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article imageOp-Ed: Australia’s news media raids — A messy indictment of all involved

By Paul Wallis     Jun 5, 2019 in World
Sydney - Australia’s record on whistleblowing is so appalling it doesn’t even deserve to be called appalling. Police raids for media information from 2017 about alleged serious misconduct by Australian troops in Afghanistan define the many problems.
The raids relate to information accumulated by ABC Australia and News Corp regarding alleged atrocities and extremely serious misconduct. The information is particularly grim, alleging mutilation, murder, and a range of major breaches of law.
The raids were conducted in accordance with a warrant issued for recovery of the information held by both media outlets. Raids were carried out by the Australian Federal Police (roughly the Australian version of the FBI) and various documents and digital media were recovered.
The outcry from the Australian media regarding the raids has been long, loud, and largely based on the democratic right to information. That would be a good argument, but there’s a lot more to this situation than meets the eye, and it reflects little credit on anyone.
Basic issues
Let’s start from the absolute beginning:
• This information is two years old. That’s a very long time for a whistleblowing exercise, even in Australia, where the “wait and die” process is well-known. In that time, some of the information may have gone stale. Exactly why it took two years for information related to extremely serious allegations to be recovered isn’t at all clear.
• Nobody was charged with anything. From the sound of the howls from the news media, you’d think people were dragged off to gulags. Nothing of the sort has happened, and there is no indication of anything like that.
• Were raids actually necessary? Maybe. That said, there’s also the possibility that a phone call or a subpoena could have done the same job without using up AFP resources. A warrant, however, was issued, meaning a court thought the information important enough to justify its issue.
• Under different legislation, the raids would have been very different. Under our rather all-embracing security laws, people can be arrested and held without charge for about 2-4 weeks. Even reporting on these issues is barred by our security legislation. Under those circumstances, the press hysteria would be fully justified.
• These allegations relate to a number of deaths and illegal actions, not journalistic egos, ethics and practices. The deaths of Afghani citizens and various atrocities aren’t getting a mention. The whistleblowing now seems to be aimed at showing the media in the best possible light, and nothing to do with the very serious matters involved. That is hardly in the best interests of the whole idea of whistleblowing, particularly when nobody has been charged for any offences.
• Has the whistleblowing achieved anything? Not a lot, yet. The raids are a sort of symptom of the rather ponderous process of taking action, but there are no findings, no verdicts, and no visible actions. Hardly a recommendation for whistleblowers in Australia.
What you don’t know – Yet
The information recovered relates to military operations. In this case, Australia’s elite SAS Regiment. ]t is directly involved. SAS operations are typically not publicised in any form, for good operational security reasons. Anyone in the intelligence community will tell you that it’s quite possible that the journalists don’t even know the significance of some of the information they have.
Places of operation, times, individual incidents, and similar seemingly straightforward information also directly link to operational information, in multiple ways. Where, When and How may be far more sensitive than a non-intelligence person would quite realise.
Information related to specific villages, towns, and so forth offers a virtual map of military issues of interest to hostile intelligence. (The Taliban and IS monitor media, remember?)
Published information so far doesn’t add a huge amount of information, but there may or may not be other related information, which could still be sensitive intelligence, even two years later. Operational information could also give insights in to methods of military forces employed.
The internal military scenario
The mindsets and mysteries of military procedures are always not what you expect. In this case, they’re deadly serious:
Allegations are not exactly new in any military culture. Putting a few thousand knives in to the back of people is also pretty well known. It’s a classic military career assassination move. These allegations may be deliberately pointing the finger the wrong way. They may be malicious or a genuine effort to get the information out. The quality of information available is therefore critically important. Corroborative evidence, documentation, etc. are all part of a not exactly mysterious legal process.
The allegations reflect directly on SAS discipline and management. That’s a rather nasty situation. The SAS has an excellent reputation and the Regiment is first in to every fight. Standards are extremely high, and maintained at high levels. Every military organisation has a few ratbags, but they’re hardly flavour of the month in the SAS. The Regiment has every reason to be very concerned about these allegations. Any and all information does have real practical value.
OK, allegations have been made – What do you do about them? If you’re a military organisation, you have to respond in accordance with law. Whistleblowing law in Australia is severely hampered by the Evidence Act, in which some evidence may or may not be admissible. There is very little if any actual protection for whistleblowers, even those acting in the best interests of the public or their organisations. If you’re going to do anything at all about whistleblowing allegations, you have to navigate this obstacle course. That may be why it’s taken so unbelievably long to take action. The problem with that is you may have a few homicidal nutters in your organisation while doing so. Not too encouraging, and a bit of an operational luxury for the SAS, which doesn’t like unreliable people in its ranks for any length of time.
The Big Whinge – Not good enough, folks
Australian media has been sobbing uselessly and ineffectually away into its own sympathetic ears about the raids. Democracy is threatened, we hear. Not on this basis. These are all perfectly familiar legal methods, NOT our draconian security procedures.
The original purpose of the whistleblowing, all that hard journalistic work, and any possible relevance has now gone out the window – On the basis of a simple warrant and nobody being charged.
What the hell would happen if there had been charges? Mass hypochondria? Frenzied hand wringing? There could not possibly be a journalist in Australia who doesn’t know how these things work.
If you’re an investigative journalist, researching and reporting information on a truly significant issue, do you expect instant apathy from those researched? If it’s an organisation which is practically welded on to the Official Secrets and other security legislation, do you think nobody will notice?
Enough of this crap. If there are legal issues, take legal action. If not, what do you expect to achieve by bleating about perfectly legal processes? The AJA (Australian Journalists Association) should get proper legal advice about possible infringements of journalist rights and any other matters.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about AFP raids 2019 ABC Australia, AFP raids 2019 News Corp, Whistleblowing in Australian law, SAS Australian army, evidence act Australia
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