It was a surreal moment: standing with a group of Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers around a big screen, sifting through 9,214 emails and documents belonging to my colleagues.
I felt like I was having surgery but was still conscious. I was seeing and hearing things which I’d rather not be.
It felt a complete violation of us both as journalists and citizens — and it had nothing to do with national security.
It was at that moment that I felt there was something sick about modern Australia — that an institution as important as the media had come to this.
Responsibility to report
I spent nine hours in this room with the federal police officers while ABC headquarters was raided on Wednesday.
As the person responsible for investigative journalism at the ABC and the two reporters named on the warrant — Dan Oakes and Sam Clark — I felt it was important for me to try to shadow the AFP while they were in the ABC building. From the moment they entered until the moment they left.
I wanted to see where they went and what they tried to access.
I was also concerned that there would be six AFP personnel, three ABC lawyers but not one journalist.
I thought it was important for ABC journalists — particularly Oakes and Clark — to know in real time what was going on.
And so I began live-tweeting.
I’d been around long enough to know that there would be certain things — such as any AFP operational matters or any discussion about possible sources of stories — that I should not tweet.
Once the AFP realised I was live-tweeting, they raised it with me.
I made the point that I thought that ABC journalists should know what was going on in this room and that we were, after all, a media organisation.
This was a first for the AFP — they’d never had one of their raids live-tweeted before.
I also wanted to make the point that, despite the raid, we were still operating as an independent broadcaster.
It would have been a big decision for them to come into the ABC and then try to force an ABC journalist out of the room.
It was indeed a bizarre situation.
Spending nine hours in a room with six AFP officers — who were unfailingly polite and respectful — but who were doing something that I believed attacked the very essence of what we do as journalists.
The AFP would periodically check my tweets.
The leader of the team, as he was leaving, remarked: “I found some of your tweets entertaining.”
But others I’m sure they did not find so entertaining, such as: “I have to say, sitting here watching police using a media organisation’s computers to track everything to do with a legitimate story I can’t help but think: this is a bad, sad and dangerous day for a country where we have for so long valued — and taken for granted — a free press.
I took the opportunity through the day to explain to the officer how many of us at the ABC felt about their presence: “Yesterday your organisation raided Annika Smethurst’s home. Yesterday a Home Affairs officer pressured Ben Fordham for a source. Today you’ve come in here with this warrant. From where we sit this looks very much like an attack on a free media.”
They listened and clearly registered what I said but, not surprisingly, made no comment.
For me, the tweeting was back-to-basics reporting.
But I had no idea what the level of interest would be with the broader public — every hour thousands more people began following proceedings.
It reinforced for me the desire that the public has for facts rather than opinion and spin.
Sitting in the corner, I reported virtually everything the AFP said and did — what they wanted, how they were accessing it, and how many documents they were searching.
From the feedback I was getting, what the public liked was that we were giving transparency to an organisation that often works in the shadows.
Warrant to search, alter and delete
The AFP had come to the ABC with a list of key-word combinations they wanted to search.
At the AFP’s direction, the ABC downloaded 9,214 documents that the AFP thought may have fitted the terms of their warrant.
And then began “the culling process” to narrow down the search to relevant documents, which came to about 100.
For me this was the lowest moment, listening to them discuss my colleagues and the emails they’d been sending to each other.
They were trying to look at correspondence that had nothing to do with the story in question.
In some instances, they were trying to read emails between ABC journalists and journalists at other organisations.
This warrant was so broad that there seemed nothing that the AFP could not seize or take.
In fact, the warrant even gave the AFP the power to delete ABC documents if they so chose.
Or to add to them.
Or to alter them.
In almost 40 years in journalism — and having myself been on an AFP warrant after I received and wrote stories based on leaked defence intelligence documents — I had never seen a warrant this all-encompassing.
The power to delete official documents reminded me of George Orwell’s book 1984.
Remember Winston Smith, who worked in the records department of the Ministry of Truth?
Part of his job was to delete documents or newspaper reports of wars which his government wanted to pretend never happened.
But this was Australia in 2019 — not George Orwell’s Oceania in 1984.
Big Brother didn’t need a warrant.
Only 24 hours before they raided the ABC, the AFP raided the Canberra home of Annika Smethurst, a political journalist with News Corporation.
For seven hours, they went through her kitchen, her living room, her bedroom, her underwear.
For seven hours, seven strangers took over her home in response to a story that clearly had no national security implications.
Rather, it was a story about possible plans to expand the powers of the electronic eavesdropping agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, from being able to eavesdrop on people overseas to Australian citizens in Australia.
That same day an officer from the Home Affairs Department contacted broadcaster Fordham, from Sydney’s 2GB, and pressured him to reveal the source of a story. Fordham refused to do so.
Publishing power not taken lightly
In the wake of the two AFP raids, there has been much debate about what powers our law enforcement agencies should have and what protections the media should have.
Some people have argued — legitimately — that the media is not above the law and should not be able to publish whatever they come across.
I agree. I do not believe in a publish-and-be-damned approach.
Over four decades, I’ve worked for just about every major media outlet you can as a journalist — Fairfax, the Nine Network, The Bulletin, the Melbourne Herald, News Corp and now the ABC.
I can say, from experience, that at every organisation my managers, or fellow editors, have taken the responsibility of publishing extremely seriously.
Each day the media receives all sorts of tip-offs, many of them anonymous.
We spend a great deal of time checking them out, and often they are not published because they are demonstrably untrue or not provable.
While I was the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, we were tipped off about an extortionist who was going to shopping centres around Sydney and poisoning a certain type of food.
We were keen to publish the story, but the NSW police appealed to me not to — they believed they were within days of catching the extortionist who did not realise they were on to him.
The NSW police said if we did publish then the extortionist would go to ground for some time and the police would lose track of him. They needed to catch him in the act.
No editor likes to kill, or hold back, a story. It goes against all our instincts.
But the police told me if we did publish we could be putting people’s lives in danger.
We agreed to hold the story until they caught the extortionist.
Public safety was our primary concern and I do not know a single editor in Australia today who would publish a story knowing it would risk public safety.
If you examine the two articles that prompted the AFP’s raids this week, neither endangered anyone’s life.
They were simply embarrassing for the Government.
As retired Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy pointed out this week, there is a big difference between a national security matter and one that embarrasses a government.
“There are things that need to be kept secret but in the cases like the ones we are seeing at the moment with the ABC, with News Corp, and so on, these are cases where slapping a ‘national security’ sticker or a ‘classified information’ sticker on something that is embarrassing or scandalous, especially where the public interest demands that the community knows what’s been happening, simply can’t be tolerated,” he said.
If these reports had endangered someone’s life, why didn’t the AFP conduct their raids immediately when they were published — in the ABC’s case two years ago?
Why would the AFP be prepared to allow a national security threat to continue without any action for two years?
Why didn’t they simply issue subpoenas requesting the documents they wanted in both the ABC and Smethurst cases?
In that room, it was clear to me that we, as journalists, need to make a conscious decision individually and as organisations that we will not be intimidated.
But the real victim of a subservient media would be the public — why should journalists know what’s going on, but not the public?
Without a change to the laws, journalists acting honestly in good faith will not be protected, nor will those who see serious wrongdoing and want to come forward.
Orwell’s chilling warning rings true
After the nine hours of going through the ABC’s computers, the AFP officers narrowed down about 100 documents they wanted.
They then put them onto two USBs and into sealed bags.
The ABC has two weeks to appeal either the warrant or individual documents, but if there is no appeal or it is not successful, the AFP can then access those documents.
A free media has always made people in power uncomfortable. A free media can make mistakes. A free media sometimes gets things wrong.
But there’s a reason why 70 years after 1984 was published, it remains one of the best-selling books in the world as new generations of readers study it.
George Orwell wrote the book as a warning to the world.
His health was deteriorating, and he delayed treatment to finish the book.
He did not want the world to become a place where documents can be “deleted or altered” — to quote from the AFP’s warrant.
As to the nightmarish police-intelligence state that he wrote about, he warned:
“Don’t let it happen. It depends on you!”