Hoo Boy, Those Blanked-Out Front Pages Are Causing A Stir In Canberra Today

Australian politicians have responded to today’s newspaper blackout with a mix of support and anger, as the new head of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) – the department central to the current debate over press freedoms – faces a contentious Senate committee hearing in Canberra.

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Speaking at this morning’s committee, Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally questioned fresh AFP boss Reece Kershaw about his department’s role in stoking the media-wide Right To Know movement.

The protest movement, which has seen Nine and News Corp newspapers join other leading outlets to call for increased legal protections for journalists and whistleblowers, was spurred by two successive AFP raids on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and the offices of the ABC in June.

Stunningly, those journalists are still in the dark over whether they will face criminal charges for reporting on sensitive government material. A Senate inquiry on the impact of law enforcement on press freedom is now underway.

Basically, today’s industry action has not cast the actions of the AFP in a good light, and Keneally appeared to take advantage of that fact.

“What do you think the events were that sparked the campaign?” asked Keneally, after showcasing several blanked-out front pages to the new commissioner.

“I’m an evidence-based police officer, so for me, I haven’t even turned my mind to that,” Kershaw said.

“You haven’t turned your mind to the fact that every newspaper in the country looks like it’s been redacted as a result of government secrecy?” Keneally said, spurring Kershaw to say he planned to meet with editors to discuss their concerns.

Facing new Labor Senator Raff Ciccone, Kershaw said he didn’t know if further raids were planned, but wouldn’t rule anything out.

“It’s something that we’d obviously be having a look at, and we have to abide by some new guidelines, so that hasn’t come to my attention as of yet,” Kershaw said.

The issue has been addressed outside of the committee hearing, too. Taking to Twitter, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said his party believes “journalists should not be prosecuted, or face going to jail, simply for doing their jobs.”

And in a brief statement at Parliament House last night, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told Sky News “journalism is not a crime.

“These three journalists were doing their job, letting the Australian public know what they have a right to know.

“And therefore, it is entirely inappropriate that there be charges against journalists for doing their jobs.”

Greens Senator Nick McKim had harsh words for both Labor and the Coalition, arguing both had effectively “colluded” to permit a legal environment where raids against journalists were possible.

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was also critical, pointing to News Corp’s reporting on his relationship with former staffer Vikki Campion as evidence it “cuts both ways.”

“I understand your imperative of the public interest test, I really do. But you can’t say putting a private individual, a pregnant woman crossing the street, on your front page is in the public interest,” Joyce said.

Expect more pollies to speak out in the days to come.