ABC News executive editor John Lyons, left, is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer in Sydney. Picture: AAP
ABC News executive editor John Lyons, left, is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer in Sydney. Picture: AAP

Growing culture of secrecy a threat to press freedom

Shocking scandals as serious as "kerosene baths" or "pink batts" will not be exposed in future if journalists are not able to report on matters of public interest.

Australia's media bosses made the grave warning to an inquiry into press freedom as they slammed the "rising tide of secrecy" among politicians and government officials.

In a submission to the inquiry - sparked by recent Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC and a senior News Corp Australia journalist - Australia's biggest media companies also outlined how the public's right to know and press freedoms have been eroded over the past decade "under the guise of various national security concerns" and national security laws.

"The stories at risk of not being told, of us all not being informed about, rarely involve matters of national security," the submission states.

"The stories at risk of not being told, of us all not being informed about, are about the things that affect ordinary Australians every day like the quality of aged care and how our tax dollars are being spent. Think kerosene baths and pink batts."

ABC legal representatives leave the Federal Court in Sydney. Picture: AAP
ABC legal representatives leave the Federal Court in Sydney. Picture: AAP

A Royal Commission was held in 2013 after four men died installing insulation as part of the Rudd Government's 'pink batts' home insulation program, while the Riverside Nursing Home in Melbourne was closed in 2000 by the federal government after it was revealed 57 residents had been given kerosene baths to treat scabies.

Australia's Right to Know coalition - which includes media companies News Corp Australia, ABC, Seven West Media, the Nine Network, Australian Associated Press, SBS and Guardian Australia - warned the laws which increasingly criminalise journalists ability to report on matters of public interest "had very little to do with national security" and "everything to do with the exercise of power and the desire to avoid scrutiny".

It also raised concerns the inquiry's narrow terms of reference may be a "deliberate attempt" by the Morrison Government to limit the investigation into press freedoms.

The submission called for urgent reforms to boost protections for whistleblowers and journalists, for the right to contest warrants for raids on journalists and media organisations and a new regime that limits which documents can be stamped secret.

News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst at her Canberra house raided by AFP officers. Picture: Gary Ramage
News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst at her Canberra house raided by AFP officers. Picture: Gary Ramage

It also called for a "properly functioning" Freedom of Information regime, exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs, and reforms to current defamation laws.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller, who took the extraordinary step of sending the submission to every federal MP and Senator today, said it was a "wake up call".

"I challenge anyone to read the Australia's Right to Know submission about media freedom and not be confronted by the creeping criminalisation of journalism," Mr Miller said.

"The submission captures issues ranging from the secrecy of search warrants to outrageously out of date defamation laws and criminal offences targeting working journalists.

"We also call out the growing culture of secrecy that is allowing Ministers to hide behind documents stamped secret and top secret."

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller, left, says the creeping criminalisation of journalism is confronting. Picture: Darren Leigh Roberts/News Corp Australia
News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller, left, says the creeping criminalisation of journalism is confronting. Picture: Darren Leigh Roberts/News Corp Australia

It comes as the ABC today began legal action in the Federal Court in Sydney to force the AFP to return documents seized in a raid on it's headquarters in Sydney's Ultimo in June.

Lawyers for the national broadcaster argued it was "legally unreasonable" for federal police to seek a warrant to search its offices or for a registrar to grant it.

News Corp Australia is also launching a legal challenge on the validity of the warrant used by the AFP to raid journalist Annika Smethurst's Canberra home in June.

The inquiry's first public hearing will be held on August 15 in Canberra.



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