The Australian Government sent Nine a letter warning that the company should pay closer attention to foreign interference laws after it broadcast footage gathered by the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera.
The story showed the then One Nation candidate for Queensland Steve Dickson in a strip club in Washington DC. He makes derogatory comments to and about the dancers and appears to grope one. Dickson resigned after the footage was aired by Nine's A Current Affair.
Chief executive at Nine Hugh Marks revealed the letter in a Senate inquiry into press freedom in August.
According to Marks, the letter warned him that though Nine had not broken any laws, it should undertake a self-assessment as to whether it should register as a foreign agent.
“It is the attorney general’s department 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 footage was collected by Al Jazeera during its production of the How To Sell a Massacre documentary, in which a journalist went undercover as an Australian gun rights activist in order to gain access to the National Rifle Association in the US. It was left out of the original documentary and both Al Jazeera and producer Peter Charley said that they did not consent to it being broadcast.
Marks questioned the intent behind sending the letter.
“This is 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.
“The accumulation of laws which are gagging the media will lead to an erosion of the strength of our democracy. And more importantly the public won’t know because we can’t tell them, and that is the real tragedy for our society.”
Sarah Chidgey, deputy secretary in the Attorney-General's Department, defended sending the letter the following day. She said that Nine are not a target but that she wanted to draw their attention to 'different factual scenarios' which might suggest they should register.
A similar letter was sent to Al Jazeera for producing the documentary.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme requires agents engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign entities to register with the government.
29 April 2019
- A Current Affair broadcasts story
- Attorney General's Office writes a letter to Nine executive Hugh Marks
13 August 2019
- Marks reveals the letter at a Senate inquiry
Nolan D 2019. 'Family man' Senate candidate filmed groping dancer in US strip club. Nine News. 29 April 2019.
Bavas J. 2019. One Nation election candidate Steve Dickson resigns over strip club videos. ABC News. 30 April 2019.
Meade A. 2019. Government sent 'chilling' letter to Channel Nine over One Nation strip club broadcast. The Guardian Australia. 13 August 2019.
Tillett A. 2019. Bureaucrats defend targeting Nine as 'foreign agents'. Australian Financial Review. 14 August 2019.