The raids on journalism – and why we need to show our solidarity

Yesterday, officers from the Australian Federal Police raided the home of Daily Telegraph journalist Annika Smethurst, who had previously published a story suggesting the Australian Signals Directorate wanted new powers to spy on Australian citizens. The outrageous incident demonstrates an urgent need to rediscover the meaning of solidarity as we brace for three years of Liberal government.

Smethurst’s original piece – an account of discussions as to how the Defence Signals Directorate might access digital records without warrant – appeared way back in April 2018. The police waited, before raiding her home, for Morrison to win the election.

At more or less the same time as cops rifled through the property of a reporter,  Media Watch revealed Adani had complained to the ABC about a story in preparation – and the piece was then pulled.

The Media Watch transcript includes the following, astonishing passage:

Now, newsrooms at the ABC are open plan and not very private and four witnesses tell Media Watch that [Saturday AM producer Thomas Oriti] made it clear Adani had complained.

Indeed, one claims he told Roe:

‘Sorry. It’s nothing to do with you, but we’re not going to be able to run this’. – Phone interview, ABC staffer, 31 May, 2019

While another claims he said:

‘It’s not my decision, it’s come from on high.’ – Phone interview, ABC staffer, 31 May, 2019

The ABC denies this and maintains the decision was taken entirely on editorial merit, because the story didn’t stack up. According to Media Watch, the ABC insists Adani didn’t complain – even though Adani confirms that it did.


In the post-election climate, the new confidence of the right correlates directly with the capitulation of the left – or, at least, the ALP.

The ABC’s sensitivities over Adani reflects the conclusion reached by Labor’s leaders: namely, that the poll result proves the commitment of ordinary Australians to the Carmichael mine. Fairly obviously, this then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the ALP heavyweights see coal as an election-losing wedge, coal – rather like ‘the boats’ – will then become one, as the party tears itself apart trying to match the conservatives’ enthusiasm for mining.

With Labor accepting Adani as a talismanic issue for conservatives in the culture war, the ABC leadership presumably feels that stories critical of the Carmichael mine will leave it defenceless before another round of cost-cutting.

Similarly, the AFP no doubt realises that the Coalition victory – and, in particular, Peter Dutton’s survival – changes the calculation on national security.

Already, we’ve seen Kristina Keneally tweeting her enthusiasm about the introduction of a Shadow Home Affairs portfolio, arguing it ‘sends a clear message that Labor will ensure Australians are kept safe.’ If you think that Dutton’s unprecedented accrual of coercive power provides safety, what basis do you have to complain when his men exercise their authority?

After the Smethurst raid, ABC defence correspondent Andrew Greene shared on twitter the following quote from an anonymous Labor figure:

Bipartisanship on national security means we find ourselves in dangerous period where agencies can expand their powers beyond what’s required/necessary because ALP too scared to have an alternative, not even necessarily a weaker view.


In a context in which Labor consistently echoes and amplifies conservative talking points, the re-popularisation of solidarity by progressives must be a priority.

The term has become distinctly unfashionable, in part because of the union movement’s ongoing weakness but also, and more importantly, because its underlying assumptions clash with key aspects of a rightward-moving liberalism.

Solidarity – the recognition of an attack on one as an attack on all – implies a universalism, or the existence of a collective interest in the defeat a common enemy. It offers a basis for political action that begins not from the granular examination of individual privilege but from a recognition of commonality.

Solidarity does not mean one group supporting another for the sake of a philanthropic allyship. Rather, it implies an understanding of the shared benefits of victory – and the collective cost of defeat.

To illustrate, we might note that the AFP’s intimidation of Smethurst also coincided with the announcement of substantial cuts at News Corp, entailing the loss like 50 staff.

The redundancies generated a certain jubilation from some progressives, a response provoked by Murdoch’s role in campaigning for the Liberals, demonising African kids, fostering climate denial and so on.

But that was entirely to miss the point.

For a start, journalists and other staff do not control the political decisions taken by their bosses. In an industry where jobs are perilously scarce, plenty of people can work at the Tele without supporting its scare stories on safe schools.

More importantly, if News Corp can get away with discarding its workers at will, other employers – and not just in media – will do the same. If, on the other hand, staff facing the sack can fight to save their jobs, they’ll establish a precedent that others can use. Furthermore, the confidence they’ll gain in the process – the sense of their own power – will make them far more capable of resisting other acts of Murdoch bastardry, including in its editorial line.

Likewise, the police raids on the Daily Telegraph and Adani’s intervention at the ABC will have consequences extending way beyond the media. If the AFP – or the secret agencies on whose behalf it is acting – can intimidate critics so brazenly, we’ll see a new era of harassment directed at anyone the government doesn’t like, especially unionists, environmentalists, civil libertarians and other activists. If Adani can lean on public servants and get away with it, other corporations will be emboldened to do the same.

To put it another way: solidarity means fighting, not merely to help others, but to help yourself, because the issues at stake will affect you.

Solidarity goes both ways, of course, and those of us who work in media need to recognise the consequences of political failures of the past. For instance, in response to the detention of Julian Assange – now facing decades in jail – various high-profile journalists refused to offer their support.

Most notoriously, Peter Greste, a Chair in Journalism at the University of Queensland and a spokesperson for Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, declared the Assange case had no implications for press freedom because … Assange wasn’t a journalist. He is quoted as saying:

Good journalism … takes into account what is genuinely in the public interest. It redacts anything that isn’t relevant that is maybe damaging to people who are caught up in these kinds of stories. It places context and information around the data before it publishes.

Leaving aside Greste’s assessment of Assange’s work – which has, it should be remembered, won scores of prestigious journalism prizes – the notion that one should only defend those whom one judges to be ‘journalists’ epitomizes the obsession with insiderdom that mars so much of the media.

Journalists aren’t elected. It’s undemocratic and self-serving to suggest that just because you have a job with a major media company, you deserve more rights than, say, someone running a blog. Furthermore, the argument made by Greste and others undermines the defence of anyone facing harassment because of their writing. Very few progressives would assess the Daily Telegraph as publishing ‘in the public interest’ – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support its staff when they’re menaced by their cops.

A successful defence of Assange makes defending other journalists easier – and vice versa.

These are, in many ways, scary times. The hard right, who had mentally prepared themselves for defeat, now feel themselves to be totally off the leash. That, too, is why solidarity matters. If we do not hang together, we will – as the saying goes – most assuredly be hanged separately.

Post scriptum: as this piece was being prepared, news broke of the Australian Federal Police entering ABC offices in Sydney in relation to a story about war crimes on Afghanistan. A second raid in relation to another issue strengthens the sense that we’re entering a new period of state intimidation – and makes the need for solidarity even more urgent.


Image: Flickr

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I in the US currently, Jeff is right on,if we do not stand together we will all be hung seperately

    We are seeing the return to the days of state harassment and the use of the AFP for political ends quite openly.

    These days, end in Fascism and war. We are better than that, for all fault

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