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Rights and wrongs of ABC spy reports


Leaked documents as captured by ABC TVCommentators especially in the Murdoch press and senior managers at the ABC are at odds over the corporation's decision to publish documents leaked by the former American CIA employee Edward Snowden. Both sides cite the 'public interest' in arguing, respectively, against and for the decision to publish.

The Murdoch side says the ABC acted contrary to the public interest by damaging bilateral relations with Indonesia. The ABC says it upheld the democratic principles of free speech and the public's right to know. Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have used the same arguments when challenged about the consequences of their actions; that both are now under the protection of countries criticised for their infringements of free speech points up the hazards of presuming to occupy this particular moral high ground.

This is not the first time that the ABC's reporting of matters related to Indonesia has caused diplomatic ructions. In 1980 the ABC's Jakarta correspondent Warwick Beutler was expelled from Indonesia mainly in retaliation for Radio Australia news broadcasts about the occupation of East Timor. The ban was not lifted until 1991.

In evaluating the Indonesian response to the ABC's report on apparent attempts by the then-named Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) to listen into phone conversations by President Yudhoyono and his wife, this background is relevant and insufficiently acknowledged in recent commentaries.

The Indonesian leadership's sensitivity to insult, particularly involving any perceived interference by an external power in their nation's internal affairs, lies at the heart of the matter — more so than judgments about the Australian 'public interest'.

It is, I would suggest, not so much the fact that the DSD targeted Yudiyono that offends the Indonesian government (after all, it is a commonplace of intelligence gathering that you seek out the highest possible source), as having the fact shoved in their faces. In the lead-up to the presidential election in July, the head of state has been made to look foolish. His ruling party will also be worried that the contents of private conversations might find their way into the hands of domestic opponents.

The strength of Jakarta's retaliatory measures should be assessed in terms of these factors.

The ABC exists primarily for its Australian audience (the services of Radio Australia and Australia Network being the exceptions), and it must reflect the values and serve the needs of Australians. I doubt, however, whether most Australians would consider that they needed to know about this specific DSD operation or that their system of democracy was weakened by it having occurred.

On the other hand, judging from the recent election results, most do want an effective border protection strategy and understand that Indonesian cooperation is vital to achieving it. If 'the public' were in the editorial chair at the ABC, weighing up these concerns, I wonder whether it would have chosen to 'publish and be damned'.

No journalist worth his salt would sit on an important story simply to avoid upsetting the powers that be. Journalists of good standing, nevertheless, will differ in their opinion of what constitutes a story 'in the public interest'. That a piece of information is likely to cause a strong reaction is, I suggest, not the main criterion for determining its news value. The ABC argues that it is responsible for reporting the news, not for how others react to it, which of course is correct if the report has news value.

So wherein does 'news value' reside? That loaded question has only ever known a loaded answer: it resides in an assessment of whether a piece of information significantly alters the public's understanding of their safety and security, their rights and obligations in society, the functioning of their system of laws and governance, and the conduct of those holding positions of influence or responsibility.

ABC managing director Mark Scott said the DSD story needed to be reported because it fitted into 'a big international debate on intelligence activities in this digital age'. The story, of course, also fitted into another debate — a domestic one — about relations with Indonesia and the Abbott Government's 'stop the boats' initiatives. Few stories have a single context. To acknowledge one and not the other is problematic.

The editorial judgment involved was — for all the certitudes professed on both sides — a delicate one. It was complicated by the way the information came to the ABC: indirectly from Snowden, via the Guardian, which if nothing else affected the timing. There was undoubtedly a context of public interest, deriving from the Snowden leaks about US intelligence surveillance of world leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel. Whether most Australians would have considered it sufficiently important to risk the relationship with Indonesia is less obvious.

But many of the arguments being mounted by the Murdoch and other commentators against the ABC's decision are, in my opinion, self-serving and hypocritical. The ABC does not have a special responsibility to be 'diplomatic' in deciding what to report and what not to report because some foreign power chooses to misconceive the status of the public broadcaster as a government mouthpiece. The ABC does not have an obligation to adjust its news judgments to implicitly support government policies. The ABC even does not have an obligation to weigh up what the majority of the public might think to do in such a situation.

It must only exercise its professional judgment as to 'news value', and be accountable for it. In reporting the spying operation against the Indonesian leader, in my opinion, it acted responsibly and in the ABC's best traditions.


Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton was a journalist and manager at the ABC for 33 years.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, ABC, Indonesia, Edward Snowden, Mark Scott, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Mr Hamilton, being a journalist and manager at the ABC for 33 years, should know about this subject. I would agree that having this information shoved in their faces (for some length of time) would have highly offended the Indonesians. And because the revelations were of a personal nature, involving the spouse of SBY (someone who did not choose a political career), this is a very delicate area indeed. I think there are too many stories circulating in the media for purposes of intrusion into private lives. The revelations in this story may have been perceived by the ABC to be in Australia's national interest, but the damage to an important relationship cannot be underestimated.

Pam | 28 November 2013  

The has not, to my knowledge, been any criticism voiced by our Indonesian friends of the ABC's decision to publish. Rather, their initial concern was about the spying itself, and only then about our government's failure to apologise promptly and sincerely. When our governments, of whatever political persuasion, stuff up, we are entitled to know about it. Secrecy and self-imposed censorship are the enemies of a free society.

Ginger Meggs | 28 November 2013  

One question I would like the ABC to answer, is that they knew this in June under an ALP Govt. They waited and released it under the newly elected Coalition Govt. Whatever way you vote, does not matter: if they were authentic they would have released it straightaway. It has caused problems across the region. Should someone like Snowden, be given this much air beneath this wings? Soon he will be a hero - meanwhile, international relationships are being shattered. The man should be charged with treason against multiple nations.

Jackie | 29 November 2013  

Surely none of us belief that this has anything to do with all these high principals which no press outlets have , its just a myth .The press , especially the ABC , exist to push their politics on the public .The ABC thought correctly they could embarrass the Abbott Government , they see it as the role of the left .Otherwise they would have published earlier .

John Crew | 29 November 2013  

To my mind, Jackie's question of timing is valid and deserves an answer. But to suggest that disclosure should not have occurred because 'international relationships are being shattered' and that Snowden 'should be charged with treason against multiple nations' is a bit of a stretch. For a good comment on how Abbott should have handled this, see www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/tony-abbott-should-instead-have-curried-favour-20131122-2y0vs.html

Ginger Megs | 29 November 2013  

Spying on Indonesian officials and family members does not qualify as anti terrorism action, so it has to be political, or some other thing. In any event it was stupid. But what caused the biggest problem was not the spying itself but Abbott's reaction. Abbott espoused a four year olds excuse. he basically told indonesia to talk to the hand, that little jimmy did it too. As for reporting it, God bless the ABC for keeping us informed. Spy has most legitimacy during war, we are not at war with Indonesia. Spying is not being used just on terrorism.

Ronny Bryson | 29 November 2013  

To Jackie. Snowden is a hero not just a whistle blower. Something very wrong is going on in the world, and he's let us know about it. Sure, it's going to cause a lot of problem, especially for the USAG, but, in most if not all cases, this fallout is deserved. This spying goes way beyond need, beyond terrorism, beyond decency, and I doubt it goes beyond these thing for a good reason. The reason I believe is to facilitate world domination for the USA, with a few extra eyes hanging off their apron.

Ronny Bryson | 29 November 2013  

I agree that spying is a major problem & should not impact on family members: all nations do it and that is partly because of the terrorist activity that has emerged over the past 15 years or so. However, there is no point in denying that this has happened over the centuries but to blast it over the media puts all international relations at risk & therefore our world is not a safer place because of it.

Jackie | 29 November 2013  

There is a fault line along our relations with Indonesia which has seen quite a tremor. The problem now is not with the news but the consequent difficulty between our two countries. This may well have been a good call by the ABC. The Murdoch press is no more immune to bad calls than the ABC. Perhaps they help keep each other honest. It would be a sad day if either were gutted.

Edward F | 29 November 2013  

To quote Paul Keating. "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he" !

john frawley | 29 November 2013  

I can understand the fear of terrorism, and the need for intelligence on terrorism. But I believe they go to far and abuse the system and take advantage of our fear. Terrorism grew as a result of hegemonic behaviour, so we are reaping what we sow in many cases. The thing that bothers me about the spying is the abuse, both the abuse now and the grave possibilities later and into the future. We should not need or have to give up privacy and freedom for security, to do so is to take backward steps.

Ronny Bryson | 29 November 2013  

ABC journalists always interviews The Greens, Get up and spokespersons of the hard left. Keeping news for 6 months before they are released for the public interest is proof that they were releases now to embarrass Tony Abbott. The ABC exists primarily for the left wing audience. It is time the Federal government takes action. We need a proper balance of views from a public paid agency. Not just one side.

Ron Cini | 29 November 2013  

Given its penchant to spread right-wing half-truths and unsubstantiated propaganda (not mentioning its UK stablemate hacking practice), it seems incredible that the Murdoch press should condemn the ABC for practising true and legitimate journalism. I accept Murdoch's pathological ambition to manipulate global politics to benefit himself and his global media empire. But to deliberately distort the truth in order for him to achieve whatever ambition he has, is totally unacceptable. Murdoch has, so far, achieved what past dictators have failed to do so with their weaponry. His armory is more insidious than the razor-wired compounds of human prisons. We should be grateful and feel comforted that there are public broadcasters, such as the ABC, that still practice true journalism.

Alex Njoo | 30 November 2013  

I was in two minds about this, but finding 3 conspiracy theorists making comments here convinced me the story was worth publishing! (I'm annoyed I can't explain the logic of this, but it has something to do with ppl who can't tell me what they do. How apt! :-) )

P Yale | 30 November 2013  

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