Journalist Paul Farrell, formerly at the Guardian and now at Buzzfeed, has led key investigations into national security and Australia’s detention network. He talks to Honi about the state of journalism today, how the government sucks at protecting data, and what it’s like to be spied on by the Australian Federal Police.
HS: What does leak-driven journalism like Wikileaks and your Nauru Files investigation offer by way of impact that maybe hasn’t been possible in the past?
PF: I think one of the most innovative elements of Wikileaks’ publication style is their focus on publishing primary source material, and the reason that’s so important is because it opens up the journalism to a whole entire community of people, and it makes available a huge amount more that wouldn’t ordinarily be accessible in more traditional publication form. It offers a huge amount of insight into the particular power dynamics in play for whatever the subject matter is. But it also forces news organisations to be more honest and more transparent about their own practices as well. And I think that the reason why [these] stories have resonated so much is because they publish all of that material, and they set it out in a level of detail that is just staggering.
HS: Whistleblowers are often key to getting information out for these stories. What do you make of the situation for whistleblowers in Australia?
PF: I think there are some pretty enormous problems with how whistleblowers are treated in Australia, both in terms of cultural attitudes towards them and in terms of the law itself. One of the big problems is that we have incredibly onerous secrecy provisions across all forms of government agencies that restrict what public servants can say. And that restriction took place with no consideration of the public interest in speaking out, and with no consideration of whether there could actually be any harm that flows from a particular disclosure. And in the absence of any kind of guarantee of freedom of expression, that really makes it very difficult. But when governments act in that particular way, it actually can be quite counterintuitive to what their intention is, which is to prevent information from getting out. There is a phenomenon that takes place, where the tighter you try to constrain debate and discourse in the public service or in other areas of government, the more likely it is that you are going to get people that are going to speak out in quite bold and incredible ways. And of course Edward Snowden is a perfect example of that, because people lose faith in those institutions that they’re a part of.
HS: Last year the AFP admitted they sought your metadata without a warrant. For a lot of people who assume they’d never be targeted, the metadata laws were swept under the rug with a “if you have nothing to hide there’s nothing to worry about” attitude. But how does it feel to know that you are being so closely monitored?
PF: It’s not a good feeling. It’s immensely creepy and confronting, and just incredibly weird, to think there’s some random AFP officer sitting in an office in Sydney or Brisbane who’s been poking around my phone and text records, and possibly my email records and things like that. There’s definitely an effect that’s had on my entire personal life, that did take quite a big toll on me thinking about all of that. It’s really confronting and definitely does induce a degree of paranoia that is pretty unsettling. So I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think it’s something I’ve come to terms with, and you can’t let that sort of stuff get to you. And, I guess, fortunately the Federal Police is not very good at those investigations and have not really found anything. So that is certainly one of the good things about it. It has meant that I have to be very careful on the phone or in text, or when I take my phone into meetings, how people communicate with me electronically — are all things that I am very conscious of all the time.
HS: What did you make of the lack of debate around the passing of the metadata legislation?
PF: It’s really challenging because I do think there’s a lack of awareness and interest by the Australian public about issues around freedom of expression, privacy, that you wouldn’t see in the United States or some other countries. And I don’t know why that is, and I don’t know how to make people care more about it. It’s difficult to reach people on these kinds of issues, particularly when they are challenging and complex. And I think that’s the challenge of doing journalism well in these kinds of spaces, is trying to make relatable, to articulate these issues to young people, old people or whatever, who are struggling to understand why they should care about it.
HS: How do you engage young people with these issues?
PF: I think you’ve really got to show what some of those real life effects of surveillance are, particularly when things go wrong, or those powers are misused. Those fascinating examples from the Snowden disclosures that came up of intelligence officers doing extremely dubious things like looking up ex-girlfriends’ data and doing all sorts of dodgy things with that material. And I think really hammering the real-life ramifications for your personal lives and things like that are some of the really critical parts of trying to engage people more.
HS: One of your recent stories showed Australians’ Medicare details were for sale on the dark net. How incompetent is the government when it comes to securing people’s sensitive information?
PF: I think there are definitely some serious problems in different government agencies with how they secure Australian’s personal information. We’ve seen time and time again over the last few years, different sorts of extremely embarrassing data breaches, whether that’s the handling of asylum seekers’ personal data, the handling of the G20 world leaders’ data, how the census IT issues were navigated, and then of course the Medicare dark web story. It definitely reflects a pattern that is quite concerning, that damages a lot of trust in government with how they handle personal information. In almost all of those instances, there were very preventable measures that could have resolved these issues. For the Medicare dark web one, it would have been as simple as somebody in government actually monitoring commercial dark web sites. It took me about 45 minutes to find that listing, and I didn’t set out to look for it. I just stumbled across it, and it’s like: why is it a journalist from the Guardian who discovers that somebody’s flogging Medicare card details on the dark web? So they really need to do a lot of work to get better at that.
Catch Paul on a panel about journalism, resistance, and metadata at the University of Sydney on Tuesday 22 August.