Can we trust the press to be totally honest over Wikileaks (hint: no)

I wish this interview was more comforting. The idea of a Murdoch editor talking about resisting potential Australian government requests not to publish certain Wikileaks cables requires a suspension of disbelief, not least because he argues about not challenging anything that “could imperil the lives of Australian soldiers, men and women serving overseas in a war effort which enjoys bipartisan support.” That’s Afghanistan. And let’s face it; governments will often claim something is top secret when in fact it’s simply embarrassing:

MARK COLVIN: So how might Australia’s editors react to an approach from the Government along the lines that Mr [Attorney General Robert] McClelland sketched out? Not a lot of them wanted to talk about it today but I’m joined now by one who would – David Penberthy, editor of First thoughts?

DAVID PEMBERTHY: Look I think that a lot of editors would respond pretty unfavourably to the request from the Attorney-General to somehow consider unilaterally desisting from publishing any of this material because I think that some of the material – and certainly listening to a lot of what you were broadcasting then in that report Mark – a lot of that is stuff which is wholly in the public interest.

I mean I would have thought that if there are senior ministers, senior world leaders who have serious drinking problems, behavioural issues, that that is something there’s absolutely no reason why aspects of those cables couldn’t be gleefully reported by the popular press.

I would even argue that the fact that it appears that China is wising up to what a dysfunctional dystopia North Korea is, is something which, shining a light on that pretty heartening little titbit of information could actually make the world a better place rather than a worse place.

MARK COLVIN: And what if McClelland came to you and said there was a matter of national security involved in one of these cables, Australian national security?

DAVID PEMBERTHY: You would have to assess it on its merits. I mean I doubt whether any news organisation in Australia setting aside any commercial imperatives because of the inevitable reader backlash that you would suffer – no one in this country is going to gleefully report on something which is a wholly logistical matter which could imperil the lives of Australian soldiers, men and women serving overseas in a war effort which enjoys bipartisan support.

But equally if it emerges that there’s stuff in these 1500 cables about Australia that go to the existence or more accurately nonexistence of weapons of mass destruction, you know stuff which might cause a bit of political embarrassment for people who are still in politics but has absolutely no operational bearing on the way the war on Afghanistan is being conducted or would endanger our remaining deployment of troops in Iraq, I think that instinctively any editor would think long and hard before agreeing to what the Attorney-General somewhat cutely calls an informal protocol.

Because it must be a pretty informal protocol because we’ve got rid of D notices in this country.

MARK COLVIN: I was going to ask you about the D notices, don’t notices. They petered out in the mid-90s. But for instance at one stage they protected the identity, the new identity and the whereabouts of the Petrovs, the famous defectors from Russia.

And the argument was that the Petrovs might be at risk from the Russians. They could be assassinated if their whereabouts were known. Would editors go along with that now?

DAVID PEMBERTHY: Well look I don’t know. I mean it would be something which would be decided on a case-by-case basis. And I think that if there was any evidence that someone was going to wind up being executed as a result of recklessly publishing any kind of information, particularly you know a person who had been working in the national interests of Australia, you know you’d think long and hard about it.

But I think that as a general instinctive rule particularly when this is quite a different round of leaks this time from WikiLeaks. A lot of the stuff that’s come out has been fascinating and harmless. A lot of it has shed light on a lot of diplomatic toing and froing which ordinary citizens are never privy to.

And I think that any blithe acceptance of a request from the Attorney-General, or worse any sort of suggestion that we’re going to somehow be locked into not reporting this, the absurdity would be if they were that worried about it they should stop the leaks in the first place.

Because we’re going to end up with this ridiculous situation where Fairfax, News Limited, the ABC – all of us are being told what we should do by the Attorney-General. Yet out there in the social media landscape no one’s going to be abiding by what some bloke called Robert McClelland has got to say about it and it’s all going to get published anyway.

MARK COLVIN: And that’s the other question I was going to ask you. Do the editors really have any power anymore?

DAVID PEMBERTHY: Well I think that you know that the daunting and excellent thing about the media these days Mark – and you as a frequent Tweeter know this yourself – is that information cannot be controlled. Nobody has a monopoly on information anymore.

So in a landscape where some you know fairly colourful young Australian guy who’s set up this website is quite clearly going to be madly publishing whatever lands in his lap, rest of us are going to look like saps if we sit here abiding by rules which don’t seem to apply to anybody else out there in the social media landscape.

MARK COLVIN: Thank you very much David Pemberthy, editor of

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common