Quick Post: Government Secrets and the Conservative Credibility Gap #auspol

When it comes to the State, I am pro-secrecy.  I think it’s much better to jaw-jaw than to war-war, as it were, and secrecy allows governments to talk more openly in negotiations, in information exchanges, and in collaborations.  Leaking information makes it more difficult to conduct the business of government. and making the business of government more difficult isn’t in a country’s best interests.

Of course, if you’re going to have government secrecy, you need a robust system to reduce the scope for inappropriate use.  There are models for how to govern secret State actions such that you don’t have to rely on trust and Australia is a long way away from being a model secret citizen.  As a public, we have a genuine interest in those discussions being conducted sensibly and rationally — away from the megaphones who scream ‘THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD HAVE NO SECRETS’ and who shout ‘IF YOU DON’T LIKE GOVERNMENT SECRETS, YOU’RE AN ALLY FOR TERRORISTS’.

But, alas, the Outrage Economy is too profitable and so we don’t get anything resembling the sort of debate that we should have.  This has been comprehensively proven by News Corp and Fairfax following the revelations by the ABC and the Guardian that Australia had been accessing the telephone metadata of Indonesian officials (and family) and, it seems, trying to listen in on particular calls made by the President of Indonesia.  Instead of opening up a conversation about government secrecy, whose responsibility it is to protect Government secrets, and how do Australians feel about their Government operating in this way, we have our two largest private media companies venting old grudges about the ABC.

It is shameful.

Worse, it reveals the Conservative Credibility Gap in Australia: instead of having the intellectual heavyweights contribute to the discussion, we get nothing but the petty moaning, the personality politics, the vendettas, and the feuds.  Where were the rightwing tut-tutters when News Ltd’s Cameron Stewart filed a story which contained leaked information about an upcoming raid on terrorists operating in Australia?  So the ABC should have suppressed a story about spying on Indonesia, but the Murdoch Press was justified in jeopardising a raid on terrorists operating in Australia?

Governments — through their officials — have a responsibility to protect their nation’s secrets, but it doesn’t follow from this that other people have a responsibility to help them protect their secrets.  When Manning leaked information, it was only right that the punishment was severe.  Even if you think that it was a moral good that the material was leaked (and we can discuss whether or not Manning knew that it was a moral good to leak the particular information in question), it still follows that punishing Manning for leaking State secrets is appropriate and just.  If it’s worth leaking, it’s worth the cost of going to jail.

One question that didn’t get explored enough while the right was puffing its chest with national security and homophobic/transphobic slurs about Manning was why Manning had access to the vast amount of material that ended up being leaked.  There was clearly something wrong in the level of access that people had to extremely sensitive information, and something wrong with the level of freedom that people had in their use of that information.

We see a similar problem with Snowden.  Why did he have access to Australia’s secrets?  Because the United States’ regime is failing to keep secrets secret.

When material does fall into hands outside of the State, we enter into more contestable grounds.  We have laws which restrict the unauthorised use of secret information, placing an onus on citizens to support the endeavours of the State.  There’s a car accident involving a military leader who is carrying a file full of briefing material.  I rush to offer assistance and end up in possession of the file.  It doesn’t seem reasonable to think that it’s fair game of me to use the material as if it were my own.

But what about with ‘whistle-blowers’?  It’s one of those contentious terms, especially when it’s applied to people who don’t leak a particular case but who leak vast amounts of material indiscriminately (as was the case with Manning and Snowden).  In the case of the whistle-blower who leaks information relating to a particular case which the whistle-blower finds morally repugnant, the threat of legal punishment provides the balance for deliberation.  ‘Is this secret act so heinous that it is worth me going to jail for leaking?  Is my personal freedom more valuable than the public’s right to know?’

The moral onus for the deliberation is again on the leaker and not the publisher, so we can distinguish this case from the car accident case: there is a moral agent who transfers the information into the public space.

None of these approaches has been able to show that there’s a moral bind on the publishers of information once they receive the material.  We can see the bind on the State officials, on the leakers, and on the people who opportunistically steal information that they receive.

For me, the question comes back to what the hypothetical moral exemplar would do in this situation.  I’m the morally excellent newspaper publisher and I have come into possession of leaked material.  I could ask myself about potential consequences of publishing the material, but which consequences would be relevant?  As Kate Torney, Director of News at the ABC wrote today, all big stories will have consequences for somebody.  Refraining from publishing leaked material simply because it might embarrass somebody doesn’t seem to be a moral obligation.

But then you have the aforementioned Cameron Stewart which threatened to interrupt the arrest of terrorists operating within Australia.  Refraining from publishing leaked material because it would adversely interfere with the justice system seems, ceteris paribus, to be a moral obligation.

I think the puzzle comes down to people wanting hard and fast rules about these sorts of things.  The point of the media is to explore these issues in a way that helps the public form the language to describe their own ideas and contribute to political debates.  Conservative newspapers protecting their business model and venting long stale grudges do not appear to be helping the public to grapple with this difficult question.

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3 thoughts on “Quick Post: Government Secrets and the Conservative Credibility Gap #auspol

  1. Pingback: Quick Post: On @antloewenstein’s wishlist for journalism #auspol | Only The Sangfroid

  2. Pingback: Are conservatives entitled to a soapbox on the ABC? | The Other Right

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