website that averages about a million hits a month. It is published out of an office in the downstairs part of Chris Graham’s house in suburban Canberra.

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On the morning of 11 November 2004 Chris was feeling good about that week’s edition of the paper as it contained exclusive and important information of government plans for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The leaked Cabinet documents were a classic journalist’s jackpot of good, spin-free primary documents, full of facts, figures and unambiguous information about the government’s plan to dismantle ATSIC, the first policy-making body to be elected by Indigenous Australians.

But any reverie that morning was interrupted by unexpected visitors. Still in his pyjamas, Graham opened the door to two plain-clothes officers from the Australian Federal Police’s so-called ‘leak squad’, and noticed another three standing around in his driveway. Graham’s partner was called out of bed. Neither was given time to change into day-wear, and while they were grilled and tape-recorded at the breakfast table strangers searched their bedroom, rifling through their clothes and private belongings and turning over the contents of their drawers and cupboards. A search warrant for the whole of the premises had been issued even though the private upstairs home is obviously separated from the newspaper’s office, the downstairs entrance of which is clearly sign-posted.

When Graham asked the police which Cabinet documents they were after State or Federal his question was treated as impertinent, and although he took them straight to the Cabinet documents in question the search continued for a further two hours. Graham recalls that he,

…gave the AFP the documents in the first half-hour. It wasn’t hard, they were out on the desks downstairs … In any event the horse had bolted the paper was already out. [But] the warrant was for the whole premises. The AFP scoured the entire newspaper office area, my backyard and my car and my partner’s car, even though she does not work for the newspaper.

In spite of a media outcry at the time of the raid, the government is unrepentant about the obvious unfairness of picking on an independent media player with none of the protections available to the mainstream media organisations. In the end the police did not get what they really wanted from the raid: evidence to help track down the public servant who had leaked the documents.

It was, however, evidence that the government’s campaign to clamp down on leaks has created a climate of fear in the public service to deter them from leaking information to the media. Chris Graham believes that fear is now part of the Canberra political culture and he suggests that, ‘It works. Many of my regular contacts are too scared to call.’

Silencing Dissent (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison.

In interviews during 2003 and 2004, federal parliamentary press gallery journalists also spoke of a fear factor. Michelle Grattan, political editor of The Age newspaper, said she had no doubt that the effect of high-profile police raids was to deliberately intimidate the public service. She claims that, ‘The impact of this goes far beyond access for the media they are intimidated generally, which has quite profound implications for policy.’

Tony Walker, Grattan’s then counterpart at the Australian Financial Review, said he found the public service was ‘frightened’ and that ‘electronic surveillance, the ability to trace material and the penalties visited on people who leak’ had ended the days when policy documents ‘used to regularly fall off the back of trucks’.

Geoff Kitney, then head of the Sydney Morning Herald Canberra bureau, suggested that public servants now found the prospect of briefing journalists ‘quite scary’, and that off-the-record briefings were no longer a standard way of cross-checking facts or following up information:

Now when you call a bureaucrat they say: ‘Sorry I can’t talk to you’, and refer you to the press secretary. There’s a sort of reporting-back process, which allows the Government to monitor media inquiries.

Even journalists whose commentaries are often overtly pro-Howard, such as the political editor of The Australian, Denis Shanahan, pointed out that while tracking down leakers is not new, the public service was now ‘much less open’ because the system of hunting out and trying to stop leaks ‘is much more efficient and ruthless now than it ever was’.

Shanahan stressed:

I’m not talking about people, you know, seeking you out to try and slip you the plans of an atomic reactor or something, I’m talking about people willing to background you on a particular issue they’re just frightened to do it.

The political dividends of the fear factor also appear to outweigh its cost. In a 2005 Senate debate over a disallowance motion regarding the Public Service Amendment Regulations, Opposition Senate Leader Kim Carr revealed that there have been,

… close to 120 separate references to the Federal Police on what it [the Government]calls unauthorised disclosures. Through the leak squad some 32,000 staff hours have been spent trying to track down people who, the Government says, have broken their obligations in terms of revealing information. It has cost nearly $200 000. The number of people prosecuted can be counted on one hand.

But the campaign does have political hazards for the government. This was made apparent in late 2005 after a senior public servant was charged under the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 for allegedly leaking ‘unauthorised’ information. The case involved details of a Cabinet decision about war pensions that had found their way to Canberra press gallery journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey, and subsequently into the pages of the Murdoch-owned Melbourne Herald-Sun. During the pre-trial proceedings against the public servant, journalists McManus and Harvey were called in as witnesses.

But they refused to cooperate in spite of an offer of indemnity and would not name the person who leaked the Cabinet documents. Their defence that the Journalists’ Code of Ethics requires that they protect the identity of confidential sources   carried no weight and they were subsequently charged with contempt of court. Their trial was set down for October 2005, when they would face a maximum penalty of two years’ jail.

The eventual outcome of the Harvey and McManus case reflects the intensity of the present government’s anti-leaking campaign. The view that the journalists’ plight was accidental (and politically embarrassing) ‘collateral damage’ holds some weight.

Federal Secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Chris Warren described the charging of McManus and Harvey as ‘a train wreck waiting to happen’, because the Howard Government
‘had clearly decided to crack down on leaked information’ but failed to foresee that ‘the inevitable consequence’ of this is the jailing of journalists.

The subsequent actions of Attorney-General Philip Ruddock suggested a government in damage-control mode. The week the McManus “Harvey trial was scheduled, Ruddock suddenly intervened, asking the County Court of Victoria to reconsider and exercise its discretion to dismiss contempt of court charges against the Herald-Sun journalists. His submission ‘expressed the Government’s view that imprisonment would not be an appropriate penalty for the journalists’.

The case placed the government’s anti-leaking campaigns on the public agenda. At the time of the Herald-Sun journalists’ case press gallery stalwart Laurie Oakes commented in a column on the Channel 9 website that in Australia,

… it is the threat of leaks that keeps politicians honest … They are much more reluctant to lie or act improperly if they know they could be found out … A society where government has tight control of the flow of information that is control of what the public is allowed to know is not a democratic society.

The ‘old guard’ in the press gallery is clearly concerned about the changing rules of engagement between political journalists and the government. Their perspectives show that the last decade has seen an increased focus on strategies to block and control access to information flows which do not bode well for the future of political journalism nor for public knowledge about the deliberative processes of policy-making in the parliament and the accountability of the executive.

This is an edited extract from Silencing Dissent (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison.

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