Australian Cabinet leak: The Real Story is the ABC

Australian Cabinet leak: The Real Story is the ABC, by Geoffrey Luck.

Take its latest sensation, the “Cabinet Papers”. Even the name is designed to imply deep historical significance, redolent of the Pentagon Papers …

The mischance by which these confidential documents came into the public domain is itself a terrific story, a potential scoop of which any journalist could be proud. It seems incredible that two filing cabinets of confidential, top secret or AUSTEO classification could have been sold off to a second-hand shop, and left unopened for months.

It’s what happened next that raises awkward and damaging questions for the ABC. Here are some of them:

  • When did the ABC first receive the documents?
  • Did the ABC buy them from the person who legally acquired the filing cabinets?
  • Who made the decision to evaluate the documents for news value, instead of handing them to a government agency?
  • How were decisions made on the order in which stories were published?
  • How did the ABC convince ASIO that the documents were its property?
  • Why were some documents dispersed to Brisbane?
  • Why are the original documents not available for public inspection on its website, as the ABC has boasted, only summaries?
  • What qualifications do ABC reporters have to decide what is, or is not a risk to national security?

The first question is important, because it’s now obvious that ABC News sat on the cache of documents for quite some time while staff combed through them to choose topics to build into news stories. This relates to the third, ethical question at the heart of the matter. Once journalists started sniffing through the papers, they would have realised the potential top secret cabinet papers had for sensational exposures, with the prospect of inflicting political damage.

So, the ABC broke news of the existence of these documents not by telling the story of their disposal and accidental discovery, but … by selecting for their sensationalism stories reflecting harshly on the Liberal-National government and its ministers. Consider the order in which these reports were released.

The first report was an exposé aimed at Tony Abbott. … The second report based on the documents was chosen as a reflection on Treasurer Morrison … The next report claimed John Howard’s government “gave serious consideration” to removing an individual’s unfettered right to remain silent when questioned by police. … Perhaps someone realized this was becoming a one-sided attack on the Coalition; if so, Kevin Rudd’s infamous Energy Efficient Homes Package provided documents that could avoid allegations of bias. …

In one of the most flagrant cases of virtuous posturing seen in Australia, the ABC has boasted about ‘one of the biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history’, yet has gleefully exposed the contents of cabinet and National Security Council documents. In a holier-than-thou piece to camera, federal political reporter Ashlynne McGhee explained that documents like these were meant to remain secret for twenty years – so cabinet ministers could speak openly and frankly in the sanctity of the cabinet room. Yet, thanks to her ‘brave confidential sources’ she had been able to bring them to the light of day, justified by the people’s right to know. The contradictions escaped her.

hat-tip Stephen Neil