Australian journalism's day of shame

The revelation of comments allegedly made by Federal Treasurer Peter Costello to three Canberra press gallery journalists over a presumably boozy dinner more than two and a half years will forever damage the relationship Australian journalists have with their sources.

Australian journalists have in the past had an admirable reputation for protecting their sources and respecting the confidences of those who provide them with background information.

Indeed, Australian journalists, like their counterparts in other countries, have been prepared on numerous occasions in the past to go to jail rather than reveal their sources of information.

The decision by the trio, Tony Wright of Melbourne’s The Age, Paul Daley of The Bulletin, and¬† ABCTV journalist Michael Brissenden, to suddenly all decide that previously agreed to off-the-record comments were in fact quotable raises serious ethical questions.

The fact that Mr Brissenden couldn’t quote the correct date for the dinner in itself also raises questions as to the accuracy of the rest of the comments he claims he noted at the time.

The organisation that represents Australian journalists is the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). In addition to being the journalists union it is also their professional body and sets a code of ethics it expects all Australian journalists to follow.

The code of ethics states, “respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism.”

Item one of the code of ethics states journalists will, “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost¬† to give a fair opportunity for reply.”

Item three states journalists will, “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source‚Äôs motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted,¬† respect them in all circumstances.”

While each of the three journalists concerned has attempted to justify their change of heart in the last couple of days, it is doubtful if this will wash with majority of people.

Don’t expect to see any action being taken against the three by the MEAA though. It became pretty much of a toothless tiger many years ago, and in any event is primarily concerned with looking after its members working for large Australian media organisations, not with taking its AUstralian journalist members to task.

For that reason I stopped being a card carrying member of the MEAA many years ago.

Whether the Federal Treasurer made the comments or not is not particularly relevant.

What is relevant though is the judgement and motivations of all three Australian journalists not to use the comments at the time they were made. A time when they were most relevant, or at the very latest, at the time when they claim the treasurer said was the deadline for certain things to occur.

There is little doubt that the comments would have lead themselves to blistering headlines at the time along the lines of “Costello Gives PM Ultimatum”, “PM . . . Dead Man Walking”, “Costello Claims Howard Can’t Win,” or ‘Costello’s Plans For Top Job”, or such.

The fact that all three, agreed to treat the comments as off-the-record or deep background and to not use them in articles they were writing at the time, or since, raises a host of questions.

Whether the comments were off-the-record or not is really not in question.

Mr Wright said in The Age on August 15, “it was never said during the dinner that the conversation was on or off the record and such meetings were widely viewed as providing background information.”

He further says, “the treasurer’s press secretary David Alexander rang and told them his remarks were off the record. He and Mr Daley decided to instead use the information as background for other stories.”

The common theme to the justifications by all three in breaching a fundamental tenet of journalism is that they did so because Peter Costello was asked about these comments and he said, “no, I didn’t, not from me, (and) by-the-way, journalists make things up”, and suggested that the comments had been fabricated by the journalists.

The actions by the three only serve to highlight the continuing decline in Australian journalistic standards.

Once upon a time the Australian public were amongst the most informed people in the world. Australian journalists regularly broke major stories and exposed corruption and dastardly deeds.

Australia’s major media organisations were prepared to spend money funding investigative teams of journalists to dig up stories and come up with banner screaming headlines that pricked the Australian conscious.

At the time news rooms were mostly the domain of crotchety old men whose cynical view of life was forged from extensive experience at plying their craft and was something akin to a badge of honour they wore.

To these journalists of old a “scoop” was a matter of pride. Confidences were protected and their word that something was off-the-record was better than any contract the best legal brains could draft.

Enter any major news room now and what older and experienced journalists that still remain are sitting at the copy editor tables, editing and reshaping the material supplied by young, fresh faced graduates who increasingly rely on press releases as the primary source at least of their stories.

Media organisations these days will not pay the money necessary to fund investigative teams of journalists, or the salaries reasonably expected by those with many years of experience.

While Messrs Wright, Daley and Brissenden might attempt to justify their actions and smirkingly sit in front of TV camera’s waving sheets of paper and proclaiming, “these are my notes of the meeting”, the harm they have done is considerable.

To young Australian journalists just starting their careers they have shown them that a “scoop” isn’t of such importance anymore to a journalist.

To those people that journalists rely on for their background information they have shown that an Australian journalists word that something is off-the-record really means that it is only off the record unless the journalist wants to use it against you at some time.

And finally, to the public who consume the product that journalists turn out, they’ve shown the way that essential facts and information are with-held, distorted and manipulated by those the public place their trust in to inform them.

As I said, the actions of the three raise serious questions of ethics. If not journalistic ethics, then at the very least questions as to their own personal morals and ethics.

And coming only a few weeks before a federal election is expected to be called, one can only wonder what other reason’s were behind the disclosure by the three at this point in time.

ENDS:
© John Le Fevre, 2007
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Australian journalism; Journalism ethics; MEAA; Code of ethics; Tony Wright; The Age newspaper; Michael Brissenden; Paul Daley; The Bulletin magazine; ABCTV Australia; Canberra press gallery
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John Le Fevre

Deputy editor, Thailand & GMS editor at The Establishment Post

John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 35 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and copy editor.

He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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