Written by: Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
The unprecedented blackout of front pages by Australia’s newspaper publishers this week is a highly significant event in Australian political and media history.
It represents the completion of a deep rupture in the relationship between government and media, which for many decades was marked by a preparedness on the part of the media to take notice of government advice where matters of national security were concerned.
It also represents the first concerted, unified, co-ordinated campaign by the Australian media – outside of wartime, when there were constant rows about censorship – to assert press freedom in the face of government oppression.
It defies the prevailing political climate of fear created and sustained by both sides of politics since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001.
It defies the aggressive hostility towards the press shown by the federal government, with its determination to continue the prosecution of ABC and News Corp journalists for revealing government secrets that the public clearly had a right to know, and by the head of the Home Affairs Department, Mike Pezzullo, who says he wants people jailed if they leak government information to the media.
And it defies the contemptuous attitude to press freedom shown by the Australian Federal Police in raiding the ABC and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over stories. This attitude was reinforced by new AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw, who told Senate estimates on October 21 that he had not turned his mind to the question of why the newspapers might have embarked on this campaign for press freedom.
Those AFP raids led to two concurrent parliamentary inquiries, one by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) and the other by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications.
The raids also galvanised the media industry. On June 26, the heads of all the main news organisations presented a united front at the National Press Club in accusing the government of criminalising journalism. They called for a thorough overhaul of laws on national security, government secrecy, whistleblower protection, freedom of information and defamation.