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Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 08:11 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 08:11 | SYDNEY

Leaks, secrecy and cynicism



29 September 2008 11:17

A politician’s mantra: I brief, my mates background and those other bastards leak. This is a blunt way of saying that briefing, backgrounding and leaking are all part of the same political and policy process.

The police raid on the Canberra journalist Philip Dorling was ostensibly because he compromised national security by revealing priority targets for Australian intelligence work in Asia. Top of the list was China. But then – oh, golly! – it turns out the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) also devotes resources to thinking about South Korea and Japan. Apparently, Australia worries about whether it would be a matter of weeks or perhaps months for Japan to become a nuclear weapons state.

As so often in such cases, a sober reaction to this revelation drifts more to the ho-hum end of the scale, rather than to shock and surprise. The real surprise in the revelation of the DIO document would be if Australia didn’t keep a close eye on what Japan does with its nuclear power industry, civilian space industry and growing store of plutonium. Does the revelation damage Australia’s interests or embarrass Australia in Asia? Doubtful. Canberra might even get a few quiet nods in the region because of this proof that it does not blindly follow US preferences in Australia’s growing security interactions with Japan.

As a journalist who has worked in Canberra for most of my time over the last 30 years, I am obviously arguing the interests of my craft. But with that declaration of interest, please look beyond the facade of politicians pratling about protecting intelligence and senior public servants affirming the sanctity of secrecy.

To the politicians first (and this is where the cynicism is at its deepest): it's important to understand that there are two totally different categories of leaks. One category covers sanctioned leaks, where Ministers, MPs and minders constantly reveal supposedly secret information to gain political advantage. The concept of sanctioned leaks explains the distinction offered in the mantra at the head of the column. When a politician reveals secret information to a journalist, he or she is backgrounding or briefing.

When a public servants gives the same journalist similar information, however, suddenly we are in a different game and the coppers can be called in. Here we are dealing with unscantioned leaks. The unsanctioned leak causes surprise and embarrassment. It disrupts the news cycle. Ministers have to go off message to deal with an attack launched from their own rear. When this happens politicians suddenly become highly sanctimonious about denouncing journalists as receivers of stolen goods. The deeper the dudgeon, the more likely that the aggrieved polly is an experienced and active leaker. The anger is caused by being on the receiving end.

Now consider the senior public servants and coppers who protest about the sanctity of secrets. Their argument is weakened by the fact that police investigations are only ever directed at unsanctioned leaks. Often the police are called in to send a general message of fear to the public service and to reassure ministers about the loyalty of those at the head of their department (loyalty is an important element: during the Howard era, leaks threatened the salary bonus calculations applied to the Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department and the Secretary of the Treasury).

The aim in these cases is not legal remedy, but a political effect. This was on display in the two police raids staged last week because of leaks. One raid was over the above-mentioned revelation of spy targets by The Canberra Times. The other was over a leak to The Australian that revealed concern about television black spots in regional Australia. As The Australian editorialised on Saturday, both leaks produced stories which were 'serious, orthodox and mainstream news reports that did no harm to the nation.'

The two-faced nature of politicians on leaks is clear enough. But the public service and police mandarins are also regular players of the sanctioned leak/background/brief. To give one relatively harmless example: the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra often holds background briefings for journalists. I have attended hundreds of the things. The information reported must be sourced to 'foreign affairs officials' or a 'senior diplomat'.

In this way, Foreign Affairs gets out its views yet retains a veneer of anonymity and even a threadbare deniability. These backgrounders are legitimate events to put across the DFAT version of reality. Should it be classified as merely the proper supply of information, or is it a form of spin? The answer is that sanctioned briefing and backgrounding or unsanctioned leaks are part of the same process.

Photo by Flickr user Kamikaze Stoat, used under a Creative Commons license.

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