Secret Australia

A speech I gave about power and secrecy and the way the media shapes reality. For me the challenge in journalism is, when every other media voice in the known universe is screaming the same thing, to have the insight and the courage to say, no matter how ineffectually: this isn’t right. Yes, how trite.

Colin Simpson Lecture,  Australian Society of Authors February 2007

 I want to talk about secret things. Of a hidden country that shares our borders: about the unmarked roads of power and influence that shape our society and our culture; the secret Australia that doesn’t submit to scrutiny or accountability. There’s something incorrigibly covert about the exercise of money and power. It functions almost always as a community of privilege and exclusion that marks those who are in and those who are out, those in the know from those outside not looking on.

As a landscape, this secret country is not a continent so much as a series of separate islands, of locales marked by understandings and arrangements, a discreet commerce of money flows, networks and favours, with its own system of signals and exchanges; groupings of allies, mates and associates who use power and wealth and information to play games with their own rules, often beyond the reach of the law.

 And it’s almost always corrupt in some form. It’s the way that these things work.

This secret side has always been part of Australia. In the archipelago of real politics and power, we know it as—the way things really get done. The question for us here is: this is our country, this is our culture. Figuring out how it works is what we do. So how do we write about it?

We see glimpses of the secret archipelago in courtrooms and royal commissions: the corporate culture at AWB that channelled bribes to Iraq. The endemic corruption that finds police forces irresistible. The revelations of Rene Rivkin’s Swiss bank accounts, and the vast network of people who both knew about Rivkin’s activities and who themselves operate routinely across the tax havens of the world. The cartels, the clubs, the fixers, the corrupt lobbyists, reflect entire sub-cultures within Australia that operate out of public view.

We know of these things in a general way, but when they come to light directly it is a scandal. We are shocked, shocked, when the light bulb goes off. And in that moment of revelation everything changes. And that is the most interesting part. The moment that the Wood Royal Commission plays the film of Chook Fowler taking a bribe in the car. The afternoon in February when having lunch with Brian Burke became a hanging offence; and mixing up your parliamentary share records was not carelessness, but political suicide.

In those moments we see things that were always there before us, but we didn’t perceive. They are invisible, then they appear . . . and then they disappear again. Yet most of these things are there to be seen if we choose. So why don’t we? There is no comprehensive answer, but I believe it’s a bit like sleight of hand, the illusionist’s trick that works with misdirection. We don’t see the magician slipping the card from his sleeve because our attention in drawn elsewhere. And who shapes public attention? Inevitably when we seek to map the secret archipelago, we are forced to look at the industry that provides most of our view of the world, public and private, that says we will look here, rather than there. We have to look at the media.

I want to make two points. First, the way the media works is changing. One mark of power is when you see something happening that has no rational explanation.

This example is a little tricky to follow through but the end effect was pretty simple: it’s a big newspaper stuffed up a story and in the process drastically changed the landscape of a major city. Kind of in a nice way

When I returned to Queensland in 1988 after three years overseas it was to a different country. Matters that had been general knowledge for years suddenly were a cause for criminal investigation in the Fitzgerald inquiry and public pillory. The effect was overpowering. But Brisbane had another topic of conversation besides Fitzgerald. It was Expo 88, the city’s world trade fair.

The two stories came together when the government decided who would get to redevelop the spectacular Expo 88 site on the south bank after the fair was over. In May 1988 the Ahern government awarded the tender to a Japanese consortium called River City 2000, which agreed to pay $200 million over six years while it built a hotel casino. The next day it emerged that the chairman of River City 2000 was a senior National Party figure.

There it would have remained, but three weeks later, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story titled, ‘How Ahern’s Govt made the worst Expo bid the best’. It began:

The Queensland Government adjusted the winning tender for the development of the Expo site . . . to make it look like the highest bid, senior government sources told the Herald yesterday. The winning bid was in reality the lowest on the short list.

The story hit Brisbane like a bomb. By 5.30 that morning, politicians were being called out of bed and summoned to television studios to discuss the story. It was all over the talk shows and by midday it was established fact that this was another National Party rort.

Over lunch I sat down to re-read the story and because I am horribly, irredeemably nerdish, I worked through the numbers behind the story. Only the numbers didn’t work. The source for the Herald story had made a $10 million mistake. Maybe it was just a typo. Or they forgot to carry the ten in one of those long multiplication sums. I’ll spare you the details but the story didn’t stand up. It was wrong.

That afternoon I called the underbidder in the tender who confirmed the Herald numbers weren’t right. The next morning I called Ahern’s office with the good news, the Get Out of Jail card. As it turned out, they didn’t want to know. I was young enough to be surprised.

In the middle of the Fitzgerald inquiry, with the media in full attack mode, a defence that said the story was wrong because of some difference in calculating discounted cashflow figures was  never going to save them. What was I thinking? It was way too late for that. The political fact was, this project was dead. Two days later Ahern cancelled the Expo 88 contract.

The property market promptly collapsed and the Expo 88 land was never sold. The government never got its money. Instead South Bank became public parkland, and today it’s a Brisbane landmark. It was the happiest of possible outcomes, thanks to the Herald’s story—and I have enormous respect for the journalist who wrote it. But don’t call it a rational outcome. That’s an example of changing media power. And my tiny part in it was entirely discreditable.

In the mid-1980s, the Financial Times reported that one of the most significant events in history had passed unnoticed on a day around 1979, when information became, for the first time in history, a commodity in excess supply. Information was no longer scarce. That flip-over point was a 24-hour period when the number of new items of information created in the world was more than 200 million.

Philip Knightley has written about the way that the information stream has continued to grow until today we are surrounded and buffeted by an information blizzard that clouds everything around us. This oversupply of conflicting data is what the information revolution is all about, he concluded.

That experience of being battered on all sides by information overload is something that we all know. But the media doesn’t always work like that. There are moments when suddenly all the information blows the same way. To change analogy, it’s like that moment when you put a magnet underneath a sheet of iron filings. Suddenly they are all lined up, all going the same way. All of the information is telling you the same thing. There is no other voice. This is the electronic media storm at its worst. It’s huge and inexhaustible, it’s out of control, and it’s almost impossible to overcome. This is the new reality.

That’s what hit Expo88. It’s the media storm that forced Nick Greiner to resign for what the ICAC said was corruption, before the Supreme Court said ICAC got it wrong. It’s what descended on the AWB inquiry last year. It lives and breathes on a simple emotional message. And that’s all that it leaves room to say. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. But when it runs over you, there are no gentle ways to survive.

That’s one part of the way media is changing. But it’s not just how the media covers the world that is evolving. It’s also what the media is allowed to cover.

A year ago I was speaking at the launch of Packer’s Lunch when I recognised Tony Hartnell in the second row. Hartnell is one of Sydney’s most able legal practitioners, the founding chairman of the Australian Securities Commission. He’s also Trevor Kenendy’s lawyer, something that made me attend closely to anything he said about my book. In fact he was very polite, and simply commented that the main reason business books could be written in Australia was that Lionel Murphy made a High Court ruling in the 1980s that opened court transcripts to journalists and writers.

It’s not just Murphy. There’s been a consistent shift in the judiciary towards a more open and transparent system of justice. Hartnell was saying that for all we in the media may talk about investigative journalism and exposes and revelations, the great bulk of our stories about corruption or scandals or secret affairs comes from the courts and parliament. It’s no coincidence that the most devastating media coverage has come from royal commissions. We depend upon official records and privileged material that we can quote without fear of libel suits. This is what we can say. Beyond that we are often silent.

The truth is, any changes in the laws about reporting legal procedures will have drastic effects on what we write about—and what we know. Change the law and part of the world appears or disappears.

I simply note these two global aspects—the media storm and the changing legal framework—shaped what we wrote about influence and power in the 1980s and ’90s. Because in the new century these things change again. For nothing is the same after September 11.

The alliance between media and government has created a whole new hierarchy of power—because media is an essential part of this new world order. The war on terror proved the ideal trigger for the perfect media storm. It has gone on and on and on, sucking out the oxygen from other coverage, attaching itself to anything from the war in Iraq, to asylum seekers and children overboard, to airline security, to AWB, to endless domestic security fears.

It drowns out so many other messages. And the uncertainty it creates has provided the rationale for draconian law changes which now allow Australians to be secretly arrested and held for up to 14 days on suspicion that they are threats to national security. Their arrests cannot be reported, their hearings are closed. The law says such people disappear and they do.

Now we see them. Now we don’t. And they can’t talk about it afterwards, or they face a five-year jail sentence. Part of our legal system has changed and the reason I’m concerned is that changes like these don’t operate in isolation. The effects flow through the system. This is the very stuff of the secret world. And the border between the secret and public is sliding.

It’s a global effect. The two sides—the media storm and the new legal regime—came together on the afternoon in late January 2002 when the Pentagon released footage of prisoners stumbling into legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay. The prisoners from Aghanistan had been dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, handcuffed and shackled, blinded and deafened, then flown around the world to be housed in open air cages.

This was a media moment. For a world that had been deeply traumatised by the tragedy of September 11, it was spectacular footage which was played and replayed endlessly in the next 72 hours.

Today we hardly even remember it. But at that moment it was the single image which pronounced most clearly: this is what happens to people who become involved in crimes of such barbarism. They were rendered helpless, deaf, blind, objects of spectacle. It was a symbol—almost a still frame—that said, ‘This is our enemy and this is what we do to him.’

And then they disappeared. We saw glimpses of them through the wire in the months and years that followed, but to all intents and purposes as the film clip finished they had vanished.

I’m going to digress here. Because we have not always reported legal proceedings in the way we do now. Michel Foucault begins his book Discipline and Punish with a detailed description of the execution of Robert Francois Damiens, a French army officer who tried to stab the king with a penknife in 1757. Foucault uses the broadsheets and posters, the official records, the diaries and letters written by eyewitnesses to give a blow by blow account of Damien’s death—the hot pincers that tore slabs of flesh, the difficulties in harnessing horses to pull the prisoner apart, each groan and exclamation that the tortures produced. It’s all there in the media of the day.

Foucault places Damien’s death in the context of a justice system throughout Europe that produced spectacular punishment to deter others. The public executions were exemplary. They said, ‘This is what we do when we catch you.’ The flip side of that was an obsession with secrecy about everything else in the French prison system. The French still used the lettres de cachet, which were warrants that could be obtained by the powerful for the arrest and detention of any individual described as a threat to state security. They could be held in oubliettes, the holes underneath the dungeons, the secret prisons where people were consigned and forgotten.

Within 50 years of Damien’s death, Foucault notes, the justice system in Europe had changed dramatically. The focus on secret imprisonment and public punishment had reversed. The centre point was now the public trial.

Foucault argues—and you don’t have to be a post-modernist to see his point—that the biggest reason for the change was the creation of police forces.  For the first time there was a mechanism to ensure criminals were brought to account. The message of the justice system changed from public punishment that said, ‘This is what we do if we catch you,’ to focus on the trial, where the message was: ‘Of course we will catch you. And this is how we do it.’ It’s the belief in the inescapable reach of justice that is being celebrated with all its mundane detail.

While we are nowhere near the public executions of the eighteenth century there is enough resonance with the events of the last five years to give us pause. First, for eighteenth century justice, secrecy and spectacle went hand in hand. The presentation of Taliban prisoners before the world, helpless and humiliated, and their subsequent disappearance into CampX-Ray seems to fit that mixture.

If so it suggests that we can expect further outbreaks of the spectacular. It’s the way that secret systems work. Secrecy has a way of exposing itself. So the revelations of Abu Ghraib should hardly be a surprise to us. Or the way we were able to watch Saddam Hussein’s execution filmed on a mobile phone. When justice becomes secret, the return to the spectacular, to punishment as show business, whether it’s planned or not, seems to be entirely predictable. And we in the media certainly understand show business.

The second point is that if we move away from a system of public and transparent justice, it’s because we are losing the belief that it works. Our police forces, our institutions are not able to handle the threat of suicide bombers. We are no longer confident of prevailing. It represents a fundamental failure of nerve.

We don’t believe in ourselves. In Australia we grew up with the Anzac legend, the stories of fathers and grandfathers going away to war, to fight and die to preserve our freedoms. Now the deaths of innocents, victims of terrorist bombings, achieve exactly the reverse. That failure of nerve seems to make us something less than we have been.

Because it doesn’t stop there. When the secret world is rising, the demand for discretion, for silence, for a lack of accountability becomes a cover for everything else in the shadows. The whole system becomes tainted and subverted. There’s no magic to it, it’s just the way things work.

Terrorism is a serious concern. But so much in our society already escapes scrutiny. If our fear makes us fence things off behind another wall of secrecy, then I believe most other things in the secret world will prosper as well. You can’t quarantine these things. And it won’t stop here. We know how easy it is for police forces to be corrupted. When money and power is at stake, why should the anti-terrorism regime be exempt? What is to stop the evolution of a corrupt corporate culture similar to, for example, AWB? How would we begin to tackle it?

At the heart of any culture of secrecy is that moment when the national concern or the corporate responsibility becomes confused with the personal interest. It begins in small ways.

So we have Santo Santoro, so keen to police the ABC’s patriotic coverage, yet lacking that same care when reporting his own financial affairs. You have the American president suspected of using his powers under the Patriot Act to sack prosecutors who chased Republicans too hard and Democrats not hard enough. The stories that we never plumb, of featherbedding in security contracts, of babies overboard and refugee ships sinking. The ghastly camps that we build for asylum seekers, that it turns out also house Australian residents; and then Australians.

And the secret archipelago grows, even as it recedes further from view.

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