The National Interest?

To do something – anything – in the national interest sounds like a very good idea.

To do something – anything – in the national interest sounds like a very good idea. One of the short essays I’d encourage you to read was by George Orwell who in the early 1940s wrote a passionate piece about the use of the English called Politics and the English Language. He decried grammatical solecisms, pretentious use of neologisms and sentences with an unclear meaning. If the reader isn’t quite sure what the author is saying there is one of two explanations: either the author doesn’t really understand the point himself, or he is deliberately trying to obscure the meaning from the reader. So that brings me to Mark Scott, the head of the ABC. He decided to amplify claims made by the Guardian newspaper that Australia had in 2009 tapped the mobile phones of the Indonesian president and his wife and a number of ministers. He has since argued that to do so was “in the national interest”. Now to do something – anything – in the national interest sounds like a very good idea. After all, it wouldn’t be well received if one did something against the national interest. That would at the very least be unpatriotic and in an extreme case it could be termed traitorous. I try to be fair here but so far Mr Scott has not explained why the amplification of this material was in the national interest. He just says it was. It’s a case of lazy use of language which Orwell abhorred. So let’s think about this. It could be argued that it is for the best to know there are allegations that our security agencies spy. Well, I think most people would know that and the vast majority would hope they do. With one proviso. If the security agencies were acting beyond the law then that would be a scandalous matter and heads should roll. But there is no suggestion in this case that any law has been broken. The ABC and their mates at the Guardian – a left wing British publication – have never made that claim. So we can rule out altogether that the national interest was served by the ABC revealing our spies are law breakers. There is another issue: that we apparently share intelligence with the Americans. Well, that’s on the record. Anyone with any interest in these issues knows that. It’s no secret, what’s more, that we are part of the so-called five eyes arrangement with the Americans, British, Canadians and New Zealanders which involves extensive intelligence sharing. There is, of course, an argument that publishing this material was manifestly not in our national interest. In other words, that it is unpatriotic. That it damages our country. For a start, publishing revelations about our intelligence capabilities tells our adversaries what we can do. That, in turn, helps them to take counter measures. Already, the Snowden allegations elsewhere have led both the Taliban and Al Qaeda to change their modus operandi to avoid detection. And no doubt all sorts of people in Indonesia will now take evasive action to avoid detection by Australia. At a certain level that may not matter. After all, the Indonesian leadership is hardly a threat to Australia. But it will matter if terrorists and people smugglers can work out how our intelligence agencies operate and the extent of their capabilities. Put simply, the ABC and the Guardian may have made it easier for terrorists to avoid detection and threaten the lives of Indonesians and Australians. And they may have made it easier for people smugglers to avoid detection sending still more people on hazardous journeys to Australia which will cost lives. So you reasonably could ask a rather pointed question of the ABC: is this in our national interest? And then there’s the bilateral relationship. You don’t have to be a professor of international relations to know a strong bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia is in our national interest. It’s important to our exports, for jobs, for our security and for our overall engagement with Asia. Mark Scott knows that. And he knew that if the ABC amplified the Snowden allegations it would cause substantial damage to our relations with Indonesia. But that, apparently, was less important to him than just pumping up the story. He needs to be put under pressure and have the two sides of the national interest ledger put to him and explain why publication of the allegations was more in our national interest than our relations with Indonesia, stopping people smugglers and fighting terrorism. Don’t get me wrong. The ABC was free to do what it did. I’m an unashamed advocate of freedom of the press. But with freedom comes responsibility. The Guardian and the ABC are responsible for the consequences which flowed from their actions. Just as the Australian newspaper is responsible for the consequences of publishing the salaries of ABC staff. That outraged Mr Scott. But what was the impact on the national interest? You guessed it. Precisely none.

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