Essay by Eric Worrall
“… if the [Aussie] ABC provided footage to the police it would breach Four Corners journalists’ commitment to keep some activists’ identities anonymous. …”
ABC facing internal pressure to withhold Four Corners’ Woodside material
By Hamish Hastie and Calum Jaspan
October 6, 2023 — 3.56pm
The ABC is facing internal pressure to defy an order from WA Police to hand over footage filmed for a Four Corners investigation into climate protesting and police tactics, due to air on Monday.
Staff on the public broadcaster’s media union house committee met on Friday to demand their bosses withhold the footage, warning to hand it over would damage the organisation’s reputation as a producer of public interest journalism.
A promotional video released this week for the episode, “Escalation: Climate, protest and the fight for the future”, features footage of Disrupt Burrup Hub activists being arrested outside Woodside chief executive Meg O’Neill’s Perth home during an attempted protest in August.
Under powers prescribed in the state’s Criminal Investigations Act, WA Police regularly send “orders to produce” to media outlets, including for footage of crime scenes captured by news cameras or CCTV and mobile phone footage obtained by journalists.
Disrupt Burrup Hub media advisor Jesse Noakes, who was also arrested outside O’Neill’s house for his alleged role in the protest, said that if the ABC provided footage to the police it would breach Four Corners journalists’ commitment to keep some activists’ identities anonymous.
WA Police Minister Paul Papalia said he was comfortable with police actions.
“If Four Corners knew about these events in advance it’s actually really irresponsible and pretty disgraceful behaviour that they didn’t notify the police,” he said.
Read more: https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/abc-facing-internal-pressure-to-withhold-four-corners-material-20231006-p5eabl.html
A trailer for the video at the center of this controversy is available here.
The protestors didn’t get a chance to do much protesting – the police somehow knew about the attack on the Woodside Oil CEO’s house, no thanks to the ABC. Police stormed out of the residence and arrested the protestors after they allegedly illegally trespassed on Meg O’Neill’s property.
The big question in my mind though, does press freedom extend to having advance knowledge of an upcoming criminal attack on someone’s home, and not informing the police? Or to withholding video evidence of the incident when police demand access?
Let’s accept for a moment the ABC possibly wasn’t aware an alleged crime was about to be committed – maybe the “source” only informed them there was going to be a protest. Does protecting sources still apply, after people get arrested?
It would be easy to say A CRIME HAS BEEN COMMITTED at this point, but lets turn the situation on its head. Imagine the protestors were a group we sympathise with, rather than a vile bunch of hypocritical greenshirts.
Say a citizen journalist captured footage of vaccine freedom protestors clashing with police.
Most media sources have accepted the official narrative that at lockdown protests in Melbourne, during which police opened fire at protestors with rubber bullets, the lockdown protestors were the aggressors.
But one witness who makes me seriously question this version of events is former Victoria Police sergeant Krystle Mitchell. She claims she could no longer stand to wear her police uniform, after police opened fire with rubber bullets at protestors assembled around the Melbourne shrine of remembrance.
The official version of events, that protestors were the aggressors, that they came armed and prepared for battle. This would be the legal basis for any official demand for protest footage. But given Krystle’s vehement denial that protestors instigated the aggression, I have my doubts about the truth of the official narrative – which raises the possibility that the seized footage could be used to persecute innocent people who have been entrapped, provoked into responding by deliberate police brutality.
Similarly the January 6th protest – look at all the conflicting narratives that event has spawned, and consider how some of those narratives might be abused.
If someone attacked my home, as Meg O’Neill’s home was allegedly attacked, I’d want every effort to be made to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. But would it be right to force journalists to hand over footage which they obtained with a promise they would never reveal their sources? Aside from the obvious criticism, that such footage should never have been filmed if it was so sensitive, how can laws be framed which allow police to obtain the evidence they need to identify and prosecute criminals, yet at the same time which maintain protections for journalistic freedom?
A final question, where did the police obtain their high quality tipoff? Have the police already seen the privileged video, and now just need official access, so they can use it as evidence? If the police have an informant inside the ABC, or if the police are just covering for their friends in the ABC, making a big show of conflict with the press to conceal that the ABC gave them a friendly tipoff to let them know what was happening, that is a whole new can of worms.