'Chilling' bid by government to control the media rejected

LEADING media organisations have rejected a proposal from the federal government for a protocol to limit reporting of sensitive law enforcement and security information. However, they have agreed to facilitate communication with police and security agencies in the interest of public safety.

The proposal by the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, for a national security media protocol was sharply criticised by media organisations as counterproductive, unworkable and disproportionate.

The Australia's Right to Know coalition, which includes Fairfax Media, expressed concern that the proposed protocol would have "a chilling effect on freedom of speech".

"Additional avenues for secrecy should not come via a back door, even if on first impression they appear informal,'' Coalition representative Creina Chapman wrote to Mr McClelland in February. ''We are concerned that what may be informal guidelines or a protocol today will gain greater status over time."

The federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Chris Warren, warned that "any protocol, voluntary or otherwise … might put a barrier in the way of free speech".

Details of Mr McClelland's proposals and media responses have been released by the federal Attorney-General's Department in response to a freedom of information application.

The Attorney-General's initiative arose from a leak to The Australian newspaper of information relating to Operation Neath, a major counter-terrorism investigation that resulted in the arrest of five people in Melbourne in August 2009.

Mr McClelland noted the newspaper's responsible conduct in delaying its reporting until the morning of police raids five days later. Security officials were concerned, however, that confusion over the precise timing of publication put the operation at risk.

Mr McClelland's departmental briefings note: "The early release of this information had the potential to jeopardise the investigation and could also have endangered the lives of officers conducting the searches."

Consequently, the federal cabinet directed Mr McClelland to "develop a protocol in consultation with other relevant ministers and report back to the prime minister".

Mr McClelland wrote to the Right to Know coalition and other media organisations in November to seek "a more formal mutually agreed arrangement'' on handling sensitive national security information.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet raised the possibility of using such a protocol to constrain publication of national security information released by WikiLeaks.

The deputy national security adviser, Margot McCarthy, told the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, there "may be merit" in the approach, but the idea was not pursued because of "the likely predominance of 'new media' in reporting on the release would reduce the effectiveness of any such arrangements".

The ABC's managing director, Mark Scott, said a protocol could lead to "a limit on freedom of the media disproportionate to what is necessary".

Former SBS managing director Shaun Brown noted ''[there] has been no suggestion that any Australian media outlet acted irresponsibly with regards to national security in relation to material it chose to publish from the WikiLeaks revelations."