Chief Minister Michael Gunner has defended the freedom of the press in a bizarre public statement, seemingly forgetting his own illegal and petty ban on independent media in the NT.
Mr Gunner was asked on Mix 104.9 about Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ken Fleming’s recent suggestion that he could haul a journalist into a closed hearing to reveal sources, when he surprisingly came to the defence of journalists.
“I believe journalists do a very important role holding people to account, myself, the ICAC Commissioner, others, and I believe they should have the ability to do their jobs,” he said.
The hypocritical comments by Mr Gunner – who has banned the NT Independent from attending his and his minister’s press conferences for over a year out of fear of being held accountable – was called out by the national union representing journalists.
“The NT Chief Minister’s comments are breathtaking in their hypocrisy,” said Marcus Strom, president of the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA).
“On the one hand Mr Gunner says he believes journalists should be able to do their job holding the government and ICAC Commissioner to account – yet his government continues to block some journalists from covering NT Government press conferences and refuses to answer questions put to it by MEAA members employed by the NT Independent.
“A cornerstone of democratic accountability is that the government doesn’t get to choose who asks the questions. Mr Gunner needs to drop his government’s undemocratic ban against members of the media.”
In an added bit of irony, Mr Gunner went on to label Mr Fleming’s comments about the ICAC Inspector’s investigation into his office’s awarding of contracts to the partner of his director of investigations as “unwise”.
Mr Gunner also raised eyebrows during the Mix interview when he suggested he had personally spoken to ICAC Inspector Bruce McClintock about the ongoing independent investigation into the awarding of contracts in the Office of the ICAC.
He did not disclose why he had spoken to Mr McClintock about an ongoing investigation or what exactly was discussed.
Mr Gunner added that he would ensure that a current review of the ICAC Act, by long-time NT public servant and former Department of Justice chief executive Greg Shanahan, consider ensuring journalistic privilege – the ability for journalists to protect sources – be implemented in the Act, an important issue that was apparently omitted when the Act was established, despite parliamentary scrutiny.
Mr Gunner’s comments came on the same day it was revealed in Budget Estimates that NT Police commissioner Jamie Chalker has launched a police operation to investigate alleged leaks to the NT Independent that exposed massive failures by the police brass, including sexual assaults not being publicly reported and the police college employing unqualified instructors.
Multiple sources have informed the NT Independent about the NT Police operation to find police whistleblowers and sack them, with Mr Chalker confirming the operation in Estimates yesterday.
Several police sources have also told the NT Independent that previous measures to find leaks had put the public and officers at risk.
Mr Gunner’s acting communications director Chris Grace refused to answer questions about Mr Gunner’s cognitive dissonance, including explaining how he could go on the public record calling for journalists to be free to do their jobs, yet maintain Australia’s only ban on the free press.
Given Mr Gunner’s stated concern for journalists being allowed to do their jobs, and his condemnation of Mr Fleming’s perceived threats to have journalists reveal their sources, Mr Grace was asked what the Chief Minister was doing about the threats by Mr Chalker to the NT Independent staff to find their sources.
He also did not respond to a question about whether the Chief Minister would refer Mr Chalker to ICAC for his actions.
Mr Gunner’s new found respect for journalists comes less than a week after a tortured 25-minute Budget Estimates performance saw him refuse to allow head public servant Jodie Ryan to answer why the public service does not respond to the NT Independent.
Opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro bombarded Mr Gunner with questions about his illegal ban on the NT Independent, demanding to know who ordered the apolitical public service not respond to this publication.
But Mr Gunner declined to respond on the basis that it was not a “budget-related” question and refused to let Ms Ryan explain her involvement in the ban.
Independent MLA Robyn Lambley, who publicly rebuked Mr Gunner last week for his failure to explain his actions to Territorians, called his new found love for journalistic freedom “outrageous”.
“The Chief Minister’s hypocrisy today in saying that journalists have an important role in holding him to account, while he is maintaining a ban on the NT Independent is breathtaking,” she said.
“It is outrageous. And it is also a breach of the MLA’s Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act.”
In February, Ms Lambley attempted to refer Mr Gunner to the NT Parliament’s disciplinary committee for “unfair and unethical” conduct by banning this publication in direct contravention of the MLA Code of Conduct, but the government used its numbers to kill debate before it started.
Mr Gunner’s ban on the free press has been widely condemned nationally and internationally by peak journalism bodies, the federal Senate – including the Labor Party – and constitutional experts.