Philip Dorling: Michael West Media 

New documents show Julian Assange got little more than a mention at Mark Dreyfus’s media talkfest this year. Amid much talk about reform and transparency, the Government wants to draw our big media outlets into cosy secret relationships with Australia’s spies. 

Chatham House

In January, Attorney General Mark Dreyfus announced he was convening a national round table of “key stakeholders” to discuss press freedom.

Dreyfus spoke of the importance of “a strong and independent media” that’s “vital to democracy and to holding governments to account.” For good measure he declared “Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their jobs.”

The Albanese Government has been keen to differentiate itself from the obsessive secrecy of former PM Scott Morrison.

While in opposition, Labor spoke loudly about press freedom and condemned AFP raids on media organisations and journalist’s homes.  It’s curious then that Dreyfus struck an odd note by insisting that his press freedom gathering would be held behind closed doors. 

The media roundtable was to be conducted under Chatham House Rules to ensure views expressed by individual participants would be confidential and not reported in the media. Even the list of invitees was secret. It was only thanks to transparency warrior Rex Patrick that the invited media organisations were revealed through FOI.  

Significantly, it was also revealed that the roundtable was organised by the National Security Information Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department. Dreyfus was talking press freedom, but those pulling the event together were government secrecy specialists.

Round the table

The roundtable was held at Parliament House in February. Dreyfus tweeted some pictures of smiling participants and next day told ABC Radio that the meeting would “restart a process of reform”.  But no details were released or reported. Chatham House Rules ruled.

Thanks to a second FOI by Patrick, the Attorney-General’s Department has now been obliged to lift the lid on Dreyfus’s media tete-a-tete.  Not everything has been released. The Department has withheld a Ministerial submission on the grounds that it would reveal positions on “sensitive policy issues” and “impair the confidentiality of Cabinet processes”.  Significantly other redactions included “information regarding the activities of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.” 

Spooks were lurking in the background.

Despite this, the bulk of Dreyfus’ briefing pack and the record of roundtable proceedings have been released.  We now know just who fronted up. Dreyfus chaired the meeting, accompanied by his Chief of Staff Mathew Jose, Attorney-General’s Department Secretary Katherine Jones and a security heavy departmental contingent including the Deputy Secretary, National Security & Criminal Justice Group, the head of the National Security Information Branch, and support staff from the Information Protection and National Security Information Law Sections.

Big media attended; News Corp, Nine Entertainment Managing, Seven West Media, Network Ten/Paramount ANZ, ABC, and SBS were all there. 

Some smaller mainstream players attended too; The Guardian, Canberra Times, ACM, Schwartz Media, AAP, Solstice Media, Private Media, Australian Radio Network, Commercial Radio & Audio, and Free TV Australia.

Also seated around the table were representatives of the media coalition Australia’s Right to Know, the Australian Press Council, the National Press Club, the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, together with a few media academics.

Spies set agenda on press freedom, really?

So, what was discussed? 

Talking points provided to Dreyfus and the meeting record much of the conversation related to implementation of recommendations from the August 2020 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report on press freedoms.

No one seems to have questioned whether a committee hugely focussed on the interests of the intelligence community should have set the agenda on press freedom – another unchallenged legacy of the Morrison years. 

Also on the agenda a review of secrecy offences, the Privacy Act as well as whistle-blower reforms and the (dis)functioning of the FOI regime.

With regard to press freedom generally, it appears the Australia’s Right to Know coalition made much of the running, asking Dreyfus about reforms in relation to exemption from criminal liability for journalists – shield laws; contestability of search warrants; whistle-blower reforms, including allowance for external disclosures; over-classification of documents; reforms to improve the FOI regime, and defamation laws.

To judge by Dreyfus’s talking points and the record of discussion, Dreyfus’ responses were broadly reassuring, but bland and often less than fully committal. 

There’s clearly little appetite from the government for the idea of journalists being able to contest search warrants. Dreyfus appears broadly inclined to defer to his national security team with “the Attorney-General’s Department [to] consider whether … relevant legislation adequately protects public interest journalism”. 

The government’s review of secrecy offences appears mainly directed at reducing complexity and inconsistency, improving enforceability, rather than a substantial wind back of secrecy.

With regard to FOI, Dreyfus acknowledged “concern about the backlog [of requests and reviews] and the reduced funding under the previous government.”  He said he was committed to FOI reform but there were no specifics, and no commitment of resources. Notably, there was no new FOI money in the budget that followed.

Spooks and Big Media to cosy up

For the national security bureaucrats, a major concern is to establish closer relations with the press, especially the larger media organisations, to manage and, if need be, suppress through voluntary censorship, reporting of intelligence and national security activities. This is much preferable to uncontrolled leaks and messy prosecutions under the secrecy provisions of the Criminal Code. 

In effect the Government is quietly rolling out a reinvention of the secret “D-Notice” system that operated from the early 1950s into the mid 1980s in which media organisations were alerted to government security sensitivities and encouraged to consult before any publication.

Dreyfus’s briefing notes confirm the Government has already established new machinery to guide and influence reporting of national security and law enforcement information. As of February 2023, ASIO, the AFP and Australian Signals Directorate had already established these units, while the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Intelligence were progressing establishment of their units.  

These units will operate alongside existing media liaison teams and will handle all matters relating to security classified information.

This won’t just be a reactive process, as such units will be “supplemented by guidance material to provide journalists with the information they need to navigate consultation with Government on disclosure issues.” In the national security field, public interest journalism will be carefully guided.

A Path Not Taken

Not everyone was quite in the grove with Dreyfus’ agenda. The meeting record shows that one unidentified roundtable participant called for a more radical approach; that rather than seeking to fix laws in a piecemeal way Parliament should enact a Media Freedoms Act that would include a positive obligation on parliamentarians to consider press freedom implications in making laws, privilege for press freedoms before the courts, and a positive obligation on civil servants to respect freedom of the press. 

There appears to have been no response to this – not from Dreyfus, nor from any media representatives.

Pity Poor Julian

And what of Julian Assange? One might have thought representatives of Australia’s largest media organisations would have taken the opportunity to press Dreyfus for a detailed account of what the Government is doing about an imprisoned Australian journalist, a Walkley Award winner no less.  

But it appears he got only the briefest of mentions with the roundtable record merely noting under “other issues” that there were “representations made on behalf of Assange case”. That’s it, nothing more. Assange was apparently a matter media representatives felt obliged to mention, but it wasn’t much of a priority.

Dreyfus’s response, if any, isn’t recorded.  If he did have something to say, however, it would have been cold comfort for Assange, his legal team and supporters.

The Attorney-General’s talking points show that beyond reiterating Albanese’s carefully scripted line that the Assange case has “dragged on for too long”, the Government isn’t pressing the US to end the espionage prosecution.

According to Mark Dreyfus’s briefing, the only direct role contemplated by the Government will only come after Assange has been extradited, convicted and sentenced in the US. Only then “would [it] be open to Mr Assange to apply to transfer to Australia to serve his sentence under the international transfer of prisoners scheme. It is not possible to make a decision regarding an international prisoner transfer in advance of the person being eligible to apply for transfer.”

That’s one other takeout from Dreyfus’ press freedom roundtable. The Australian Government plans to do nothing until Assange has begun serving a sentence in a US super-max prison.

As far as the Government is concerned, press freedom doesn’t feature in the Assange case.

Philip Dorling has some thirty years of experience of high-level political, public policy and media work, much of that at the Australian Parliament.

He has worked in the Australian political environment from most angles, in both the national and state levels of government including as a senior executive; as a senior policy adviser for the Federal Labor Opposition and for cross bench Senators; and as an award-winning journalist in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.