Australia’s rush to embrace sweeping powers to access the digital footprints of its citizenry has raised the existential age-old question: What is a journalist?
The development of the government’s data retention bill and its implications were woefully under-reported by those most obviously fitting the description until we got to the pointy end of the law-making.
One honourable exception to prove the rule was Bernard Keane at Crikey who has been writing extensively on the issue for months, if not years.
For the rest, it wasn’t until the 11th hour that journalists started showing some concern and then, predictably, it was how the new laws would impact them rather than the rest of us which caught their attention.
As Crikey’s leader column put it on Thursday, 19 March:
Well, that’s journalists looked after.
Once they discovered, almost too late, that data retention posed a significant threat to one of the core aspects of journalism, Australia’s media have spent the last 10 days up in arms about mass surveillance, after, with one or two exceptions, ignoring the issue for the last three years.
Journalists will be protected from having their metadata examined in order to identify their sources by a special warrant involving a “public interest advocate”. But what about lawyers? Where’s their protection? What about doctors? For that matter, what about ordinary Australians? The media, apparently, isn’t interested in anyone else but itself.
The journalism information warrant is a good idea. So good, it should be extended, to everyone. If the government wants our data — anyone’s data — get a damn warrant.
But if journalists are to be looked after in this brave new world, who are they and why are they special? Having won this small victory for themselves, have they conceded the war once waged on our behalf?
What is a journalist? It’s a question being asked internationally, not just in Australia, and not for the first time. The debate goes back at least to the invention of the printing press but could arguably stretch even further into history – as far as Socrates, according to Mark Pearson, a self-described ‘press freedom worrier.’
I grew up among journalists, including my father the Big Baxter, but I’ve struggled to recall a single moment when the existential question of what is a journalist was even raised.
It was someone who worked for a news organisation of course, but when Bax worked for no-one as a stringer, selling stories to whoever would take them, he was no less a journalist. If he failed to find a market for a story, was his work on it less ‘journalistic?’
In his day it was most definitely something you didn’t learn at j-school, as they call it in the US, so it wasn’t a piece of paper which made you a journalist. It was something you learned by getting beaten to a story by a gun reporter and having your words torn to pieces by a grizzled old sub.
And if you were smart you learned from how the gun reporter got his stories and what the old sub did to yours.
He was both gun reporter and grizzled old sub to your Girl Reporter when I joined him on the computer magazine he had started in the 1970s, long before the rise of the citizen journalist and the blogger.
But I believe he saw them coming. The thing which consistently excited him about technology related to its potential for ordinary people to tell their stories.
Since I must guess how Bax would define a journalist I imagine he would say that it’s someone who represents those ordinary people, who seeks answers to the questions they would ask.
Nothing in what I can remember of anything he said about journalism precludes the work of many distinguished bloggers, but they are not protected under Australia’s new laws.
In terms of specific advice to your young Girl Reporter I recall more on how to tell a story than what makes one. In my favourite lesson Bax as grizzled old sub held up a piece of my work, with something akin to disgust, and asked me, “What’s the story here?”
I struggled to explain what was right there in black and white until he stopped me and said: “Look, you’ve got to the bus stop just as the bus is pulling away with me on it. Quick. I’m leaning out the window. What’s the story?”
When I told him he flung the sheet of copy paper back at me and said, “There’s your intro. Take it away and do it again.”
In Bax’s day, freedom of the press belonged firmly to the people who could afford to own one but the freedom of journalists themselves has always been less clear-cut. In the laws of many countries – most prominently the US – there is no distinction between the rights of the journalist and that of the citizen.
In the 21st century publishing is more akin to the 17th when pamphlets and penny dreadfuls were distributed in coffee houses and on street corners. Freedom of the presses, as argued in 1644 by John Milton, rested in “… the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience” and it applied to all citizens, above all other liberties.
Today, in Australia, that liberty does not extend to all. Asked how he defined a journalist, attorney-general George Brandis was clear the term did not include bloggers although he conceded that ultimately the definition would rest with the courts.
Most bloggers are happy to splash about in the warm waters of free expression with our carefully considered and well-argued opinions. Deep Throat will not be dropping us a DM anytime soon.
But there are also bloggers who are doing the serious work of journalism and reporting on issues with more clarity and dedication than many of their accredited cousins.
Deep end or shallow, Australia’s data retention laws are a reminder that if you’re going to swim in the publishing pool at least know where the hidden objects lie.
The arguments for free expression today are remarkably similar to Milton’s. He resisted the licensing of journalism. As citizens, so should we. Even more so when our journalists won’t.
Press freedom, social media and the citizen – Mark Pearson’s 2013 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Lecture includes an excellent examination of John Milton and his argument for freedom of the presses.
How do you define journalism? Five questions about Abbott’s metadata deal – Paul Farrell, The Guardian 17 March 2015
No protection for bloggers from metadata laws rules George Brandis – Jared Owens, The Australian 17 March 2015 (paywall)
Online Privacy: A Basic Guide – Rob Marsh, the Australian Independent Media Network 25 March 2015
At the mercy of the state – Jennifer Wilson, No Place for Sheep 25 March 2015
Mandatory metadata retention becomes law as Coalition and Labor combine – Daniel Hurst, The Guardian 27 March 2015
Your Girl Reporter blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here.