The ABC’s Decision to Disclose its Sources Marks a Dark Day for Democracy

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ABC breaking media trust

Airing on 9 October 2023, the Four Corners documentary Escalation involved ABC journalists engaging with several Perth-based climate defence groups in regard to the rising pushback by WA police against nonviolent protests aimed at defending the climate against human-caused global heating. 

Escalation revealed the human face of activists who are staging disruptive actions to warn the community of the pending dangers being faced due to the climate crisis, along with the challenge they subject to as WA counterterrorism police escalate their responses to preventing such protests. 

The obvious issue that the WA government and police, as well as the authorities in all other states, had with the documentary is that there’s been an increasing effort on the part of those in charge to demonise and criminalise climate defenders, framing them as public enemy number one. 

The documentary involved footage of members of climate defence group Disrupt Burrup Hub, as they were planning a nonviolent direct action to highlight the crisis the planet is facing, and, via last minute notification, the ABC crew were able to be present at the address when it was to take place. 

And just prior to the film’s release, WA police demanded the ABC hand over all the raw footage taken of DBH, in what at first appears to be an attempt to catch them out on film, but increasingly seems like an ideal way to shut down all such activist empathising programming in the future. 

Silencing dissent

As to whether the ABC was going to hand over its footage, it initially said it wouldn’t, as it protects its sources on principle, it hadn’t been aware of what the protest was going to involve, and the Four Corners team was only informed of the address fifteen minutes prior to the event. 

DBH is campaigning against Woodside’s Burrup Hub, located in northern WA, which is the largest fossil fuel project on this continent. And the fairly lowkey nonviolent action that was attended by the ABC was to be staged by one teenage woman in front of Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill’s house. 

Due to the pushback and suggestions that press freedoms were under attack, WA police went on to tell the ABC that it would be prepared to work with it, in terms of reducing the amount of footage the broadcaster would hand over. 

But as Disrupt Burrup Hub media advisor Jesse Noakes told Sydney Criminal Lawyers a fortnight ago, the reputation of the ABC is going to be shot if it hands over the footage, as it guaranteed multiple times during pre-filming negotiations that nothing would be released under any circumstances. 

And while DBH are rightly concerned that releasing the footage could lead to charges being laid, the ultimate goal of the authorities might very well be to break public trust in the media, so that no favourable portrayals of climate defenders or any such activists makes it to prime time again. 

Grilled into compliance

A gaggle of Coalition senators put ABC managing director Tim Anderson through the wringer at a 24 October budget estimates hearing, as they suggested there was no way that the ABC wasn’t in some manner complicit with the actions that protesters tried to undertake outside O’Neill’s house. 

Anderson agreed that his staff were aware a “nonviolent protest” was planned, but as Senator Michaelia Cash retorted, this action was actually “a criminal offence”. And when Anderson replied “sure, vandalism”, the former attorney general asked, “Do you know about trespass?” 

A series of other suggestions were put to the ABC head: questions about journalist complicity and their presumed actions if the crime had been something like robbing a jewellery store. And all the while, this conversation is part of a broader global effort by authorities to criminalise protest. 

Anderson further explained that the ABC is “seeking to get constraints in the order to produce such that we can protect confidential sources where we have provided a confidential obligation”, and he added that policy reform now sees an obligation to inform management of any potential crimes. 

Yet, comments made by Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson hint at the further impact the handing over of any footage to police could have, which is that the trust between the activist community and major media players might be broken in a way that ultimately benefits the fossil fuel industry. 

Henderson described the program as “the most biased piece of journalism”. She added that whilst she understood the ABC wanted to tell the story of protesters, it made no effort to explain “the benefits that Woodside has delivered to this country and about the benefits of coal and gas”. 

“It looked like a propaganda piece for these activists, not telling an objective story about the pressures that these companies are under and about what protesters are doing and also explaining important facts like the benefits these companies have brought to our nation,” the senator added. 

Targeted by police

During a press conference in the wake of Anderson’s budget estimates drilling, Disrupt Burrup Hub’s Tahlia Stohlarski said the real story behind what’s been happening in WA is that climate defenders like her have been subjected to “12 months of overreaching police scrutiny and intimidation”. 

The activist who’s facing charges over not having handed over the passwords to her devices, spoke of repeated police raids on activists’ homes, and made clear that if the ABC hands over any of the footage, it will be actively partaking in the public silencing of activists moving into the future. 

Stohlarski was joined at the press conference by fellow DBH activist Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton, who emphasised that he’d agreed to speak to the ABC but in no way did this extend to a WA police investigation. 

Burton added that, as an Aboriginal death in custody campaigner, he’s concerned that vulnerable people may end up in prison because of the handover of the footage. 

Indeed, in August, a plainclothes police officer pulled a gun on a young DBH activist, who was initially unaware that the man pointing the weapon at him was an employee of that state’s law enforcement agency. 

“And the ABC, if they hand over the unaired footage of the Four Corners episode to who they please, will be failing in their obligation to the Australian public and to the truth,” said Joana Partyka, the third DBH activist at last week’s press conference. 

Partyka is currently awaiting the outcome of her case in which she was prosecuted for not handing over the passwords for her devices, after she was raided in relation to potential future crimes and no other charges were laid. 

The Disrupt Burrup Hub activist added that “it’s laughable” that the ABC claims to be “committed to telling stories in the public interest”, while it’s now acquiescing to hand over footage to the WA authorities, which are “enslaved by the fossil fuel industry”. 

But if the authorities are attempting to break any trust the climate movement has in certain journalists so as to completely erase programs like Escalation from the media landscape, then the trashing of the ABC’s reputation in the eyes of activists is exactly what authorities are seeking.  

Main photo: Disrupt Burrup Hub’s Tahlia Stohlarski, Desmond Blurton and Joana Partyka outside the Perth ABC offices

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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