Guess what, journalists: data retention isn’t all about you

In his most recent podcast, The 9pm Malcolm and the Cnuts, Stilgherrian talks about how journalists tend to go on and on about topics that only journalists give a stuff about, such as Canberra power games. He also continues his top-quality coverage and analysis of Australia’s proposed data retention laws. He does not, however, go into the rather strong connection between the two.

Allow me to join the dots.

Because there is no issue about which Australian journos’ heads are further up their own arseholes than data retention. (I should point out, if it is not already obvious, that Stilgherrian takes a much broader view of the issue than most of his media colleagues.)

The Australian media is, in most cases, against the proposed data retention laws. So are a lot of regular people. Huzzah!

But are journalists, like the rest of us, worried about the very real potential for privacy breaches that could result from many government agencies having warrantless access to huge amounts of very sensitive information about people who have not broken any laws?

Big Brother graffiti in La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, France
Is Big Brother watching? You bet you are. Photo: Paterm

Don’t be ridiculous.

What really gets journos worked up is the potential chilling effect that data retention would have on journalists and whistleblowers.

Yes, of course, the testimony of whistleblowers reveals that which governments and politicians would prefer to remain secret, thus publishing it is an important public service and part of a healthy democracy. That’s not it.

Australian journalists are convinced that the only thing standing between them and their next Walkley Award is the possibility that the data retention laws might discourage a modern-day Deep Throat from phoning their mobiles to tell them about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, or prevent the next Daniel Ellsberg from sending the Pentagon Papers to their work email address.

Deep Throat movie poster
No, not that Deep Throat. Image: Wilkimedia Commons

How do I know this? Because last week when Labor floated the idea of an amendment to exempt journalists from the data retention laws, Crikey’s Bernard Keane said this would address a key criticism from the media [paywalled].

In other words, a key flaw of the data retention laws, in the minds of journalists, was that journalists didn’t get special treatment.

Never mind that every person in this country stands to have their most personal information available at a whim to every spook and police officer, an untold number of shiny-arse public servants at every level of government and let’s not forget anyone with the resources to bring a civil suit. Who gives a fuck about that? Just as long as journalists are reassured that another Edward Snowden can plonk the entire NSA leaks bundle into their Dropbox account at his convenience.

So congratulations, Australian media, you’ve turned a story about the biggest power shift between government and citizens in decades into something nobody gives a flying fuck about because all you ever do is whinge about how it might make it a bit harder to do your jobs. Like, you know, getting a Gmail account, so Chelsea Manning can send you the diplomatic cables there. Fucking bravo.

Please note: These are my personal opinions and do not reflect the views of my employer.

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