The Australian government wrote to the CEO of one of Australia's biggest media companies to chastise him for broadcasting footage of a far-right political candidate at a strip club ahead of this year's federal election.
The Queensland leader of One Nation, Steve Dickson, resigned after Nine's A Current Affair screened footage of him groping a woman and making derogatory remarks at a strip club in the United States.
The career-ending expose followed a damaging investigation by Al Jazeera into the US gun lobby, which included footage of Dickson and One Nation chief of staff James Ashby seeking $20 million in donations and promising to loosen gun restrictions in Australia. Al Jazeera's reporter went undercover as part of the three-year investigation.
An assistant secretary from the Attorney-General’s Department sent Nine's CEO Hugh Marks a stern letter after the strip club story, suggesting the broadcast may have been illegal and outlining concerns that Nine had allowed a foreign actor to influence a domestic election.
It referred to the foreign influence and transparency scheme, a 2018 law that requires agents of foreign influence to register with the government.
It is a criminal offence not to register and the law has no exemptions for journalists.
“It is the [department’s] view that, if this broadcast was done on behalf of a foreign principal (Al Jazeera) then it would be a registrable communications activity,” the letter said.
“However, we note that Al Jazeera has subsequently issued a public statement denying its involvement in the broadcast which may indicate that the broadcast was not undertaken on Al Jazeera’s behalf.”
The assistant secretary “strongly encourage[d]” Nine to look into its obligations to register under the law, and if necessary “to register as a matter of urgency”.
On Monday, Marks told a parliamentary joint committee inquiring into press freedom that the letter "[noted] that while we didn't break the law, she was strongly encouraging us to undertake a self-assessment of our registration obligations".
"It's quite clear we hadn't even come close to breaking any laws, so why send us the letter?" Marks asked. "This type of correspondence has a chilling effect because the maximum penalties for these offences range from six months to five years imprisonment. It's a perfect example of the tone that is being set, of a culture aimed to gag the media and provide disincentives to us uncovering wrongs which merely embarrass or offend public officials."
In the video, recorded during the Al Jazeera investigation and leaked to A Current Affair, Dickson calls one of the dancers a "bitch" and in an exchange with another dancer asks the woman to "slide your hand on my ****".
"I think white women f*** a whole lot better, they know what they're doing. Asian chicks don't," Dickson said in the recording. "I've done more Asian than I know what to do with."
The video was aired in late April, ahead of the election on May 18.
His subsequent resignation statement included an unfortunate typo: asking that his privacy be respected as he was no longer of "pubic interest".
Marks was appearing before the committee as part of the Right To Know Coalition — a group of media executives from across Australia.
The coalition is agitating for greater protections of press freedom. The committee's inquiry was initiated after the Australian Federal Police controversially raided public broadcaster the ABC, and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.
"Issues of national security are clearly important but so is truth," Marks said. "The legislative framework that is set around the media's ability to report sets the tone for the role that we're able to play in our society. The current tone being set seeks to restrict and not respect a free media."
The tone "will lead to erosion of the strength of our democracy and more importantly the public won't know because we can't tell them and ultimately that's the real tragedy."