By Michael Bachelard and Nick McKenzie
Senior journalist Annika Smethurst’s house was raided by police. Credit: Illustration: Matthew Absalom-Wong
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The public servant in charge of Australia’s internal security lobbied hard for the power to censor the media’s reporting of national security issues after the Australian Federal Police controversially raided three Australian journalists over their reporting.
In a series of text messages to an influential Liberal Party operative in 2019, the secretary of the Home Affairs department, Michael Pezzullo, sought to convince then prime minister Scott Morrison to introduce a system of “D-Notices” – by which government agencies would be able to pressure media organisations not to publish stories deemed damaging to national security.
Pezzullo pursued the issue despite the apparent indifference of the government, after his anger was stoked by a report by then News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst – who is now state political editor for The Age – about his secret proposal to allow the nation’s external intelligence agency to spy on Australians.
In other messages, Pezzullo wrote that the government could “criminalise” journalists in certain circumstances for reporting on what they were told by government whistleblowers.
The revelations come after The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed a five-year conversation between Pezzullo and Briggs as the Home Affairs secretary used as a back channel to two Liberal prime ministers to try to further his ambitions. Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil on Monday announced an inquiry by the Australian Public Service Commissioner into Pezzullo’s behaviour, but did not stand him down.
“I am aware of reporting regarding communications between Mr Michael Pezzullo and Mr Scott Briggs,” O’Neil said in a statement. “Last night I referred this matter to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Dr Gordon de Brouwer.”
Smethurst’s April 2018 story was based partly on a leaked letter written by Pezzullo, in which he proposed the Australian Signals Directorate be able to access the private information of Australians in the name of increasing security.
The following year, Australian Federal Police raided Smethurst’s house. Pezzullo praised the officers who conducted the raid and the Home Affairs secretary called publicly for the jailing of the person who had leaked the document to Smethurst.
The raid on Smethurst, along with a separate raid targeting two ABC journalists, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, led to a public debate and a parliamentary committee inquiry into the balance between press freedom and increasingly heavy-handed security legislation.
Senior journalist Annika Smethurst at a Press Club speech on press freedom following the raid on her home in 2019.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer
More than a thousand messages to Liberal Party operative Scott Briggs, obtained by The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes, show Pezzullo used the leak to Smethurst to denigrate former defence minister Marise Payne and other colleagues, including his fellow bureaucrats, and to go behind Smethurst’s back to criticise her to her senior journalistic colleagues.
Pezzullo’s messages also show a contempt for several well-known media figures. He congratulated then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for putting prominent journalist Waleed Aly “in his place,” described young reporter Primrose Riordan as a “silly journalist”, veteran ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy as “a sneering, cynical hack,” and referred to broadcaster Alan Jones’ view that the Murugappan family of Biloela should be allowed to stay in Australia as a “rant”.
Pezzullo, who has a responsibility as a senior public servant to be apolitical, to serve his minister and to be transparent in his dealings in the public interest, instead cultivated a secret relationship with Briggs, a party apparatchik who had the ear of successive Liberal prime ministers.
‘She is useless’
On April 29, 2018, Smethurst published a story citing a letter written by Pezzullo. It outlined his proposal to allow government hackers working for the Australian Signals Directorate to “proactively disrupt and covertly remove” onshore cyber threats by “hacking into critical infrastructure” in Australia.
In WhatsApp messages between Pezzullo and Briggs on the Sunday the story was published, the powerful public servant turned his attack on Payne over her response to Smethurst’s questions published in the article.
“Payne is completely ineffectual,” Pezzullo wrote to Briggs around midday. “She could have killed the story yesterday.”
“She is useless,” Briggs agreed, before reassuring Pezzullo that, “Scott [Morrison] was at pains to say he has your back – meaning he agreed it [the hacking policy] is a totally necessary measure. [Then prime minister] Malcolm [Turnbull] said he supports it as well. We just need to make sure they stay committed.”
“The shame of it is that Payne could have turned it around yesterday had she engaged,” wrote Pezzullo. “I could have turned it into a great story for the Government … once Smethurst had the yarn she could have been turned.”
Payne declined to comment.
Smethurst told The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes: “I don’t think it’s the role of department people to be trying to turn journalists.
“This was a profound change [of policy], one that the intelligence watchdog, Margaret Stone at the time, warned against … I wasn’t in the business of writing great stories for any government or any opposition. It was just about getting facts out there and I would have written it in the same manner.”
Fourteen months later, in June 2019, Pezzullo returned to the subject after the Australian Federal Police – which is also part of the Home Affairs portfolio but not under Pezzullo’s operational command – raided Smethurst’s home and confiscated her electronic devices.
The furious media reaction prompted Pezzullo to write to his senior contacts in the media who he described in messages to Briggs as “some colleagues in the 4th estate”.
“I respect your journalism but I am calling foul on your commentary on the AFP warrant on Smethurst,” Pezzullo wrote, forwarding the extended message to Briggs. “You cannot possibly defend so-called ‘public interest journalism’ which is entirely false, and where no evidence of wrongdoing is exposed … Why do I know this to be false? Because I wrote the proposal and sent it to Defence.”
He then denigrated Smethurst: “Why do you think her handler picked her, rather than say an experienced national security journalist. Think about it.”
Smethurst said she had spent months reporting and confirming the story.
“It was a good story and I stand by it.”
Bid to restrict media reporting
The raids prompted a national debate on media freedom, but Pezzullo’s messages to Briggs showed that he quickly tired of it. Five days after the raid, as the coverage continued, he wrote to Briggs: “The self-indulgence is getting tiresome”. Briggs comforted him by saying Morrison, who was by then the prime minister, was “very supportive of you and resolute on the media issue”.
Pezzullo quickly proposed new controls on journalists. Telling Briggs the “punters are sick of the chaos,” Pezzullo said he was “happy to speak with the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]” discreetly.
“Solution is elegant and can be played out sequentially over coming months – purposefully and steadily without a sense of crisis and reaction. We need to fix this over medium term. A prosecution … would see WWIII break out”.
His politically-charged proposal to Morrison, via Briggs, was for the powerful security oversight committee to hold a parliamentary inquiry which would “give us cover to stitch together a deal built around a modern version of the D Notice system.
“Would only work if deal could be struck with Albo [then opposition leader Anthony Albanese],” he added.
D Notices were used in Australia until 1982 to warn the media not to publish on questions deemed to infringe on national security. They are still used in the United Kingdom as a mechanism for the government to meet media bosses to influence them to restrict their publishing.
A week later Pezzullo suggested to Briggs that he approach the Prime Minister’s Department to suggest “that Mike P probably knows a fair amount about this as a public service and national security tragic … It would have the ring of credibility”.
He told Briggs that his minister, Peter Dutton, “likes D Notice type approach” to “guide the AFP in terms of whether or not they even commence an investigation where a journalist could be a suspect”. AFP chief commissioner Andrew Colvin “would prefer same,” Pezzullo added.
It would be “modelled on the British D Notice system which unlike ours hasn’t fallen into disuse”.
“Under my model unless the harm was exceptionally grave you would not go after the journalist as a suspect or as an accessory, but you would still go after the original leaker,” he said.
Briggs said this was “where Scott [Morrison]’s head was”.
‘A dead duck’
In July 2019 the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security began its inquiry, and, on August 14, Pezzullo addressed it, calling for the source of the leaks to Smethurst to be jailed.
In the following days, he was full of self-congratulation on WhatsApp: “Just reviewed social media … this [press freedom issue] is a dead duck. All we have to do is throw something light but constructive into the mix and it’s over,” he told Briggs. His proposal would need to be negotiated with “the hard headed and realistic media business leaders”.
“Press freedom issue has completely vanished. Job done. (green tick emoji) Sometimes you have to hit an issue with a massive amount of ordnance.”
Ultimately, Pezzullo’s D Notice idea itself vanished as neither the committee nor the government showed interest in it, considering the inevitable backlash from the media.
It was not the first time in the text messages that Pezzullo had shown his contempt for media freedom. In early 2018, amendments to the Espionage Act, drafted by the Attorney-General’s department, caused an outcry by proposing jail terms for journalists who communicated or dealt with certain information provided by a Commonwealth officer.
Pezzullo wrote to Briggs asking: “Why is the Government picking a fight with the media when it doesn’t need to?” He blamed the rival department, saying the drafting was “unforgivable”.
“Don’t trust anything served up by AGD. i [sic] don’t!” he said.
But this was not a case of Pezzullo moving to protect journalists: instead of using the espionage legislation, in early 2018 he proposed using the whistleblower act to jail reporters.
“There is a way through – but you have to criminalise secondary disclosures [by the media] as an extension of Public Interest Disclosure law which protects whistleblowers,” he told Briggs.
Reassured by Briggs in the wake of this issue that he had Turnbull’s full confidence, Pezzullo responded: “I am just doing my job to the standard to which all Secretaries should be held”.
“I intend to now lift to another level again. It’s like elite sport – never be satisfied with your performance and be your own harshest critic.”
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