Public servants regularly need clearance from their bosses before speaking to the media.
Public servants regularly need clearance from their bosses before speaking to the media.

Public servant gag orders hide the truth

IT'S a scene that plays out at least once a week in the Smith St Mall.

A sweaty and frazzled journalist puts on her most charming smile.

But she has been standing out there for 20 minutes by now, so it's less charming and more crazed.

She approaches the friendliest face she can spot. On the other side of this street poll is a cold drink and an end to the demoralising rejection.


Halfway through the question, she realised it was hopeless. The glint of light shining from a lanyard hanging from the target's waist has answered it more succinctly than words could.

"I can't, I work for the government," the terrified public servant squeaks. Desperation now.

"But it's just about what your favourite ice cream flavour is," the journalist cries. "It's nothing to do with the government."

The public servant explains they've been expressly forbidden from revealing any opinion on dairy products. Any questions about ice cream preferences must first go through the departmental media team and a response will be emailed back through by the end of the week, attributable to a genderless, nameless spokesperson.

The public servant scarpers, fearing she's already said too much. If she's lucky, she'll be sacked. A beheading is more likely.

I was once told the Department of Parks and Wildlife was unable to allow me to speak to a ranger about the wisdom or otherwise of swimming in front of baited crocodile traps because the appropriate bureaucrat who needed to give permission wasn't in the office.

Of course the ranger was at work and possessed vocal cords.

But without that sign off from a superior in an office in Darwin, he was muzzled.

Why can't we allow our public servants to speak freely on their area of expertise without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops?

A Government-employed scientist who has spent his life researching toads can't offer a professional opinion on toad-related matters without approval. For some reason, the media managers reckon they need to be involved lest some sort of anti-government toad opinions leak through.

I've been rewatching the West Wing. One of the most unbelievable aspects - other than the idea of having a legitimately mentally stable genius in the Oval Office - is the freedom given to government employees to speak about whatever they please. Staffers give interviews and make television appearances.

The difference is the US's first amendment. We don't have a constitutionally-enshrined freedom of expression in Australia. It's "implied" apparently. But that implication is faded. In 2014, Commonwealth public servants were encouraged to dob in colleagues who posted material on social media critical of the government. - regardless of whether it was posted in a personal or even anonymous capacity.

Liking, sharing or failing to delete critical comments from others can be seen in the eyes of the public service as an endorsement of that material.

It's draconian and unnecessary.

Australia is one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region to have a free press, and supposedly, freedom of expression. We should be leading the way, and setting an example for others in our region.

In reality, we have more in common with our geographic neighbours than we care to believe.