THE RAIN that swept over Melbourne last night forced the morning’s appointment on the golf course to be bumped into this afternoon, when a little sun is expected to peek through grey skies. Indeed, it is doing so already, which means there is just time to post a quick thought about the Press Inquiry and its quest to establish standards and codes of behaviour. As the list of witnesses is stacked heavily with Murdoch haters and an ivory tower Trot, there is a slight chance the inquisitors might not have had their attention directed to other news organizations, their journalists’ little mistakes and the measures pursued when those errors were brought to light.
Since the window for written submissions closed on October 31, it is too late to provide any formal assistance. Still, as both Judge Finkelstein and Fairfax contributor Ricketson are down with the web, as the youngsters say, there is a slight chance one or other might stumble across this post and contemplate calling a few additional witnesses, notably the ABC’s Mark Scott and Fairfax’s Greg Hywood.
Three areas of interest will be enough for now, as Double Bogey Daddy has just called to make sure the Professor’s Wedge of Wonder will be available for sinking improbable chips.
JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS #1:
In October, 2008, The Age published a report by Carolyn Webb accusing Theo Theophanous, then a member of Victoria’s Labor government, of raping a woman in his parliamentary office. Amongst its litany of other, scathing conclusions, the Press Council found that Webb enjoyed a prior relationship with the accuser, stayed as a guest at her home in Greece, neglected to report inconsistencies and failed to interview two women who would have cast grave doubt on the accuser’s credibility. These sins of omission and commission, both by the reporter and her newspaper, were so egregious even Media Watch was appalled.
Impact: Theophanous’ political career came to an abrupt end and his reputation was trashed.
Consequences: Ms Webb remains a reporter for The Age, in whose pages she recently wrote of a trip to Bali and her dismay at finding it full of Balinese.
JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS #2:
In 2006, two office cleaning companies complained to the Victorian Ombudsman that political interference saw government contracts go to moppers, dusters and bin-emptiers other than themselves. Each cited at least one of three stories by Sunday Age journalist Michael Bachelard, all purporting to report concerns that undue influence had been brought to bear by Theo Theophanous, as laid out in the first sentence of the initial report:
Major Projects Minister Theo Theophanous tried to influence a ministerial colleague last year over a tender for multi-million dollar contracts to help a mate who had sponsored one of his private fundraising events.
The Ombudsman’s report notes that Bachelard screwed up the chronology of various meetings, which called his scoops’ premise into question. Bachelard’s response:
Now, I'm - I may have been told that it - it in those general terms, I may have been told that it was over the particular tender. But I suspect what happened was I was told it in general terms then I went and found out that there had been a tender process just recently and - and probably somewhere in the murky depths of my mind put two and two together over the actual timing of the lobbying and probably didn't clarify that down to the point of exactly when the lobbying had taken place. I confirmed to my satisfaction that lobbying had taken place. I confirmed to my satisfaction that the contracts had been let and GJK had been a big winner.
Later, when Bachelard’s colleague, Carolyn Webb, was bollocked by the Press Council over the spurious allegations of her undeclared friend having been raped, that body also took note of an article by Bachelard devoted to much the same matter in the Sunday Age. While dismissing Theophanous’ grievance on that particular point, it also observed:
Mr Theophanous claimed that this article was a "hatchet job", factually incorrect and falsely alleged lack of integrity and improper financial dealings. He complained that he had been given no opportunity to comment prior to publication and that the article did not mention that the writer, Michael Bachelard, had been "criticised" by the Ombudsman in 2007 for making baseless allegations of impropriety against Mr Theophanous. The newspaper responded that Mr Theophanous had been given an opportunity to comment and that the Ombudsman's findings did not refute Mr Bachelard's earlier report.
In the Council's view, this article trod close to the line of fairness and balance through its degree of reliance on unattributed quotations and assertions as the basis for very severe criticism. The Council also believes that it is often unwise, and sometimes clearly unacceptable, for a newspaper to publish an article by a journalist who may be vulnerable to perceptions of a conflict of interest in favour of or against a person referred to in the article, at least if the relevant facts are not disclosed.
Impact: Further damage to Theophanous’ reputation and much wasted time and money investigating a complaint found to be without merit. To the good, the Ombudsman did urge changes to the tendering process, but these did not flow from Bachelard’s charge.
Consequences: Bachelard has just been promoted to the job of Fairfax’s man in Indonesia.
JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS #3
Four Corners put to air a programme, Lords of the Forest, reported by Ticky Fullerton. The Australian Communications and Media Authority found that it was both grossly inaccurate and extraordinarily biased. This response to the Four Corners smear addresses just how bad it was.
Consequences: The public was misled and the ABC’s credibility compromised.
Result: Ticky Fullerton was promoted and now comperes Lateline Business.