Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Top Australian Op-Ed shares some thoughts to Warrane residents

Adam Brereton being represented with the vote of thanks after his talk by a fellow Warrane resident

Journalist Adam Brereton offered Warrane residents plenty of food for thought on issues in the media when he spoke at the College’s formal dinner on Wednesday 11 March 2015.

In a wide-ranging speech covering topics from the struggles of Gen Y to the most appropriate response to terrorism, Mr Brereton began by detailing his own journey to becoming Opinion Editor of Guardian Australia.

He said he started out studying law at the ANU for four-and-a-half years before deciding a legal career was not for him. He then moved to Melbourne and launched himself into journalism, writing for the left-leaning New Matilda website.

At the same time he said he began to move away from his past as an outspoken atheist and found his way back to the Catholic Church. He then moved to Sydney and struggled to get by on the wages of a fledgling journalist and realised like other Gen Y members that it is very difficult to make long-term professional plans.

However when a job opportunity came up with Guardian Australia he decided to make a “highly outrageous pitch” for it, landed the position and quickly found himself promoted to the opinion editor’s job.

Commenting on the outlook for Gen Y generally, he said: “We will eventually inherit the earth and when we do it will be good because we can overcome (our) failures.

“Everything we build is because we are prepared to collaborate and we are prepared to draw on the strengths of others rather than being in this world of dog-eat-dog competition, which is what I experienced in Law School.”

Noting there were many young engineers and scientists present, Mr Brereton said: “You know that everything you do sits inside a broader discourse or a broader set of research, or you know you are on a project in collaboration with people. There are only certain parts of our mob who want to compete hard.

“Over the next few years our challenge will be trying to leverage all that strength through social media. All those things we are told are our weaknesses – that we talk too much online and all that stuff – I actually think are our strengths. They have definitely been my strengths over the past few years.”

Throwing the talk open to questions, Mr Brereton commented on many topics including the future of news print and Twitter, free speech, hate speech and “rights and harms”. One topic he spoke on at length was the move by the Australian government to introduce metadata laws requiring telecommunications companies to retain customers’ phone and computer metadata for two years.

He said for journalists like himself it touched on the issue of “protecting sources”.

“For us it’s really thorny,” he said. “We do a lot of reporting on immigration and asylum seekers and one of our journalists … is in a battle with the AFP – the Federal Police – to find out whether his phone is tapped or not because he is contacting sources on Manus Island and on the Cocos Islands and in Nauru … but he can’t find out, through (the) Freedom of Information (Act), whether or not his phone specifically has been tapped.
“Journos are at the pointy end of it because we’re dealing in information all the time, but everyone’s metadata, under this national security scheme, will be collected.”

Mr Brereton pointed out that the Australian Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, had used the analogy where metadata was concerned that the Government was only interested in “the envelope”, not “the letter inside it”.

“This is nonsense,” Mr Brereton said. “It’s all data and it’s all data about you. Everyone’s got a phone in their pocket. Everyone’s got a computer now. Everyone’s got a computer in their car. Everyone’s got a computer in the taxi they use … there’s so much data being generated about you all the time. All of that goes to the government to be sorted into data banks [to] be mined.

“So I think the issue is about opposing state power in that regard, saying the State can’t make good use of this power, they can’t keep [the data] safe. Hackers can break into it … but also, that data also goes to private or semi-private organisations.

“So there are all these amazing questions about the RSPCA, local councils, getting warrant-less wiretaps on people’s phone or metadata taps to take your data for God knows what reason.

“There are loads of organisations you wouldn’t even think of that can get access to that data.

“So, to me, it’s the kind of point at which even someone who is not a liberal or libertarian goes into that mode and says: ‘No, State power needs to back off and we need to operate as a free society without being surveilled all the time’.”

Mr Brereton said he hoped Guardian Australia would appear at an inquiry into the proposed scheme, along with other news organisations.

Commenting on terrorism being waged by the Islamist group, ISIS (State of Iraq and al-Sham), Mr Brereton made the point that ISIS relies on publicity from western media to “get their power”. He said he believed that the media should always resist the temptation “to say terrorists are an authentic representation of Islam”, but should instead refer to them as “criminals”.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]