Media bosses during a parliamentary inquiry on press freedom. Picture: AAP
Media bosses during a parliamentary inquiry on press freedom. Picture: AAP

AFP raids ‘freaked out’ whistleblowers

Whistleblowers "freaked out" when the Australian Federal Police raided media organisations, sparking fears their 'chilling effect' would stop serious scandals being exposed in the future.

Media bosses described the 'huge anxiety' among whistleblowers following the raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC's Sydney headquarters in June when they appeared before the first hearing of a parliamentary inquiry into press freedoms today.

News Corp Australasia chairman Michael Miller outlined the impact of laws passed under the guise of national security on journalism, saying: "We may not be living in a police state, but we are living in a state of secrecy."

AFP officers raided the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in early June. Picture: Brendan Esposito / ABC News
AFP officers raided the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in early June. Picture: Brendan Esposito / ABC News

He argued the laws had been "rushed" and that urgent reforms necessary to protect whistleblowers and journalists would not put them above the law.

"Doctor-patient and lawyer-client privilege is not above the law," he said.

"Parliamentary privilege, available to politicians for the 20 weeks of the year that they're in Canberra, is not above the law.

"The package of law changes that we are seeking will put a stop to the creeping secrecy that shrouds Canberra."

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally asked representatives from the country's biggest media organisations: "Why should a single mum living in Western Sydney or an accountant in Perth, a truck driver in Queensland, why should they care about this 'chilling effect' on reporting?"

Nine Network's group executive editor James Chessell said the raids and wider "culture of intimidation and secrecy" had almost stopped a whistleblower exposing the behaviour of one of the country's big four banks.

ABC managing director David Anderson (left) and News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller speak at a parliamentary inquiry on press freedom. Picture: AAP
ABC managing director David Anderson (left) and News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller speak at a parliamentary inquiry on press freedom. Picture: AAP

The story, published this month, revealed how consultant firm EY had failed to notify the banking regulator, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, during the banking royal commission that National Australia Bank chairman Ken Henry told them he was "confident" the bank was still selling products that would require customers to be compensated later.

The article prompted Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the nation's big four audit firms.

"When the raids occurred, Adele Ferguson, one of our better known reporters, was dealing with a whistleblower that wanted to expose the relationship between the auditor EY and the National Australia Bank - a story which has already now resulted in a parliamentary inquiry," Mr Chessell said.

"Adele said the whistleblower 'freaked out' after the raids happened and almost decided not to go ahead with working with her on that story."

Mr Chessell said there were "unintended or perhaps intended consequences" from the raids which could see Australians miss out on public interest journalism if "this culture of intimidation and secrecy continues."

Several AFP officers arrived at the Canberra house of award-winning political editor Annika Smethurst in June with a search warrant and spent several hours inside rifling through her personal items, including her underwear. Picture: Gary Ramage
Several AFP officers arrived at the Canberra house of award-winning political editor Annika Smethurst in June with a search warrant and spent several hours inside rifling through her personal items, including her underwear. Picture: Gary Ramage

Executives from the Australia's Right to Know coalition, including News Corp, the ABC, Nine, FreeTV, the MEAA and Commercial Radio Australia, also highlighted that real media organisations weren't reckless like Julian Assange and Wikileaks officials when it came to publishing material that could impact national security.

When the ABC received two filing cabinets full of classified government documents that had been sold at a second-hand shop in Canberra, it published three stories then worked with spy agency ASIO to return the documents to government, ABC managing director David Anderson said.

He argued media organisations conducted due diligence and published "with responsibility" after assessing both the public interest and national security.

Media bosses have warned there is a ‘huge anxiety’ among whistleblowers to speak out following AFP raids on journalists. Picture: iStock
Media bosses have warned there is a ‘huge anxiety’ among whistleblowers to speak out following AFP raids on journalists. Picture: iStock

News Corp's group executive for corporate affairs, policy and government relations Campbell Reid added: "Can you imagine the level of outcry that would come from ordinary Australians if we published something that put the lives of security operators or policemen or armed forces at risk?"

"As well as balancing the theoretical and technical responsibility, as an editor you're sitting there thinking, well if I publish this and a family of Australians suffers because I publish ... there is a huge modifying force ... that we are members of this society and we accept our responsibility to behave properly.

"The ... creeping legislation over the past seven to ten years assumes that our starting point is that we're cavalier. I would ask the agencies that have made submissions to this inquiry, where can they point out the actual tangible example of responsible news organisations ... having done the wrong thing or risked a national security operation."

Home Affairs boss Mike Pezzullo and AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin are set to appear before the inquiry tomorrow in Canberra.

Australia's Right to Know coalition has called for law reforms to boost protections for journalists and whistleblowers, as well as the right to contest warrants for raids on journalists and media organisations and a new regime that limits which documents can be considered confidential.

It has also called for a "properly functioning" Freedom of Information regime and reforms to current defamation laws.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on Friday issued a directive to the AFP to consider press freedom before it conducted any investigations on journalists in the future.

The press freedom inquiry is due to report back to Parliament by October 17.

The Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk and the Australian Human Rights Commission are due to appear before the inquiry's hearing in Sydney later today.


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