Fortescue Metals Group paid for travel and accommodation for multiple journalists at the Bo’ao forum, but you wouldn’t hear it from News or Fairfax.
Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group provided free trips to China for newspaper journalists to cover a business leaders’ forum co-founded by the mining magnate last week. But The Australian and The Australian Financial Review did not disclose this to readers in their reports and commentary on the gabfest.
Yvonne Ball, a spokesperson for Fortescue, told Crikey the company paid for travel and accommodation for reporters from The Fin, The Oz, The SMH/Age and The West Australian to attend the Senior Business Leaders Forum in Bo’ao last week. The AFR was represented by national affairs writer Jennifer Hewett and The Australian by China correspondent Scott Murdoch.
The Fin gave the forum — co-founded by Forrest and China Import-Export Bank chairman Li Ruogu — the biggest coverage. In a page two commentary piece headlined “Boao wows our top dogs”, Hewett wrote:
“Andrew Forrest is always determined to do big things. So it’s not surprising he adopted the idea of a high-level gathering of Australian and Chinese business leaders with his usual enthusiasm. Even so, many of the senior Australian chairmen and chief executives who accompanied him to China were sceptical about how frank and effective an intense dialogue with their Chinese counterparts could be. Instead, it was apparent that the passion of the Fortescue chairman to make a difference to attitudes and to results was shared by some of the most important figures in the Chinese business community.”
“A group of senior Australian and Chinese business leaders will help each other navigate the regulatory obstacles and other hurdles to investment in their respective countries. That will include sharing their own business experiences, making personal introductions and attempting to reduce the impediments to greater foreign investment.”
The Ozcovered the forum on page two that day, including quotes from Forrest that Australia should work harder to tackle the perception it does not welcome foreign investment from China.
In her page two column the following day, The Fin’s Hewett outlined Fortecue boss Nev Power’s bullish views on Chinese demand for iron ore. Her piece concluded: “There’s clearly a lot of Fortescue self-interest in his optimism. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
None of the pieces referred to above contained any disclosure about sponsored travel.
Mark Pearson, an expert in media law and ethics at Griffith University, told Crikey media outlets should disclose paid travel and accommodation within their stories or in a footnote at the end. ”The mainstream media needs points of difference from the new media,” he said. “They don’t do it at their peril. It’s what distinguishes them from the riff-raff.”
Pearson says there is a need for more rigorous and consistent approach to disclosure standards — rather than the ad hoc system currently in place. This is especially important, he says, because media outlets no longer have the deep pockets they once did and are likely to use sponsored travel more often in the future.
The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, states in its code of ethics it will disclose when an airline, hotel or other interest has borne the cost of transporting or accommodating a journalist. The Age has the same standard. By contrast, News Limited’s professional conduct policy does not address the disclosure of sponsored travel or accommodation.
The Australian Press Council does not mention sponsored travel in its advisory guidelines or statement of principles.
Crikey understands Fairfax reporter Adele Ferguson also attended the forum, with support from FMG, but did not file any stories. Both Hewett and AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury declined Crikey’s requests for comment. A Fairfax spokesperson said: “Fortescue provided limited support to some Fairfax journalists attending the Boao Forum.”
A spokesperson for News Limited said: “Fortescue did assist Scott in attending the conference. His reporting was not influenced in any way, and so there was no conflict of interest and, we believe, no need for disclosure.”