The Media Today

Australian police raid public broadcaster over coffee and sandwiches

June 5, 2019

Yesterday, Australia’s federal police raided the home of Annika Smethurst, a journalist and editor with several titles owned by News Corp. Officers stayed for more than seven hours; they also had a warrant to search Smethurst’s computer and phone. The raid was part of a leak investigation into an article Smethurst reported last year detailing secret government plans to allow an intelligence agency to surveil Australian citizens. Also yesterday, Ben Fordham, a radio broadcaster, revealed that Australia’s interior ministry had contacted him the day before, following a story he reported about boats carrying asylum seekers trying to reach the country. Officials asked Fordham to reveal his source for the report, which, they said, contained “highly confidential” information. “The chances of me revealing my sources is zero,” Fordham said.

Today, Australia’s press saw a third troubling incident in as many days. Three federal police officers walked into the Sydney headquarters of ABC News, Australia’s public broadcaster, with a warrant naming the news director and two reporters who worked on a 2017 story, also based on leaked documents, claiming that Australian special forces committed possible war crimes in Afghanistan. According to John Lyons—executive editor and head of investigative journalism at ABC News, who live-tweeted the raid—the officers, now joined by three colleagues specializing in digital forensics, gained access to ABC’s hard drive and searched it for keywords related to the Afghanistan story. They downloaded a trove of files and—after taking a delivery of coffee and sandwiches—started to go through them on a big screen in ABC’s offices.

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The search warrant authorized access to a vast array of different file and data types—it took Lyons three separate tweets to list them all. In all, they downloaded 9,214 of ABC News’s documents, including emails between reporters and editors and unpublished drafts and scripts related to stories. They then sifted through them to work out which they were interested in and which fit the terms of the warrant; ABC’s lawyers, in attendance throughout, pushed back wherever they could. Shockingly, the officers were also authorized to “add, copy, delete, or alter” ABC’s files. As of about 8:30pm Sydney time (6:30am in New York), after nine hours of searching, the officers finally left ABC News’s headquarters having transferred a “small” number of documents onto USB drives. According to Lyons, the police agreed to seal the files they took away with them for two weeks, during which time ABC will be able to challenge the warrant as a whole or individual documents obtained under it. Clearly, this will not be the end of this matter.

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This week’s police raids have been highly unusual. Nonetheless, Australian journalists see in them a worrying manifestation of recent, mounting press-freedom fears. Lenore Taylor, editor of The Guardian in Australia, noted on Twitter that the raids didn’t even invoke a new secrecy law, passed last year, giving the authorities license to go after reporters based on an expanded definition of “national security.” Journalists retain a public interest defense in Australian law, but it’s loosely worded; fears persist that reporters could go to jail for publishing information the government wants to keep secret. Writing for The Conversation today, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland’s law school, argues that even if journalists aren’t prosecuted, the secrecy law—along with another new law enhancing the state’s surveillance powers—exerts a clear chilling effect on sources’ willingness to come forward and journalists’ willingness to tell their stories. This week’s “crackdown” shows these fears are “well-founded,” she says.

Raiding a newsroom, setting up camp there, and combing through its internal files—with the right to edit and delete them—is the sort of thing that happens in a police state, not an established democracy. This would be astonishing in any country, let alone one ranked the 21st best in the world for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, 27 places higher than the US. “I’ve never seen an assault on the media as savage as this one we’re seeing today,” Lyons said in an interview on ABC News. “This would not be allowed to happen in the United States under their constitution. My question is: why is it allowed to happen in Australia in 2019?”

Below, more on Australia and the press:

  • One man isn’t troubled: Yesterday, Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, tried to duck questions about the police raid on Smethurst’s home during a visit to the UK. The police, he stressed, operates independently of the government; he did say, however, that it “never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”
  • An impending budget cut: Last month, Morrison’s government was surprisingly re-elected: polls had shown that the opposition Labor Party would come to power instead. The victory of Morrison’s coalition means ABC is facing a budget cut of more than $10 million (US) in the next financial year, with jobs likely to be lost as a result. The Guardian’s Amanda Meade has more.
  • Blowing the whistle: Australia has poor protections for whistleblowers: several currently face jail time for leaking stories about official wrongdoing. In the wake of this week’s raids, one of them, Bernard Collaery, who faces prosecution for revealing illegal Australian spying on Timor-Leste, tells The Guardian that Australia “is the most oppressive of the western democracies.”

Other notable stories:

  • In a Twitter thread last week, Carlos Maza, a journalist with Vox, detailed the campaign of harassment he has faced from Steven Crowder, a YouTuber, and his followers; shared footage of Crowder repeatedly using homophobic and racist slurs against him; and called on YouTube to take action. Yesterday, YouTube finally responded to Maza, stating, on Twitter, that Crowder’s videos “don’t violate our policies” related to hate speech and harassment. Maza responded with incredulity: YouTube’s stance “gives bigots free license,” he said. CJR’s Justin Ray profiled Maza last year.
  • The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was yesterday. Under pressure from the Chinese government, Refinitiv, a financial information provider, removed Reuters content about the massacre from its terminal. Meanwhile, plainclothes police in Beijing forced Matt Rivers, CNN’s local correspondent, off the air during a Tiananmen segment, and began to block the network’s website in mainland China. For NBC News, Janis Mackey Frayer writes that, “as the world commemorates Tiananmen Square, China is silent.”
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach asked journalists including Max Frankel, Dan Okrent, LynNell Hancock, Yunghi Kim, and Ed Kosner how they filed their copy before the days of Google Docs. “I called Martin Luther King Jr. one night at two o’clock in morning, and asked him about some development,” Kosner, a former editor of Newsweek, New York, and Esquire, told Darrach. “There was a pause, and he answered, ‘I would say, comma,’ and dictated a perfect paragraph, with punctuation and quotations.”
  • Donald Trump continued his state visit to the UK yesterday. Thousands of protesters—and a giant model of Trump sitting on a golden toilet—took to the streets of London yesterday, but still the president called reports of the protests “fake news.” As he did last time he came to the UK, Trump taped an interview with Piers Morgan, which aired this morning. Morgan gifted Trump a Churchill-style bowler hat—but did also press him on climate change and gun laws.
  • Last week, the Democratic National Committee announced that 2020 presidential candidates will each need to hit 130,000 donors to qualify for the third and fourth televised debates in the fall. Vice News’s David Uberti reports that the high threshold may force longshot contenders to spend more on Facebook ads than they get back in donations—limiting their resources for more traditional forms of campaigning. In all, political ad spending is expected to near the $10-billion mark in 2020, up from $6.3 billion in 2016. The Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell has the figures.
  • Earlier this year, Laura Bassett and John Stanton lost their jobs during layoff rounds at HuffPost and BuzzFeed News, respectively. Now, BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports, the pair have launched the Save Journalism Project, a new initiative highlighting big tech’s hurtful financial impact on the media industry. Yesterday, I wrote that a House subcommittee would examine the same phenomenon as part of a new antitrust probe; a hearing on Silicon Valley’s impact on local journalism is now scheduled for next Tuesday.
  • Some programming changes at Fox: The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng and Andrew Kirell report that David Bossie, a network regular who recently got on the wrong side of Trump, was benched by Fox News and Fox Business during the month of May, apparently to avoid infuriating the president. Also for The Daily Beast, Justin Baragona and Maxwell Tani write that Fox Nation, Fox’s streaming service for “superfans,” axed Tyrus, a former pro-wrestler, from a flagship show after he fell out with Britt McHenry, his co-host.
  • For CJR, Adam Muro profiles Francis Auma, who documents state-perpetrated killings and disappearances for a Kenyan NGO, and Ernest Cornel, who has become Auma’s “journalist shadow.” The pair have developed a symbiotic relationship, “providing Cornel with inside access to the frontlines of a vital issue the Kenyan government works hard to minimize, and increased safety for Auma, who frequently finds himself at odds with rogue elements of state security services as he tries to expose their crimes.”
  • And The Texas Observer named Andrea Valdez, an editor at Wired, as its new editor in chief. Valdez becomes the first Latina to lead a statewide publication in Texas.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.