Foreign interference laws and the Australian media

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Is the Turnbull Government seeking to stifle dissent? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In a country with an embattled approach to matters of free speech and a protected media, the foreign interference laws being proposed by the Turnbull Government can only be worrying.  

The proposed laws, mainly centred on such instruments as the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, comprise measures that include a ban on foreign political donations and a transparency register for those acting on behalf of foreign governments or organisations.

As an explanatory memorandum from the Australian Senate from last year explains, various 'new actors' who 'neither endorse candidates nor seek to form government' have sought 'to influence the outcome of elections'. (Oh, the scourge that is the Kremlin!)

The memorandum continues:

'While a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society and civic engagement, these new actors lack the public accountabilities of more traditional actors, such as registered political parties or parliamentarians.'

Therein lies the classic exposition of state power in its struggle against journalism and the Fourth Estate. Precisely because the latter have not assumed, at least in a nominal democracy, to have ventured to be in government, their role has been to moderate, balance and, in some cases, push positions. 

The tussle between elected governments and their media watchers has, over the years, blurred — bequeathing to us such thuggish enthusiasts as former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s media communications officer, Alastair Campbell.

When papers and various outlets of media sing the tune of government, the champagne flows and the canapés are tasty. When the Fourth Estate turns, the censors are called in, while lawyers are retained to see how best to clip the wings of the supposedly unmonitored profession.

This enthusiasm on the part of the Turnbull Government for new restraining provisions is consistent with an era where the very idea of free speech is deemed dangerous for shielding what might be deemed bad habits. Be wary of such concepts, lest they smuggle in the Trojan horse of “fake news” or greater nuance in criticising political positions. Donations can come in various forms, be it hard currency or information.

Important to the new suggestions is the purposeful targeting by the government of such advocacy groups as GetUp! and more traditional bug bears among the trade unions. These constitute third parties and the ring of activism the Government wishes to break. They remain a sticking point for Labor and the Greens. But of considerable concern is the obvious bull’s eye being placed over the scribblers and investigative reporters who so happen to break the news and monitor the political classes. The sense that the Government is intent upon subjecting classified information to further prophylactic protection is gratingly clear.

The proposed laws, for instance, broaden the definition of espionage beyond that of communication. Those in possession of classified information would fall foul. 'The core concept of espionage will not change,' stated then Attorney-General Senator George Brandis, unconvincingly, last month, 'but the breadth of behaviours defined will change.'

A joint submission by 15 media companies to the government expressed that lack of conviction in Brandis’ reasoning:

'The result is that a fair scrutiny and public interest reporting is increasingly difficult and there is a real risk that journalists could go to jail for doing their jobs.'

Forget, as it were, an Australian equivalent of the Pentagon Papers case ever happening, for one simple fact: the absence of a free speech clause that shields the Fourth Estate with mettle and constitutional grace. This, even after the Government moved yesterday to "strengthen protections to journalists". That very fact alone leaves the censorious and politically suspicious characters in Canberra open to abridgements, chipping and clipping when it comes to press liberties.

Even the often reactionary Janet Albrechtsen, who tends to find empirical evidence problematic, issued a warning to her conservative stable mates:

'Increasing state power over political communications means restricting our freedom to take part in important debates.'

As the regular columnist for The Australian explained, the Liberals have essentially a 'gossamer-thin attachment to liberalism', with the Turnbull reforms pushing the governing coalition 'once again to the wrong side of the freedom fault line'.

The Federal Labor Party have muscled in on this electoral terrain by claiming to be committed defenders of the Fourth Estate. If the members of the media are, in fact, the target of such laws, then a blocking of the bill will be guaranteed. “Freedom of the press is paramount in our democracy,” claimed Shorten on Tuesday. “If these laws don’t adequately protect journalists doing their job, the government needs to fix its mistakes.”

It may well be that the drafters are not necessarily hell bent on stomping on the fourth estate, intent merely to find something as broadly effective as possible in targeting those sinister agents of foreign influence. But intention and effect tend to blur in the legislative nature of national security laws.  Given that the recipient of classified material is bound to receive, most of the time in any case, the chastising hand of the nation’s injured pride, those engaged in this field will have to take further precautions when receiving classified material. Be wary, the possessor!

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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