My weekly Guardian column:
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
Last night I appeared on ABCTV News24’s The Drum talking about ISIS, terrorism and Gough Whitlam’s collusion in the occupation of East Timor:
Yesterday I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R Spoke program about the current war against ISIS, the Middle East and media blindness and complicity:
My weekly Guardian column:
In a remarkably short amount of time, drones have become a surveillance centrepiece. During the height of the recent protests in Hong Kong, drone footage captured by an unmanned vehicle showed the depth of outrage against Beijing. Reporters routinely utilise the machines for their work (there’s even a professional society of drone journalists), though critics warn there’s a danger that removing the human element when covering conflict could result in “war porn”. As such, debating the ethics around the use of drones seems vital.
But these are the comparatively simple discussions. Away from public gaze lies a huge and growing industry that now dominates the defence and surveillance arenas. It’s also becoming a central discussion inside the mining, agriculture and resource sectors. Governments, including in Australia, are desperate to doll out funds to attract some of the world’s leading drone manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Days after president Barack Obama announced air strikes against ISIS in September, share prices reached all time highs.
The explosion of drone use has led to a new industry called “unmanned aerial systems”. Measure, for example, is a company that provides a service for clients interested in renting drones for commercial use. The company’s founder, Robert Wolf, is a former economic advisor to the Obama presidency and Wall Street veteran, and he recently announced that the business opportunities in Africa are “incredible”.
I interviewed CEO of Measure Australia, Mark Stevens, who is an early architect of the “drone as a service” industry. Today, he’s working with customers in agriculture, energy, mining, infrastructure and public safety. Offering 50 varieties of non-armed drones, Measure collects data and imagery and then produces regular reports for clients. “For example, we can tell if a remote pipe needs to be checked”, Stevens says, “and right now a resource company like Fortescue Metals would send 20 men to check it out; we can save a lot of manpower.” They currently have no plans to work in the defence, military and police sectors.
With a hugely expanding commercial market, Stevens is convinced that it’s possible to run a drone business with an ethical base. “In the US we have turned down business because it didn’t fit with our values, such as providing drone support for more extreme African states. We reached out to ASIO in 2009 to tell them that we had been contacted by individuals that concerned us and we wanted to let them know. There was a group in Pakistan that asked us to provide drones over the country and we said no.” Stevens would not be drawn on the exact nature of this request.
Measure Australia imagines working with any number of industries that could benefit from surveillance. “We’re currently talking to Australian-state based rural fire services, so they could improve their vision during fire season and operate through smoke. There’s also options in mining, infrastructure and surf-life saving groups looking for sharks.”
Stevens is supportive of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – “they’re leading the world in my opinion” – but critics accuse regulators in America and Australia of dragging their feet over necessary restrictions.
I ask Stevens if his company is monitoring environmental or animal activists – it was revealed this year that Animal Liberation uses drones to monitor poultry and stock in the Hunter Valley – and he tells me that it’s not currently happening but is possible. He’s keen to highlight the fact that their focus is on “providing an industrial solution.” North American energy companies are increasingly taking an interest in using drones to monitor green group activities.
Globally, Stevens says his American partners are talking to US companies operating in Africa, such as mining firms, cocoa processors and suppliers like Archer Daniel Midland (ADM), and agriculture corporations looking for work in monitoring crops and infrastructure. But the lack of tight regulation and rampant human rights abuses in Africa are surely issues for any drone provider. For example, ADM is currently being sued with Nestle and Cargill in a US court for allegedly aiding and abetting the trafficking of enslaved children from Mali in their cocoa supply chains.
With a burgeoning industry and militarised drone usage becoming ubiquitous in America’s “war on terror”, it’s therefore worth investigating the close co-operation between drone manufacturers and their desire to promote a softer, less-war focused side to the business.
Raytheon Australia donates to Canberra’s Questacon and a high school in Adelaide. The Victorian government partners with Lockheed Martin for development work, and RMIT University now runs a program for students to learn about this emerging technology. Corporate sponsorship of educational facilities isn’t new, and the cost dynamic between arms makers and universities has occurred for decades – but it should never happen without serious questions being asked. Too often, governments and educational facilities see dollar signs before morality.
It’s not hard to see how drones might benefit journalism, agriculture or efforts to tackle climate change. But too little is discussed in the public domain about the limits of unmanned surveillance on privacy, democracy and policing. The time for that debate is now.
I was interviewed this week by 2SER’s AidWorks about many issues of the day:
My weekly Guardian column:
Nav K. Samir converted to Islam two years ago. He’s a young Sydney-based writer from an Indian background who recently featured in the successful new Facebook campaign, Australian Muslim Faces. Born into a Hindu family, Samir was attracted to the spiritual and intellectual life of Islam. At the age of 23, after six years of considering the switch, he became Muslim.
I met him earlier this year at the Lebanese Muslim association in Sydney and spoke with him recently about why he thinks a small number of young Muslims are attracted by the Isis message.
“There’s a lack of context, lack of spirituality and understanding, combined with impatience. Many Isis fighters are newly converted, newly pious … these men have grown a beard in three months and they don’t give Islam time to be understood.”
He is tired of having to defend his religion against bigots who take these instant Islamists to be the authentic representation of Islam.
“Keyboard warriors often ask: “Where is the universal Muslim condemnation of terror acts?” We’re distancing ourselves, so why do you keep asking? People just aren’t listening.”
“It’s been the same narrative of apology for decades and we’re sick of it. It’s like the probation the media is trying to grant me. I want to stand back, it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s nothing to do with Islam. I don’t need to come out and prove my innocence.”
The teenage converts – both male and female – who form much of Isis’ recruiting base in the West, are young and inexperienced. As a former Taliban “recruiter” remarked in early September, they targeted:
“People who didn’t know the religion as much. People who were converts, because converts would probably have problems with their parents at home, so they were more likely to stay in our company.”
Instant Islamists. And now we are suddenly deluged with instant experts on terrorism, too. Politicians and journalists compete for the snappiest sound bite on Islam, Isis and fundamentalism, mostly with little understanding of the issues.
We get fiery sermons from terrorism alarmists, lurid descriptions of apocalyptic death cults, pontificating war advocates who tell us that this new conflict against Isis will not be Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, and bigotry dressed up as insight.
This instant expertise about Islam is mirrored by reporters who learned little from every past terrorism hysteria, and simply repeat the same, old tired tropes to the same, skeptical audience.
Then there are the “instant Muslims” – like the young, white reporter from The Daily Telegraph who dressed up in a niqab “in two different parts of Sydney to see how people would react”. Unsurprisingly, she felt alien and uncomfortable.
Mimicking Muslims is fair game. Portraying them as odd, un-Australian and weird is standard operating procedure for vast swathes of the mainstream media.
When actual Muslims do appear and question Western policy in the Middle East, like they did on last week’s Q&A, The Australian calls it“crass anti-Western propaganda”.
Now a new “threat” has appeared out of thin air: The Khorasan Group, a hardened cell of Syrian terrorists “too radical for al-Qaida” that appears to be completely fictional.
Everything has happened so quickly, as if by command. But there are some things about our newest war at home and abroad that aren’t instant: the constant downplaying of the role played by US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar in fuelling and funding Isis; the amnesia surrounding the radicalisation in US detention of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – once, reportedly, a calm individual; and the emergence of Isis from the ashes of the disastrous Iraq war, a point well made by independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie.
The ignorance of Australia’s elites is also deeply entrenched. A friend who works at one of Australia’s leading Muslim groups tells me that he’s contacted daily by journalists who demand to know what his organisation is doing to reduce the threat of terrorism – as if a Sydney-based Muslim is somehow responsible for Isis beheadings or mass rape.
It’s not difficult to show the diversity of the Muslim faith; take a look at Conor Ashleigh’s wonderful photography of a community in Newcastle. And it’s possible to treat radicalisation with the seriousness and context it demands, as The Saturday Paper’s Martin McKenzie-Murray did last week, in a forensic analysis of the killing of Abdul Numan Haider.
The pressure on the Australian Muslim community is immense, a feeling of being outsiders, exacerbated by a message that they’re different and under suspicion. Many Muslim women in particular feel disempowered and not trusted by the wider, white majority. Islamophobia is now unofficial government policy and some media’s central worldview.
Muslims have ample reason to be sceptical towards government and intelligence services; real journalists would investigate why. Sadly, most in the media are failing in their basic duty to question.
“Islam isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Samir says. His religion, just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others, is complex, contradictory and open to various interpretations – but figuring that out can’t be done in an instant.
Last week I was interviewed by the Progressive Podcast Australia on Iraq, Obama’s new war in the Middle East and ISIS:
My weekly Guardian column:
Back in July, Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivered a speech at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue at the New York academy of sciences. It was full of motherhood statements – “We are bonded, we are blood cousins” – praise for Israel’s “innovation” (no mention of the Palestinians) and clichéd rhetoric about a pioneering American “legacy” that inspires Australians.
The assembled journalists would have clapped with appreciation, though the vast bulk of the event went unreported. It’s extremely rare for any journalist to criticise the meeting. If they do, their invitations from the US lobby tend to get lost in the mail.
Shorten’s kowtowing to Washington made it unsurprising that he offered his support for Tony Abbott involvement in Obama’s new Middle East conflict, but then again, this is how we’re expected to behave in a US client state.
Our politicians and journalists are duchessed with countless conferences and overseas trips. They’re the willing subjects of endless lobbying, “insider access” and so on. Then there’s the dinners, lunches, breakfasts and off-the-record chats with the cream of the US establishment.
The drip-feed is addictive and consequently the public often receives little more than press releases dressed up with a byline. Even questioning last week’s Australian anti-terror raids brings condemnation. Get with the program, repeat the word “terror”, ask questions never.
So many editors, journalists, politicians and advisors have attended the conferences and forums at the heart of the US-Australia relationship that it’s almost better to ask who hasn’t been, and to thank them. The Australia-Israel Leadership Forum, modelled on the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, has attracted huge numbers of politicians in recent years.
The same month that Shorten was extolling the virtues of the US in New York, Christopher Pyne, the education minister, visited Jerusalem for another leadership forum, which also included the UK. He praised Israel like an excited school-boy and used the word “freedom” 20 times in a very short speech.
Australian politicians and media courtiers constantly praise the “shared values” between Australia and Israel (though it’s clear what values a brutal military occupation of Palestine represents). A rare exception was the former foreign minister Bob Carr, who caused a storm earlier this year when he condemned the extremism of the Zionist lobby, saying that it was damaging Israel’s future. Less was said about Palestinian viability.
Carr was immediately pounced on by both his political enemies and allies – standard practice for critics of Australia’s closeness to the US or Israel. Former Labor leader Mark Latham was similarly condemned after he apparently risked the US alliance by correctly, in my opinion, stating in 2005 that our incestuousness with Washington made us more of a terrorist target. Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser is another of the few high-profile political figures who write honestly about the true nature of the alliance, and he’s in his 80s.
Just how deep does the connection go? Wikileaks cables released in 2010 revealed the long list of Liberal and Labor politicians lining up to praise the US alliance. Many of them were upset that their overly close ties with Washington were exposed in the public domain.
After the cables were released, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove argued that the cables showed a benign US and resented diplomatic embarrassments being made public. Former Labor politician Stephen Loosley, who writes glowingly about the US, claimed the cables would have a “chilling impact in terms of people speaking very frankly.” Former foreign minister Alexander Downer also talked about “embarrassing” revelations.
A rare voice of establishment dissent came from Paul Barratt, a former intelligence analyst and former secretary of the Department of Defence. He worried that public trust was breached by Australian politicians so uncritically accepting the goals of two foreign powers, Israel and America.
Canberra is described in the Wikileaks documents as “rock solid”, but uninfluential on American thinking. Obsequiousness is Canberra’s permanent stance. Australian academic Hugh White offered a pithy comment on the depth of the unequal relationship:
“I guess what’s striking about it though is how hard people in the Labor Party, people in Australian politics in general, work at being liked by the Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with being liked by the Americans, but what strikes me about what we’ve seen in the WikiLeaks saga so far is so little evidence of us asking for something back.”
Even David Kilcullen, the Australian counter-terror expert, said this week that an open-ended conflict was a “concern” and Australia “should be pushing for a pretty definite end [date]” to any new Iraq conflict, though he’s been an active supporter and advisor of failed, US-led policies in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.
In the parallel universe of Washington talking points created by the US-Australia alliance, Obama’s war is about the “battle for hearts and minds” in the Islamic world, not the brutal reality of US policy on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. Alternatives to bombing yet more Arab nations are plentiful if we care to look – but we don’t.
An independent foreign policy requires Australia recognising it has never really become a sovereign nation. The bravado over Isis shows the political elite prefers to live in Obama’s shadow.