Aug 11, 2019 • 31M

Mark Willacy on the constitutional need for a free press

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From the Wandering Journo at Stories that Matter Studios this is The Streets of Your Town. The podcast that takes you on an audio journey through theatre of the mind highlighting a different slice of Australian life each episode.
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By his own description, this journalist has escaped some pretty close calls “by the skin of my teeth” in the 30 countries he has reported from.

His time as Middle East correspondent was challenging enough but, as the photo below shows, his time in Baghdad, Iraq, came pretty close to ending his splendid career when he was nearly shot by US Marines.

Mark Willacy has won Australia’s premier journalism prize—the Walkley Award—five times for his investigative reporting. He has reported for the ABC from some of the world’s most isolated areas, and was a former Middle East and North Asia correspondent.

He’s been named Queensland journalist of the year and this year won a Logie Award for his Four Corners story on the Thai Cave rescue. Mark tells me on this episode of The Journo Project, that he still aims to make a new contact every week, and goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his sources.

“If we want to give sources 100% confidentiality, we have to also teach our sources what to do with their technology, so, for example, the use of Signal or WhatsApp,” Mark says.

"But we're even investigating better technology or more safe technology than that.”

He says investigative reporters are having to dust off some of their older methods as well as being expert in the latest digital technologies, to better protect sources in the digital age.

“For example, when I go to meetings with sources who I know are going to give me something, I leave my phone behind,” he says. "That way if there was ever an investigation, my phone and the source's phone aren't going to be in the same spot.”

The renowned ABC investigative journalist tells me how worrying recent Australian Federal police raids on Australian journalists are for not just journalism practice, but democracy in Australia.

“To me, that was just utterly ridiculous those raids,” he says. "If you take the ABC raid, they've got a guy putting his hand up saying ‘I leaked it’. They've already charged him; he's facing court. You've got a situation where this investigation kicked off two years ago, so why all of a sudden just after an election is that happening?

“We're one of the few democracies that don't have freedom of the press enshrined in some form of constitutional right or Bill of Rights, and that, to me, is a worry, because politicians, even the most shrill authoritarian versions of them, I think admit the press play an important role. And again, how would they even get their message out without a free press?

“I think it's time for this debate to happen in Australia that maybe we need to enshrine freedom and independence of the press officially in our constitution or in a Bill of Rights of some form.

“Chris Masters, when he exposed police corruption on The Moonlight State Four Corners program in 1987, I think showed that was our greatest piece of journalism committed in this state and it led to major change in this state, political, justice, law and order. It really changed this state.

“I think we can never take our freedoms for granted and I think the media needs to keep reminding people what those freedoms are and why we need to keep fighting for them.”

Behind the scenes

Many will be pleased to know that it is possible for amazing journalists to work from a very messy desk! Mark proudly showed off the state of the his ABC work space for The Journo Project, telling me it’s all part of his efforts to avoid surveillance. Those piles of documents are pretty impressive. How do they stay upright? We may need a scientific investigation to truly uncover the truth about that one, and how they defy basic rules of gravity and Jenga to stay in formation.

What I’m reading

The Walkley Magazine is supporting The Journo Project! Have a read of the great article they published this week, which will hopefully get the word out about The Journo Project podcast to more earholes!

The Journo Project became an important outlet for journalists to raise their concerns about press freedoms being slowly whittled away, and the podcast grew.”

Journalists raise their voices on press freedom - The Walkley Magazine

This week I’ve been encouraged on so many levels that our future is indeed in good hands, if our young people are anything to go by.

I was lucky enough to be Journalist in Residence at last week's IPAA (Institute of Public Administration Australia) Qld Conference, where one young man lit up the room. I interviewed him afterwards for the IPAA podcast series.

Thomas King is one of those young entrepreneurs who shows what millennials do best—put that wonderful sense of social justice they seem to innately have, and apply it to an entrepreneurial job that gets to the heart of the problem.

Thomas is a social entrepreneur, international speaker and future food specialist who has been recognised as one of Australia’s most accomplished young pioneers.

After spending close to a decade driving international campaigns and initiatives, Thomas founded Food Frontier in mid-2017. This independent not-for-profit undertakes research, advocacy, consulting and events to support business, science, agriculture and government to champion the development and supply of plant-based and cell-based meat in the Asia Pacific region. You can read more about his work at

And more from the “there’s hope for humanity yet” box—how about this incredible young man—solving one of the world’s most complex problems before he hits 20!

“This would prevent the microplastics from ever reaching waterways and the ocean. While reduction in the use of microplastics is the ideal scenario, this methodology presents a new opportunity to screen for microplastics before they are consumed as food by fish.”

Irish Teen Wins 2019 Google Science Fair For Removing Microplastics From Water - Forbes

And lastly this story just warms the cockles of my heart, and confirms why I subscribe to the glorious New York Times. A great little local fable from Tasmania.

“It was just after 10 p.m., and his eyes were drooping. But not for long. Assisted by whiskey and a Venezuelan ballad, he finished the tale of a girl who loved to dance and published it online at 1 a.m., leaving just 83 stories to go before completing his 365-day challenge.”

He’s Writing 365 Children’s Books in 365 Days, While Holding Down a Day Job - New York Times


Next week’s episode of Streets of Your Town—The Journo Project features a journo whose impressive standard of work has seen her rise to become the ABC’s national Indigenous Affairs Correspondent in just a few short years. Isabella Higgins is a proud Torres Strait Islander, who often travels from her Sydney base to some of the most remote outback locations, to bring to the nation the stories of the oldest continuing culture on earth. She was reporting the happenings of the national Garma Festival just last week, sending live crosses around Australia for television, radio and online. Isabella tells me in this episode of The Journo Project, how she aims to elevate Indigenous voices to be a more regular part of the national conversation.

Until next week my Journo Project tribe!

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