Jane Caro: The ABC Raids Could Spell The End Of Democracy As We Know It

The headline in today’s New York Times says it all really: “Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy."

Once I would have greeted such a headline with scepticism, even a degree of patriotic outrage, but not anymore. Now I click on the article and read it with a sinking heart. It is hard to argue with the venerable American paper’s conclusion.

It is particularly hard in the face of raids on individual journalists and our public broadcaster by the Australian Federal Police over the past two days. The very events, in fact, that gave rise to the New York Times' sudden concern about the state of our democracy.

On Wednesday, June 5, federal police officers raided ABC's Sydney offices over stories published in 2017 that suggested Australian troops may have committed war crimes. (Image: AAP)

They are not the only ones who are worried.

Twitter exploded yesterday when news of the very public raid on the Sydney headquarters of the ABC broke. There had already been a great deal of concern the previous day about the AFP raids on Sunday Telegraph political editor Annika Smethurst’s home and on 2GB’s Ben Fordham. What makes this sudden and intimidating response by the police seem even more bizarre -- I hesitate to say sinister -- is that each journalist was being investigated for a different story.

Smethurst was subjected to seven hours of searching in response to a story about plans to extend the power of the state to conduct surveillance on its citizens (I am sure the irony of this has not escaped her). Fordham had reported on a story about several boats of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka attempting to get to Australia. And the ABC was subjected to what has been described as a warrant so broad it could hoover up almost anything (including, one rumour has it, urine and stool samples), issued on the basis of a 2017 story about alleged atrocities by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

READ MORE: 'Disturbing Time To Be A Journalist': AFP Raid ABC

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From a member of the public’s perspective, all these stories would appear legitimate and just the sort of thing citizens should be informed about in a functioning democracy. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the Trump-era slogan of The Washington Post, and it was ringing in my head like a death knell all yesterday as I watched events unfold.

But why the heavy-handed approach now, a scant two weeks after the current government won what was dubbed the unwinnable election?

The Prime Minister claims to have known nothing about the raids and has commented that no one should be "above the law". However, I think this misses the point. Such dramatic actions will have all sorts of consequences. One is a chilling effect on both the willingness of whistle-blowers to lift the lid on wrong-doing by the powerful, and on the courage of editors to publish any such stories that do come to light.

Mind you, this job was already well underway. Before any of the raids, Monday night’s Media Watch exposed the ABC’s decision to spike a story about the proposed Adani mine.

The intimidation of whistle-blowers (one is currently facing an absurd sentence of 161 years), the public broadcaster and investigative journalism in general is a very bad development in any democracy and I am surprised our new PM seems so blasé about it. Particularly as another consequence is to make Australians speculate wildly about what it is that this government feels it needs to hide.

Intimidation tactics or not, people will now be digging into and gossiping about all sorts of possibilities and rumours with a righteous zeal. 'If there is nothing to see here, why all the fuss?' is everyone’s first thought. It has also driven many more people to return to the ABC story and read it again, and it has also drawn much more attention to Smethurst and Fordham’s stories as well.

If the aim was to shut people up about this stuff, I suspect it may have failed. It has also re-ignited support for an Australian Bill of Rights and a Media Freedom Act by reminding everyone forcibly how vulnerable we are without such protections.

The raids have also achieved something that I, for one, never believed possible, and that is to unite Smethurst’s employer News Corp, 2GB and the ABC around a principle -- the public’s right to know. Once sworn enemies are now -- albeit temporarily, perhaps -- on the same side.

READ MORE: Journalist's Home Raided By AFP Over Spying Story

READ MORE: A Rundown Of Attempts To Get Rid Of The ABC As We Know It

British author C.J. Sansom once wrote that he no longer feared the resurgence of communism or fascism in the modern world. Instead he feared the rise of toxic democracies characterised by nationalism and xenophobia. Let’s hope that Australia is not leading the way.