US investigative journalist I.F. Stone famously said: “All governments lie”. So a filing cabinet full of classified government documents should have been a heaven-sent opportunity for the ABC to hold the Australian government to account.
Instead, we got a craven attempt by the ABC to show itself as trustworthy to those in power. By the time footage was broadcast of ASIO employees bundling boxes of documents out of ABC offices, the ABC had revealed virtually nothing of their contents.
The ABC head of investigative news (apparently a joke title – the ABC has an amusingly named freedom of information editor too) clarified that, for the national broadcaster, the investigation of classified documents starts and ends with state approval.
This week produced further evidence of whose tune the ABC dances to. Editors removed an article by economics correspondent Emma Alberici after it was criticised by the government and big business representatives.
After a lengthy silence, the ABC’s Corrections and Clarifications page finally posted: “The analysis piece did not meet ABC editorial standards and has been removed for further review”.
Alberici’s crime was to argue that there is no case to cut corporate taxes because many of Australia’s biggest companies don’t pay tax anyway. So it’s clear what those “editorial standards” are.
The case of the “cabinet files” is not the first time the ABC has acted as an arm of the government. In some ways, it is better placed than the Murdochs and Channel 7s of the world to promote the state’s agenda. After all, it’s “our” ABC. This can make doing the government’s dirty work so much easier and more credible.
That was the case in 2006, when Lateline promoted many lying racists to generate the idea that Aboriginal men in the Northern Territory were depraved child molesters and drunks with whom Aboriginal children and women were not safe. The result was the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, which resulted in Aboriginal communities being invaded by the military, and residents being deprived of the right to decide how to spend their own money.
Nothing is radical in the idea that journalists should investigate rather than merely restate the views of the powerful. Even the Australian Financial Review allowed veteran journalist Brian Toohey an opinion piece entitled, “The ABC’s filing cabinet kowtow to ASIO and the government was gutless”.
But as WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have shown, the courage to make known what our rulers want to keep hidden, especially information that hides behind the euphemism “national security”, can help in the struggle against them.
The feature film The Post focuses on the Washington Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers, documents that showed that president after president had lied about the war in Vietnam.
They were leaked in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts who had produced the information for US defense secretary Robert McNamara, and became an opponent of the war.
Publication of these secret documents by various US newspapers put anti-war sentiment front and centre as the movement against the war went from strength to strength.
Just as well Daniel Ellsberg didn’t leak to the ABC.