AFP to examine its handling of sensitive investigations after media raids
The Australian federal police has launched an inquiry into how it handles sensitive investigations, in response to an outcry about recent raids on journalists’ homes and premises.
News of the AFP’s internal assessment came as Scott Morrison declared on Monday that while he supported press freedom, journalists were not above the law. The prime minister then said decisions about who should be prosecuted after an unauthorised disclosure should not be made “on the whim of politicians”.
The current system gives the attorney general capacity to send a direction to the Commonwealth director of public prosecutions and request they seek consent before a prosecution. The attorney general, Christian Porter, signed a directive to the Commonwealth DPP on 19 September.
On Sunday, Porter told the ABC he would be “seriously disinclined” to sign off on the criminal prosecution of journalists after recent controversial police raids on News Corp and the ABC, but he did not give a guarantee.
The AFP has not ruled out charging journalists targeted in the recent raids, despite the public-interest nature of their reporting. The search warrants used in the raids are being challenged in court.
The new AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Monday he had enlisted a former chair of the Australian Crime Commission, John Lawler, to examine how the police dealt with unauthorised disclosures, espionage and foreign interference, war crimes and the application of parliamentary privilege.
Kershaw’s appearance coincided with a public campaign by major media outlets. The front page of every daily Australian newspaper was blacked out on Monday as part of a campaign against moves by successive governments to penalise whistleblowing and, in some cases, criminalise journalism.
Related: Australian newspapers black out front pages to fight back against secrecy laws
The campaign, spearheaded by the Australia’s Right to Know Coalition, follows raids on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, in June.
Kershaw, during his Senate estimates appearance, was shown Monday’s redacted front pages by the Labor senator Kristina Keneally, but the commissioner said he hadn’t yet considered whether the media pushback was connected to controversy about the raids.
He said he had good relationships with the media, but intended to have discussions with editors and journalists given the dissatisfaction in the industry.
The commissioner said the process to be undertaken by Lawler was not a review of current matters but the development of a “holistic approach to ensure we have in place investigative policy and guidelines that are fit for purpose”.
Lawler, the commissioner said, would provide options to ensure the police were “best placed to address sensitive investigations into the future”. The review will be completed in January next year.
Kershaw was challenged during his appearance on Monday to explain why the AFP appeared to persist with investigations into leaks that the government considered damaging, while dropping other investigations, including a probe into the leaking of a home affairs brief about the medevac regime to the Australian newspaper, which was helpful to the government.
Related: Concrete action rather than nice words are needed on press freedom | Lenore Taylor
The police commissioner said the investigation of the leak to the Australian had been dropped because there was a limited prospect of securing a conviction, because 200 people had access to the brief in draft, and the final version had been sent to 11 email addresses.
“We are not a political organisation,” Kershaw said. “We are a police force. We don’t play politics. It is not our role.”