The curious case of Timothy Byrnes, ASIO and the National Security Hotline
The curious case of Timothy Byrnes, a complaint to ASIO and a call to the National Security Hotline provides a cautionary tale for reporters who move between the worlds of the media and government in Australia.
Byrnes, a young Canberra-based freelance journalist, took a job in March as a media officer with the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the same department responsible for advising the Government on the media.
It was to prove a shortlived and very unhappy experience.
After just three-and-a-half days, Byrnes was sacked for what the department described as “serious reputation and security issues” allegedly arising from his previous work as a freelancer.
When he told the story of his dismissal to Fairfax Media, senior bureacrats contacted ASIO and rang the counter-terrorism National Security Hotline to report him as a security threat.
More than 350 documents totalling more than 900 pages were subsequently produced relating to Byrnes’ fleeting public service career.
And that hillock of paperwork — released under Freedom of Information — provides a disturbing insight into government views about journalism.
Prior to his abruptly ended stint in the public service, Tim Byrnes had been working for the media and in public relations for seven years. According to Peter Fray, former editor in chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, who encountered Byrnes while editing The Canberra Times in 2008, “Tim is in love with the idea of journalism and being a journalist.”
An interest in Russian history led Byrnes to travel frequently to Russia, and in 2008 he got what he hoped would be a big break: an opportunity to go “behind the lines” with Russian forces during the short but violent conflict between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia.
Byrnes, who filed stories from South Ossetia for Fairfax Media and was interviewed via satellite by Sky News, has remained closely engaged with events in Russia and Georgia.
Early this year, he was pitching to the SBS Dateline program a story about arms trafficking through Georgia when the job opportunity as a media officer came up.
Central to the proposed documentary was a video that purported to show a meeting between US Homeland Security agents and arms dealers.
But much more work needed to be done to corroborate the evidence in the allegedly leaked video and SBS wasn’t interested in pursuing the story. So, on March 6, having abandoned the project, Byrnes took up what was to become his highly contentious departmental job, found for him by the recruitment agency Hays.
And, after accepting the role, he emailed his contacts in Georgia and the US, telling them that he could no longer be involved with the documentary project.
Byrnes’ first day didn’t go well. Shortly after lunch, feeling “unwell”, he blamed a recent change in medication for an old head injury.
According to his supervisor, Broadband’s Media and Public Affairs Manager Jane Weatherley, Byrnes explained that he sustained the injury some years earlier in Russia in a vicious street assault.
After a day at home sick, Byrnes returned to work on March 8 and was closely questioned by Weatherley about his health and ability to handle the job.
Without medical advice, she had already concluded that Brynes suffered a continuing “brain injury” that constituted an undeclared “disability” making him unsuitable for what she described as a “highly stressful” job handling regional media inquiries about the NBN.
Accounts of their conversation differ, but it’s clear Byrnes affirmed his ability to work as a member of Broadband’s media team, citing his freelance work in a highly stressful war zone, subsequent to his head injury, as proof.
Tellingly, he also told his supervisor about his unsuccessful documentary pitch to SBS.
The latter rang alarm bells for Weatherley and concern about Byrne’s health was displaced by something quite different as she urgently emailed the department’s legal advisers to seek advice on the “possible termination” of his contract for ”potential conflict of interest”.
Byrnes recalls no warning of this action, only that Weatherley smiled at him and said that his now abandoned arms trafficking investigation would have been “a good story”.
By mid afternoon, the department’s legal team was preparing the sought advice and Weathelry was discussing Byrnes’ future employment with personnel branch head Kerri Russ and senior legal adviser Trudi Bean.
To help build a case against Byrnes, Weatherley Google searched “some videos of [Byrnes’] freelance journalistic work” between 2008-2011 and claimed in an email that he was still “an active freelance journalist.”
“I am mostly uncomfortable about the potential reputational damage to the department should SBS run the story and the conflict of him being in a media officer role,” she wrote late in the afternoon.
Byrnes’ fate was very quickly decided. A termination letter was finalised before close of business.
Late next morning, March 9, the department’s lawyers advised Byrnes was to be thanked for raising “a possible conflict of interest” and then told that, after “some consideration”, it had been decided to terminate his employment immediately.
Having read the lawyers’ proposed script, Weatherley replied: “looks good to me – cheers.”
Around midday,Kerri Russ read out the prepared script to Byrnes and handed him a dismissal letter that referred vaguely to “suspected leaked US Department of Homeland Security information about Russia or Georgia”.
Byrnes, with no opportunity to discuss the supposed “serious reputation and security issues” that required his immediate sacking, was escorted from the building.
Russ later said in an internal email: “I wouldn’t say that the matter was investigated, we didn’t do an investigation.” The department’s security adviser also recorded: “There are no outstanding security issues for Timothy Byrnes.”
Byrnes was flummoxed. “I just didn’t see it coming, I had absolutely no idea, it was a king hit,” he told Fairfax Media.
Humiliated and frustrated, he took his story to The Canberra Times.
On March 23, Canberra Times’ reporter Phillip Thomson emailed the department’s media unit, forwarding a copy of Byrnes’ dismissal letter and seeking details on the case.
Thomson’s inquiry was considered sufficiently serious to be referred to Deputy Secretary Abdul Rizvi who briefed Secretary Peter Harris and Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy’s office.
After a flurry of emails and further legal consultation, Rizvi approved a carefully drafted response that briefly confirmed Byrnes had been terminated “on the grounds set out in the letter of 9 March”.
Thomson’s story in The Sunday Canberra Times of March 25 reported Byrnes’ sacking, the department’s stated reasons and its assertion that it had met “all its obligations under the Fair Work Act”.
The bureaucrats were quite happy with their management of Thomson’s inquiry, with Assistant Secretary Russ noting approvingly that his article was “just factual really, not commentary or criticism of the dept”.
Byrnes emailed Weatherley, saying he was “sorry that I went to the media … I had exhausted all avenues for redress and clarification … You employed me in good faith and I was honest with you … I was never a threat to the team.” Weatherley didn’t reply.
What Byrnes didn’t know was that, prompted by The Canberra Times inquiry, the department had referred him to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation for investigation.
Deputy Secretary Rizvi had telephoned ASIO mid afternoon on March 23, and told Weatherley and Russ that “the relevant security agency will want to interview you … possibly early next week”.
Shortly thereafter Assistant Secretary Di Berardino emailed her colleagues: “I’ve reported this to the National Security Hotline. … They are interested in getting further details about Tim which I assume are on file somewhere.”
The National Security Hotline logged Byrnes’ case under the reference number “3015429”. He is presumably now the subject of an ASIO file.
There was some awkwardness about what was done. Rizvi remained anxious that the matter could still generate adverse publicity or questions at a Senate estimates committee hearing, saying in an email to lawyer Trudi Bean on March 26: “I agree we should say as little as possible.”
However, no questions were asked at Senate estimates.
And more than four months later, Byrnes — who has never had any connection to matters relating to Australia’s security – has not been contacted by ASIO or any other security or police agency.
Byrnes may have had his employment terminated as a consequence of his supervisor’s personal assesment of the state of his health. But the official reason remains his prior work as a journalist.
And none of the bureaucrats had any apparent problem with sacking him for that. Nor has it seemingly interested or upset any of the nation’s politicians either.
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is currently advising the Federal Labor Government on its response to the inquiry by Justice Ray Finkelstein into the media, media ethics and regulation.
Media and public affairs manager Jane Weatherley was listed last year as the contact officer for people wishing to make submissions to the Finkelstein inquiry.
She now manages “communication strategies and services” for the Department of Health and Ageing. She declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.
Meanwhile, Timothy Byrnes — again exploring media opportunities overseas — has lodged a claim for unlawful dismissal with Fair Work Australia.
Whatever the outcome of his case, Byrnes’ experience suggests that the senior public servants responsible for national media policy have little understanding of the craft of journalism or sympathy for its practitioners.
Some might say that it’s not only journalistic ethics that should be the subject of an inquiry.