It was Edmund Burke who in 1787 stated, “there are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporter’s Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all…”. This ‘Fourth Estate’ was in reference to the journalists who sat in the Parliamentary chamber and reported on the proceedings of the government. The ‘Fourth Estate’ was used to describe the role of a free press not only in a liberal democracy, but in any society that has a respect for the interests of its people. Burke’s recognition of this group of political players highlights the historic role of a free press in ensuring that politicians, elites, and other authoritative figures are held accountable for their actions.
With the changing face of media and journalism over the years, the need for this section of society to exist is as, if not more, important today than it has ever been before. Today’s social culture is built on getting access to information as quickly as possible by any means necessary, often leading to false news, exaggerations, fabrications and romanticism of events. Therefore, in order for objective journalism to thrive so that individuals have access to the truth as it happens, a group of these media producers must be allowed the freedom to investigate reports and follow leads wherever it may take them, and fulfil their obligations to present that to the public.
On Monday the 21st of October 2019, Australia’s most prominent media groups joined together in a campaign that responded to the recent Australian Federal Police raids on ABC Headquarters and on the home of NewsCorp journalist Annika Smethurst. All headlines and front page articles on several newspapers were blacked out, or ‘redacted’ to symbolise the censorship they believed had been exercised by the Australian Government to prevent them from investigating or releasing sensitive information. The Right to Know campaign therefore became a prominent movement in the media industry, representing those who had been impacted by the raids both directly and indirectly, and calling for the decriminalisation of public interest journalism. Participating media groups include Nine, NewsCorp, ABC, SBS, The Guardian and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. This coalition provided six key proposals required for ‘necessary and urgent’ reform, with those proposals including a ‘right to contest search warrants’ and greater ‘protections for whistle blowers’.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded quickly to the coalition and their symbolic gesture, affirming his belief and value of freedom of the press and its vital role in a liberal democracy. Morrison however also highlighted that ‘we also believe in the rule of law and that no-one is above it’. This sentiment was echoed by fellow federal party members and colleagues who defended the raids as an act of pursuing the national interest. Security organisations such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) have also defended the raids and criticised the media’s recommendations stating that it would put Australia’s national security at a direct threat if the demands made through the Right to Know campaign were delivered.
Both Scott Morrison and ASIO make a good point. Australia is a nation that requires our national security to be taken extremely seriously, and whilst it may be under no current imminent threat, the potential for one to eventuate is real. Whilst extensive dependence on any external government body is unwise, it is a duty of the Government to protect the nation from harm and so we should place enough trust in them that any action they take in pursuit of national security is made in the nation’s best interests. This being said however, one look into history at governments that took this ‘protection’ too far, tells us that there are severe damages that can occur when the media is prevented from freely reporting on any matter of national interest.
When considering the elements that make up the foundation of a liberal democracy, two critical components often stand out. Those are, a safe and secure nation, and a free press. Furthermore, the ability of that press to keep those in power accountable for their actions. To feel safe and secure in a country from external threat is one of the primary roles for a government to play in such a democracy, but when a government implements such protective measures at the cost of allowing the press to freely report on domestic and international affairs, questions begin to arise as to where the line between the protection of national security and censorship of public interest journalism is drawn. This is concerning as both are fundamental aspects of a democracy and so when both are threatened, it is unclear over which should be prioritised and indeed, saved.
When considering this, it is clearly difficult to find a victor in the battle between national interest and public interest. One might ask why they must be mutually exclusive, whilst others may say that only one can, and should, be pursued to its full capabilities. Indeed if the federal government is at odds with itself as to the appropriate level of intervention it can have in the reporting of investigative journalism, it seems apparent that the dichotomy between these two interests has no chance of being resolved. It is however certain that both of these ideas are united in their commonality that they are both required in a thriving liberal democracy.
The major media outlets in Australia have the potential to be one of the remaining bastions of independent thought and so to see them come under threat is concerning. Perhaps almost as concerning as the threat of an external force on Australia. And so it is natural to come to the conclusion that the Right to Know campaign has become a necessary tool in the debate between how much the media should be allowed to report on a story of public interest, and the extent to which the government has a role of protecting the people from such stories. It is now up to these two players to determine how far this campaign will go, and indeed if we see either suffer in order for the other to survive.
Laura Glase is the President of the Sydney University Conservative Club