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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Whistleblowing and leaks

Someone at Fairfax seems to have had a better thought about the headline to a report on the investigation of Commonwealth government leaks, after the SMH paper edition conflated whistleblowers and leaks thus: "War on whistleblowers: Labor uses a bigger stick to keep its secrets safe."( Well no, it is online as well.) The story on-line, taken from The Age and modified in other respects is headed "Rudd witch-hunts cost police, money."

An interesting report that points out that leaks referred for investigation "overwhelmingly concerned cases of political embarrassment rather than security breaches." An unnamed police source (in the SMH) and unnamed former senior Federal police source (online) said " both Labor and Liberal and everyone in between gets the shits when their policies are undermined or their big announcements appear on the front page of the newspapers 24 hours before they announce it.''

The media love leaks, and love even more details of futile attempts to find leakers.

But the SMH headline suggests all leakers are whistleblowers, people by definition who seek to have wrongdoing addressed and need and deserve protection against retribution. They aren't. While many leaks cause no real harm no organisation, government or otherwise, can operate effectively where any employee can do what they wish with information that comes their way. Sensible laws and policies are needed. We don't have this right at present.

Things can get blurry and injustice can be done. Allan Kessing was convicted of an offence for unauthorised disclosure to journalists at The Australian of a report on security weaknesses at Sydney Airport, that drew attention to matters of clear public interest, particularly as the report had not been acted upon for two previous years. Kessing denies he leaked the report as charged but admits he gave information to the office of his local member of parliament Anthony Albanese.(There are now moves for a pardon and/or inquiry into the affair.)

On the other hand the DPP decided "in the public interest" that Godwin Gretch should not be charged over alleged unauthorised disclosure to opposition politicians (a better way to put this than my original attempt).

Both stories today missed the link to an Australian Law Reform Commission report on the need to revisit and reform secrecy provisions in Commonwealth law that the government has had for a year.The report was released in March, but the government is yet to respond to the recommendations.Two other relevant but unresolved matters are whistleblower protection law (in the light of WikiLeaks, likely to involve close consideration of what constitutes "wrongdoing") and a shield law for journalists sources (likely to involve even closer consideration of the definition of a journalist and news medium)


  1. Craig1:23 pm

    US Federal law regarding protection of sources foundered over an inability to define 'journalist' as a professional group. I don't see that Australia would have an easier time of it.

  2. Anonymous8:06 pm

    Your point needs to be constantly reiterated,Leakers can be petty mischief makers, partisan, vindictive, self obsessed Mr Pooters - the reasons are as varied as the persons involved.