Keelty Watches the Watchers


"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" is Juvenal’s famous question, often translated as "Who watches the watchers?"

The question is a perennial issue for democracies and republics, and the police and armed forces they delegate powers to. Now many in the Australian media are confronting it, in the wake of the controversial speech by Australian Federal Police boss Mick Keelty last Monday at the Sydney Institute.

Keelty’s speech was, in many respects, a personal meditation on the difficulties of dispensing justice in a highly mediated age. But he also made some very specific proposals about limiting media freedoms in reporting terror cases that many found troubling, to say the least. The result has been an across the board media fallout that has included several calls for Keelty’s resignation.

Fairfax columnist Sushi Das’s piece in The Age last Wednesday was typical of the reaction, backed up by a strident editorial.

What prompted this storm of criticism? In a nutshell, timing and tone. Keelty’s discussion of the rights and wrongs of media coverage in terror cases comes at a searching time for those of a liberal political persuasion. Six and a half years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, liberals across western democracies are weighing the high costs of the ‘war on terror’ to our civil liberties and the rule of law. As Gerard Henderson points out in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, the result is an understandable anxiety about any further encroachment on long-held civil and media rights.

The other issue was tone. Reading Keelty’s speech closely reveals a surprising disdain for the principles of free speech. Keelty may well have been careful to frame his comments in the context of the accused’s right to a fair trial, free of media speculation.

Unfortunately, as many in the media have pointed out, the AFP has been the last to respect such rights, most notably in the case of Dr Mohamed Haneef.

And Keelty didn’t just make general comments, he made pretty specific swipes at some influential sections of the Australia media. This line: "these opinion writers write as if they are still within the inner sanctum and understood all the details" is reportedly a swipe at Walkley-winning Australian journalist Hedley Thomas – one of the best investigative journos in the business. Elsewhere in his speech, Keelty sneers at "so-called bloggers".

If Keelty didn’t realise this was going to be provocative, then he was poorly advised. As Das pointed out, the speech showed an eyebrow-raising ignorance of the everyday workings of the media. His call for a Society of Editors to police terror investigation reporting would have been controversial in the 19th century; now it just seems silly. It couldn’t work: Keelty himself admits that "the proliferation of the internet as a communications tool has resulted in a situation where almost everyone can post information online."

The AFP Commissioner is also rather miffed about his treatment at a recent press conference. The media event was the December launch of the new joint AFP/NSW Police Counter-Terrorism team, of which he says "in every respect should have been a positive event".

"Only three journalists attended the event," he sniffs, and "one reporter didn’t file a story at all." Shock, horror! Perhaps, in a police officer, that sort of thing is dereliction of duty; the media doesn’t work that way. Keelty continues: "the headlines for the other two reporters were ‘Keelty attacked for court testing’ and ‘Police reveal fresh terrorism threats’. You could never imagine that the two journalists were at the same media event."

Comments of this kind help to explain some of the vitriol Keelty has received in the past week. Far from journalists and opinion writers not understanding police rounds, it appears our top cop doesn’t understand the media. Does he really expect every reporter to cover every media event he holds? Not even Peter Beattie could manage that, and he has a prominent spot in the Media Circus Hall of Fame.

The alternative to labeling Keelty’s speech as naïve is more troubling. This is the view that our nation’s top police officer appears to see the media as a compliant tool of the criminal justice system. The implication that by holding a media launch, Keelty could implicitly manage the tone and content of the subsequent reporting has potentially sinister overtones. His comment that "people who oppose the Government’s terrorism policies can be used as a resource to erode confidence in the Government, the police and intelligence agencies" gives you a glimpse of the mindset, and it’s not a pretty one.

Then there’s the hypocrisy. The AFP engaged in detailed backgrounding to journalists on the Haneef case, much of which turned out to be false. For instance, the AFP and prosecutors initially told the media that Dr Haneef’s mobile phone sim card – on which the entire Crown case hung – had been found in the burning jeep at Glasgow airport. In fact, it was found in Liverpool, exactly where Haneef said it was (not that we knew this at the time, because no-one could speak to the accused). Then Keelty compounded the error by telling the media "the SIM card is still at Glasgow, at the airport at the time that the attempted bombing happened there." The AFP almost immediately admitted that this too was a mistake.

But you won’t find a media release on the AFP website explaining any of this. What you will find are a series of statements in which Commissioner Keelty attacks various episodes of media "misreporting."

The Commissioner may yet resign. But for now, it seems he will hold on to his position. Keelty signed a second 5-year contract in 2006, so the Rudd Government would have to give him a considerable payout if it wished to rid its hands of John Howard’s strongman in the war on terror. And the risk-averse Rudd has indicated he is wary of sacking a public figure who is still something of a national hero due to his work in cooperation with Indonesia after the Bali bombings.

Of course, all bets are off if the AFP Commissioner can’t keep his mouth shut. As John Howard repeatedly found to his displeasure, Keelty can’t be guaranteed to keep to the party line – although he can be convinced to backtrack under pressure.

But then, in a free society, do we really want our police chiefs to be "on message" politicians? As the past week’s controversy has shown, the sad truth may be that we expect nothing less.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.