Attorney-General Christian Porter walks away from AFP claims


Attorney-General Christian Porter has backed away from earlier assurances that journalists aren't being targeted by police, as one of the nation's most powerful media companies attacks the Coalition for "damaging" Australia's international reputation as an open democracy.

Bad blood between media chiefs and the Morrison government deepened on Friday after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton rejected demands to drop police action against three high-profile journalists and implied the reporters committed a crime by receiving top-secret documents.

Attorney-General Christian Porter says he had limited information when claiming journalists were not the target of police investigations.

Attorney-General Christian Porter says he had limited information when claiming journalists were not the target of police investigations. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Michael Miller, the executive chairman of News Corp Australia and one of Rupert Murdoch's most senior executives, savaged Mr Dutton for "using laws to prosecute and intimidate" one of his reporters.

"We are deeply disappointed with Mr Dutton's comments and appalled by the damage that this government is inflicting on our international reputation for democratic press freedom," Mr Miller said.

"We need the government to show active leadership and intellectual credibility on the issue of press freedom, rather than defer to rhetoric and contradictions."

As pressure grows for the government to veto any possible charges against News Corp correspondent Annika Smethurst and ABC reporters Daniel Oakes and Sam Clark, the Attorney-General moved to distance himself from previous claims that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were not investigating the trio.

Asked whether he stood by previous assurances that there was "absolutely no suggestion" the journalists were being targeted, Mr Porter on Friday said he made the statements based on the "limited information that had been provided to me".

"Operational investigations are obviously conducted by the AFP completely independently of government, and information about them which may be provided to a responsible minister ... comes from the Department of Home Affairs and the AFP," he said.

The statement suggests Mr Porter was not told of the full extent of the police probe, which appears to not just cover a hunt for the whistleblowers but also the reporters who received the information.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been told Mr Porter is angry he has been dragged into the affair given the AFP reports to Mr Dutton's powerful Home Affairs super department.

Mr Dutton on Friday rejected demands from media chiefs to drop any action against the reporters, arguing "nobody is above the law".

"I think it is up to the police to investigate, to do it independently and make a decision about whether or not they prosecute," he told Nine's Today program.

"These are laws that go back decades in Western democracies like ours where, if you've got top-secret documents and they've been leaked, it is an offence under the law and police have an obligation to investigate a matter referred to them ... and they'll do that."

Section 7 of the Crimes Act notes that any person who receives or communicates a secret document without permission has committed an indictable offence and faces up to seven years' prison.

Legislation governing the AFP prevents Mr Dutton from ordering the agency to drop an investigation, however, media chiefs and some Coalition MPs want the government to defuse the situation by publicly declaring it would never authorise the prosecution of Smethurst, Oakes and Clark.

Mr Porter's approval would be needed to launch a prosecution and he has previously said he is "seriously disinclined" to give it.

Mr Miller said Mr Dutton's comments made him more determined to ensure the government changed federal laws to better protect press freedom.

"Our journalist, Annika Smethurst, revealed plans for our national surveillance department to spy on its citizens for the first time. The public has a right to know that information," he said.

News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller wants an assurance his reporter won't be prosecuted.

News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller wants an assurance his reporter won't be prosecuted. Credit:Daniel Munoz

"Yet Mr Dutton is using laws more than 100 years old to prosecute and intimidate Annika and all journalists who seek to ensure the Australian public's right to know.

"This is an invasion of the open society we hold close and dear."

Peter Greste, the Australian journalist once jailed in Egypt who is now the director of the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom, agreed the police raids in Sydney and Canberra had damaged Australia on the world stage.

He said many participants at a recent international press conference in London viewed an upcoming parliamentary inquiry into the issue as a "whitewash".

"The process in Australia is being watched very closely," he said. "If we get it right, it will set the benchmark for other countries struggling with the balance between security and press freedom."

The ABC declined to comment.