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 ago 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.
Journalists code of ethics ignored
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’s 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 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.
Journalists’ actions questionable
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 led 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’, ‘Costello’s Plans For Top Job’, or similar.
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.
Erosion of journalism standards
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 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 reporting experience.
While Messrs Wright, Daley, and Brissenden might attempt to justify their actions and smirkingly sit in front of TV cameras 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 unearthing a “scoop” isn’t of such importance anymore to a journalist.
To the people that journalists rely on for their background information, “sources”, 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 withheld, distorted, and manipulated by those they place their trust in to keep them informed.
Coming only a few weeks before a federal election is expected to be called, one can only wonder what other reasons were behind the disclosure by the three at this point in time.
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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