Australia’s defense reporters are being denied access to senior Department of Defence officials under a clampdown imposed by new Defence Minister Peter Dutton.
Dutton took office on March 30, becoming the sixth person to hold the position since the coalition government gained power in September 2013, and it is no coincidence that the Australian Department of Defence has become significantly less transparent under his watch.
The situation has now deteriorated to the point that department staff were given new guidelines as to how it should engage — or not — with reporters. According to Kym Bergmann, editor of Australia Pacific Defence Reporter, if these guidelines are enforced (and they overwhelmingly are being enforced), no member may speak with the media without approval from the minister’s office.
Citing the guidance document, Bergmann wrote that officials were told to keep responses to media queries “as brief and succinct as possible,” limit all answers to three paragraphs regardless of question complexity, shy away from “capability-related interviews,” and instead revert to written responses.
I have not seen those guidelines, but my experience has been consistent with them. At the least, my last 10 requests for interviews across a range of subjects were met with a response, either on or after deadline, which “politely declines” the request without further reason. Even a benign request to speak with the chief of the Royal Australian Air Force about the service’s 100th anniversary was declined, and at least one industry-led media visit has been canceled without explanation.
This is a concern, as recently leaked reports suggest all is not well with high-profile acquisition programs, such as the Royal Australian Navy’s AU$80 billion (U.S. $62 billion) future submarine program and the removal of the Army’s Battlefield Management System on security grounds. Despite the latter story breaking in April, neither the Defence Department nor its minister has commented on the matter, and media queries have similarly been met with no response.
The complaints are not limited to members of the media. The subject came up at a recent hearing in Canberra with the Senate Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade, during where senior officials were questioned by Sen. Penny Wong, the leader of the opposition in the legislative body.
According to the official transcript, Wong asked whether Dutton or his office has provided direction to the department. In response, Associate Secretary of Defence Katherine Jones confirmed she saw media reports of a leaked email.
“My understanding is that came from an email that was sent by someone within the department purporting to paraphrase it,” she said.
When pressed to reveal who paraphrased it and circulated it, Jones replied: “It was a low-level officer within the organization.”
During the hearing, Jones pointed the finger firmly at the minister’s office as the original source of the email. “The email that was sent did not come from my area. It was someone summarizing the advice that has been provided to the senior leadership,” she said.
Whatever the genesis of the missive, its message has now been passed down to the unit level within the services, warning personnel about speaking with the media.
The Department of Defence has historically been quick to raise the drawbridge when facing sustained media scrutiny about late and over-budget acquisition programs. In this case, it would appear the departmental “guidelines” are either direct instructions, or have been zealously adopted to prevent the leaking of information that would reflect poorly on the government.
Either way, the ultimate loser from this lack of transparency is the Australian taxpayer.
Whether this is a direct policy across the current government, the Defence Department, or a junior defense staffer is unclear. But one thing is certain: Defense reporting in a country that regards itself as one of the world’s most stable democracies just became a lot harder.