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Greg Sheridan and Cameron Stewart “on the take” · 15 December 2013

Australian journalist Greg Sheridan seems to have had a conversation with his good mate Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, in which they agreed to let Cameron Stewart report, in “The Weekend Australian”, on some Australian “national security” secrets.

Stewart’s aim – in the article, “Why Australia’s spies targeted SBY’s wife – Kristiani Herawati” – is to neutralise some of the domestic fall-out of the Snowden revelations about Australian spying (via telephone tapping) on the wife of Indonesian President by indicating that she was, as one might say, a legitimate “person of interest”.

Sheridan’s designated job is to provide some justification for the leaks to Stewart. He writes:

“The Weekend Australian’s revelations today demonstrate that in 2009 the Australian intelligence agencies were behaving prudently, under the guidance of the Australian government of the day, which itself was behaving prudently. Contrary to the dominant interpretation of centre-left commentators in this country, Australians have every reason to trust the integrity and competence of their national security agencies, and the prudence in these matters of their government. It is in the public interest for Australians to know this.”

Sheridan is Foreign Editor of “The Australian” newspaper and has been a close friend of the Australian Prime Minister since their university days. According to the internet site of “The Australian”, Stewart (after graduating from Melbourne University) “became a spook with the spy agency Defence Signals Directorate before joining The Australian in 1987”. On 18 July he suggested in an article that history would see Snowden’s actions as immoral.

Both are clearly getting repaid – via “leaks” for their loyalty to the security establishment; although, both also probably feel that they are doing the right thing!

And, I suppose that I should not have been surprised.

On 12 December, I gave a talk to some journalism students at a Moscow university about the Australian mass-media. I told them that that newspapers such as those in the Fairfax stable tended, if anything, to have a slight “left-wing” (for want of a better term) bias, while “The Australian” had a some-what “right-wing” bias. I also said that such remarks were more about the “commentators” who are given space than the general “news” reporting. The general “news” reporting tended, I said, to be “closer to the center” of the spectrum.

In order to give my talk a Russian connection, I mentioned the Snowden leaks and some of the various Australian newspaper reporting and commentary on these.

In the days following my talk I noticed – perhaps because the issue was on my mind – a relative absence of “news” reporting in “The Australian” about the Indonesian spying issue while, at the same time there were several “Sydney Morning Herald” articles directly reporting “news” on further developments on the adverse Indonesian reaction. (My caveat here is that I am in Moscow, and what I can read on-line may not be all that can be read in a physical copy.)

I do not want to exhibit any conspiratorial paranoia about this, but – in the light of the Stewart article – it seems to me that the “The Australian” held back on adverse Indonesian “news” reporting while it was preparing to go on the attack with an Abbott authorised “national security” leak to Stewart.

Russian university students are generally quite cynical about what is reported in the mass-media. Paid-for media reports have been a common feature of Russian history since the early 1990’s, and there are clearly close links between some Russian security organizations and some journalists who can be relied upon to push a “national security” line or smear critics of the authorities (and before that there was, of course, the USSR media!).

In fact, students can often be too cynical and display a lack of willingness to attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“The Australian” seems to have behaved in a way that it would roundly – and justifiably – condemn if it happened in a Russian newspaper. So, next time I talk to Russian university students on this subject (which will be 19 December) I will mention the Stewart-Sheridan articles and be less smug about the basic honesty of Australian main-stream media.

I suspect that both Stewart and Sheridan, if push came to shove, would be quite comfortable working in a “paid-for” Russian (or USSR) media environment. The Australian “payment” for toeing the “national security” line comes, not in the form of money, but in the form access to more selected “national security” leaks.

I will tell the Russian students – using a “case study” approach—that Stewart and Sheridan are the type of “journalists” they should not become because that would do more damage than good for Russia.

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