When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told his departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo he shouldn’t go ringing up senators to set them straight, it was a rebuke laced with empathy, a message delivered from one hard man to another in a sympathetic manner.
After last week’s police raid on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home (a day before the raid on the ABC), Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick issued a statement declaring that Dutton and Pezzullo “clearly hate media scrutiny”.
He said the police actions “are very clearly intended to have a chilling effect on journalistic inquiry”. There would be questions to be answered when the Senate sat, the senator warned.
Pezzullo, a veteran of sparring with Senate committees and never one to take a backward step, decided to get in first, with some direct answers to his critic.
He’s been angry ever since publication of the Smethurst article, which revealed bureaucratic discussions about widening the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate, an agency that carries out electronic spying. Elements of the story were denied at the time, as misconstruing what was being discussed.
Pezzullo contacted Patrick. According to Patrick, Pezzullo told him he considered his remarks slanderous, although quickly making it clear he wouldn’t be pursuing that element. He said it was unfair for Patrick, holding a high office, to criticise him when he had no way to publicly rebut the criticism.
Patrick said Pezzullo was polite – he wasn’t aggressive or offensive. Pezzullo told him the Smethurst article had been inaccurate and referred back to evidence he had given to a Senate committee on it.
Patrick said it wasn’t the content of the call but its intent that concerned him, when he reflected on what it had been about.
He concluded Pezzullo was trying to stop him criticising the Home Affairs department. But, he added, as a former submariner “I’ve lived in an environment of sharks – much bigger sharks than Mr Pezzullo”.
Pezzullo has rejected the construction Patrick put on the call. He told the ABC: “My sole request […] was to ask that he reflect on his adverse references to my purported view of media scrutiny.
"His comments were unfounded and not able to be responded to by me in the media as quite properly I lack the public platform that he has, and uses.
"I was grateful that he took my call and appreciative of the fact that he undertook to consider my representations, which of course he was under no obligation to do.”
Asked whether he had any concerns at Patrick saying he felt Pezzullo was trying to intimidate him, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters: “I do find those things concerning”.
He and Dutton had discussed the matter, he said, and Dutton “has had an appropriate conversation with the secretary”.
That “appropriate conversation” was not a harsh one. The statement later issued by Dutton included both a sharp negative character reference on Patrick and an understanding of where Pezzullo was coming from.
“Secretary Pezzullo and I discussed the matter this morning. Like me he is disgusted at some of the outrageous lies and slander he and I are regularly subject to, but nonetheless I advised the secretary it was inappropriate to contact Senator Patrick even if just to point out the inaccuracies in the senator’s press release,” Dutton said.
“Further I advised it was counter productive because I have always found Senator Patrick to be a person of the sort of character who would seek to misrepresent the secretary’s words, and the secretary agreed the contact was not appropriate and that is where the matter ends.”
Patrick – who has foreshadowed a private member’s bill for a referendum to write press freedom into the constitution - said as far as he was concerned also “that’s the end of the matter. I’m relatively confident [Pezzullo] won’t do something like that again”.
But more generally, the issues of the raids and press freedom are far from at an end. There is consideration of a Senate inquiry, or a review of some other kind. Senate leader Mathias Cormann has indicated more will be said later in the week.
In deciding its reaction, the government is trying to gauge how much the press freedom issue is a matter of public concern – as distinct from the concern of the media itself.
ABC chair Ita Buttrose met Morrison on Tuesday. The meeting was arranged before the raid on the ABC and covered other matters, but Buttrose made it clear she would take a strong line in the talks on media freedom. She said afterwards that Morrison had “taken on board” what she had said.
Asked whether he would support a parliamentary inquiry into press freedom, Morrison said on Tuesday, “What I’m going to do on this issue is listen carefully. I think we have to keep these matters in perspective”.
He pointed to stronger legal protections for journalists that had been enacted.
He said it was important to honour two principles – that no one was above the law and that press freedoms were central to our democracy.
“And if there is a suggestion, or evidence, or any analysis, that reveals that there is a need for further improvement of those laws, well the government is always open to that. […] I intend to proceed calmly, and soberly, and consultatively.”
Asked whether better protections were needed for whistleblowers in the public service, Morrison said: “This is something that is regularly looked at”, suggesting it would be a topic in any review. “But it is also important that we balance the issues of national security, the primacy of our laws, and that no one stands above them, whether they’re politicians, or journalists, or editors, or anyone else.
"And that the rule of law applies to everybody in this country.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra