Angry media won’t buckle over new surveillance laws

A new Bill would require telecommunications service providers to store so-called ‘metadat

A new Bill would require telecommunications service providers to store so-called ‘metadata’ for two years.

A HIGH-powered federal government team has been doing the rounds of media organisations in the past few days in an attempt to allay concerns about the impact of new surveillance legislation on press freedom. It failed.

The roadshow featured the Prime Minister’s national security adviser, Andrew Shearer, Justin Bassi, who advises Attorney-General George Brandis on crime and security matters, and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin. Staffers from the office of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull also took part.

They held meetings with executives from News Corporation and Fairfax, representatives of the TV networks, the ABC top brass and a group from the media union and the Walkley journalism foundation. I was involved as a member of the Walkley board.

The initiative, from Tony Abbott’s office, is evidence that the Government has been alarmed by the strength of criticism from media of the Data Retention Bill it wants passed before Parliament rises in a fortnight. Bosses, journalists, even the Press Council, are up in arms, not only over this measure, but also over aspects of two earlier pieces of national security legislation that interfere with the ability of the media to hold government to account.

The Bill would require telecommunications service providers to store so-called “metadata” — the who, where, when and how of a communication, but not its content — for two years so security and law enforcement agencies can access it without warrant. Few would argue against the use of such material to catch criminals or terrorists. But, as Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has pointed out, it would also be used “for the purpose of determining the identity of a journalist’s sources”.

And that should ring warning bells for anyone genuinely concerned with the health of our democracy. Without the ability to protect the identity of sources, journalists would be greatly handicapped in exposing corruption, dishonesty, waste, incompetence and misbehaviour by public officials.

The Press Council is concerned the laws would crush investigative journalism.

“These legitimate concerns cannot be addressed effectively short of exempting journalists and media organisations,” says president David Weisbrot.

The media union is adamant journalists’ metadata must be exempted from the law. That’s what media bosses want, too, though they have a fallback position based on new safeguards being implemented in Britain.

That would prevent access to the metadata of journalists or media organisations without a judicial warrant. There would be a code including — according to the explanatory notes of the British Bill — “provision to protect the public interest in the confidentiality of journalistic sources”.

In their meetings this week, the government team boasted of concessions in the new Data Retention Bill. The number of agencies able to access metadata will be reduced by excluding such organisations as the RSPCA and local councils. And whenever an authorisation is issued for access to information about a journalist’s sources, the Ombudsman (or, where ASIO is involved, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security) will receive a copy.

That does nothing to solve the problem. The Government has effectively admitted as much by agreeing that the parliamentary committee should conduct a separate review of how to deal with the issue of journalists’ sources.

But another inquiry would be a waste of time — the committee has already received and considered dozens of submissions on the subject. The bottom line is that the Government does not deny that the legislation is flawed, but is demanding it be passed anyway with the possibility left open of a repair job down the track. That is a ridiculous approach.

Claims that immediate action is imperative do not stand up. These are measures that won’t come into full effect for two years. Anyway, amending the Bill to either exempt journalists or adopt the UK model could be done quickly, without any risk to national security.

AS Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said in a letter to Abbott last month: “Press freedom concerns about mandatory data retention would ideally be addressed in this Bill to avoid the need for future additional amendments or procedures to be put in place in the future.”

The Data Retention Bill will be debated in the House of Representatives this week. Then, on Friday, CEOs from leading media organisations will front the parliamentary committee to air their concerns before the legislation goes to the Senate.

Those CEOs should make it clear they are just as angry about this as they were about Stephen Conroy’s attempt to impinge on press freedom through media regulation under the previous Labor government.

Memories of the grief Conroy brought down on his head would undoubtedly make Abbott sit up and take notice.

LAURIE OAKES IS THE NINE NETWORK POLITICAL EDITOR

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Henry Sapiecha

 

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