The Code, a television drama currently showing in Australia – and in Britain and Ireland on BBC Four – is about fear and loathing between journalism, the government and the security services.
In a case of life imitating art, the Australian government has passed a law that could see journalists jailed for up to 10 years for disclosing information on covert intelligence operations.
It was already against the law to name an officer of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (the secret service), but the National Security Amendment Bill increases the maximum penalty 10-fold and vastly expands the legislation's scope.
There isn't much that unites the biggest newspaper chains in Australia (News Corp and Fairfax) or the biggest political parties (the ruling Liberal-National coalition and opposition Labor), but the new law has managed to do so. The newspapers are opposed to it but Labor backed the government in passing it.
The Media Alliance journalists’ union warns that the law “overturns the public’s right to know. It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers . . . It imposes outrageous surveillance on journalists and the computer networks of their media employers.”
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers has also taken the government to task, but attorney general George Brandis says the naysayers are being a touch paranoid and self-important.
“This is not a law about journalism, it’s not a law about journalists, it’s a law of general application about the disclosure of something which ought not, for obvious reasons, to be disclosed,” he says.
However Mark Pearson, professor of journalism at Griffith University, disagrees. “The provision is clearly aimed at preventing Wikileaks or Snowden-style leaks of recent years and their broad publication in the world’s media and across social media,” he says.
Paul Murphy, a director of the Media Alliance, says the law ignores the public interest.
"At a time when security agencies are being given more power, we believe it's more important that the light of public scrutiny be shone on their activities," he tells The Irish Times.
“The public has a right to know how they are exercising those powers and, if they are exercising them incorrectly, we have a right to know so the public can make their own assessment of these laws and the work of these agencies.”
Murphy says journalists are not just afraid of possibly going to jail for reporting a story, “they are genuinely concerned that they may not be able to report stories that should be reported and brought to public attention.
“There is a question mark over whether we would know about things like the alleged spying activity during negotiations over the Timor Sea Treaty [concerning joint oil exploration by Australia and East Timor],” he adds. “Would there have been reporting about the detention of Muhamed Haneef [anIndian doctor falsely accused in Australia of aiding terrorists] if these laws had been in place at that time?
“Preventative detention is an extreme power for a state to exercise against any individual, so any suggestion the details of that can’t be reported are extraordinarily concerning.”.
Not a defence
Prof George Williams, an expert on Australia’s terror laws, told ABC television that claiming public interest would no longer be a possible defence if someone was charged under the new legislation. “If you reveal it, you’re guilty. If it goes to court, the question is whether a journalist revealed information, not whether they’re justified in revealing that information.”
Murphy says the Labor Party misled over its intentions regarding the new law.
“The attitude Labor took was disappointing because they previously had given public indications that they wouldn’t support that legislation in the form that it was in, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.”
Labor's deputy leader, Anthony Albanese, has begun to distance himself from the bill, saying it may need to be wound back. "I don't believe there has been enough scrutiny. I believe the media laws are draconian, when we talk about potential penalties of five or 10 years jail for exposing what might be an error made by the security agencies," he says.
But Albanese’s concern may be too little, too late, for journalists now operating under the new legislation.