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Former ASIO head says media raids ‘not the end of the world’

Episode 1 of JNI's 'Raided. Detained. Cancelled.' series explores raids on journalists

The media has overreacted to raids on journalists, conducted under national security laws, according to the former chief of Australia’s domestic spy agency, ASIO.

Speaking at ‘Raided’, the first event in a new JNI series examining the ways journalists can be silenced, former ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson said the media’s reaction to raids was self-absorbed.

“The media likes nothing more than reporting on itself,” Mr Richardson said.

“Every so often a journalist gets visited by the AFP … and whenever it happens the media go into a frenzy.”

Mr Richardson said a certain tension between the media and the security services is a good thing.

Mr Richardson was joined for the event by Annika Smethurst, the state political reporter at The Age in Melbourne.

Ms Smethurst’s home was raided by Australian Federal Police in 2019 after she published stories that relied on classified intelligence documents.

She said it was not unreasonable for the AFP to make enquiries into her sources, but their actions were heavy handed, and journalists needed greater protections.

“I do accept that there are some safeguards. I think the problem is that a lot of these haven’t been tested,” Ms Smethurst said.

“I think some more certainty for journalists — and that would come in legislation — would be great, because, at the moment, there’s just not that guarantee that you won’t be chased and end up in court.”

More legislation not the answer

There is certainly plenty of legislation giving powers to national security agencies.

Mr Richardson’s comprehensive review of the legal framework governing the nation intelligence community was published in 2019 — the same year Ms Smethurst’s home was raided.

He said Australia had introduced 124 pieces of new legislation relating to national security since the September 11 attacks.

He described one piece of legislation, which had grown from 19 pages when it was introduced in 1979 to more than 400 pages, as a “dog’s breakfast”.

But he rejected the need for greater legislative protections for journalists.

“I think the media needs to be careful when it wants more legislation and more certainty,” he said.

“The parliament cannot provide the certainty that everyone demands.”

Ms Smethurst said her experience showed that journalists could not rely on the public to support their calls for safeguards,

“I was very aware that the public don’t have a lot of sympathy for journalists,” she said.

“It’s a really hard thing to get people motivated about it.”

Detained

The second event in the series, ‘Detained’, examines the jailing of journalists and whether it actually silences them.

Meet reporters who have been arrested, often without trial, and find out whether their principles were tested or whether they remain defiant.

Secure you tickets now.

Register here