The Age’s Mark Forbes is at the centre of a debate about journalistic
ethics after a top intelligence officer and the Prime Minister both
attacked his front page story claiming the government knew Iraq’s WMD
capability was overstated before the war. See how the debate unfolded
below.

Mark Forbes answers the critics


Sealed Section – February 24

Silly Crikey reported yesterday that Mark Forbes should be allowed
to answer his critics when in fact he did just that in the
strike-affected Saturday paper which we didn’t see: The spy, reporter and that seminar

The Age thought it so important to stress the point that they ran it again in full in today’s paper.

Forbes has clearly put the heat back on Lewincamp and we just hope no-one does anything silly at this point.

It has been a little surprising that News Ltd hasn’t taken the
opportunity to get stuck into The Age and Forbes over the controversy
but some observer reckon the solid performance for The Oz by Mark’s dad
Cameron Forbes might have had something to do with it.

Australia’s Hutton – Mark Forbes and The Spook

From the first February 19 subscriber-only sealed section

The
Age’s defence reporter Mark Forbes had what looked like a cracking
story in Saturday’s paper which duly appeared on the front page: Government ‘warned’ on intelligence

It opened as follows:

“Intelligence
agencies told the Federal Government in the weeks before the Iraq war
that some of the Bush Administration’s claims justifying an invasion
were exaggerated, according to one of Australia’s most senior
intelligence officials. Assessments provided to Prime Minister John
Howard stated that US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s prewar address
to the United Nations ‘went beyond the available evidence’ in at least
two areas, the official said.”

However, in what is
uncannily similar to the outing of the late Dr David Kelly in the UK,
Forbes’ source has outed himself to his bosses and then a Senate
Estimates committee within five days of the story appearing. Must have
been quite a witchhunt.

This is how The Age reported the story in today’s paper without making any mention of Mark Forbes:
http://theage.com.au/articles/2004/02/18/1077072711762.html

It opened as follows:

“The
head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Frank Lewincamp, has
told a Senate committee he was the principal source for a report in
Saturday’s Age on assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

The Forbes story clearly comes under attack with the following claim by Lewincamp:

“For
example, I have never said the Bush Administration’s claims justifying
an invasion were exaggerated,” he said. “Nor have I said that the
Government was told that Iraq WMD did not pose an immediate threat.”

Forbes
has clearly been gagged as he made no comment to any other media last
night and wasn’t allowed to write about what happened in The Age.

Age
editor-in-chief Michael Gawenda would no doubt be aware that the BBC’s
biggest mistake was blindly defending reporter Andrew Gilligan so
Gawenda’s support on the front page today would be of great comfort to
Forbes:

“The Age’s editor-in-chief, Michael Gawenda, said
the paper stood by the story. ‘From everything that has been raised
today, it is clear to me that the story was fair and accurate,’ he
said.”
 
Lewincamp was no doubt put under intense pressure
after the story appeared and has done Forbes no favours at all by
outing himself and attempting to discredit the story.

Forbes
clearly had at least three different levels of contact with Lewincamp.
There was the lecture at ANU last year which Forbes attended as a
Masters Student in Strategic Studies.

This was a Chatham
House Rules speech but this doesn’t necessarily preclude Forbes from
using the material provided the individual or position held is not
identified.

For instance, Crikey uses material sent to [email protected] but is very careful not to quote from large slabs directly or identify the sources.

Check out this debate about how Chatham House Rules apply: http://phrases.shu.ac.uk/bulletin_board/18/messages/628.html

Lewincamp
then refers to four subsequent encounters with Forbes but there is no
detail as to whether these were phone calls or meetings. His
description of a brief phone call with Forbes the day before the story
appeared sounds a little hard to believe.

A journalist
doesn’t ring a prime source to merely say a story is appearing
tomorrow. Surely Forbes would have run Lewincamp through the substance
of the article.

You can read the full exchange from Senate
Estimates last night although the Lewincamp comments are about 80 per
cent of the way down a very long transcript: http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/view_document.aspx?id=84797&table=ESTIMATE

And
check out Lewincamp’s evidence to another Senate Committee on November
5 last year as this also forms part of the basis of the Forbes article:

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates – 5 NOVEMBER 2003
(Towards the bottom of the transcript on page 163)
http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Commttee/Estimate/Linked/2996-5.PDF

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee – 28 NOVEMBER 2003
(Near the top of the transcript on page 342)
http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Commttee/Commsen/Linked/3081-2.PDF

The
Age belatedly reported these comments on Tuesday because the rest of
the media had missed it  back in November. We can’t find the link
on their website but it was part of the story featuring Kevin Rudd
calling for a Royal Commission.

Rudd was busily defending
himself on AM this morning and you should also check out their
Lewincamp coverage when the transcript appears later today: http://abc.net.au/am/


PM accuses Mark Forbes of “serious misquoting”

From the second February 19 sealed section

The
Prime Minister this afternoon told the Reps during Question Time that
The Age had “seriously misquoted” the head of the Defence Intelligence
Organisation, Frank Lewincamp in a page one story by defence
correspondent Mark Forbes last Saturday about assessments of Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction.

Age editor-in-chief Michael
Gawenda really should let Forbes off the hook to defend himself in
tomorrow’s paper as his “we neither confirm or deny Lewincamp is the
source” line is a joke given the past 18 hours.

Blogger and ABC basher Tom Blair has led the assault on Forbes and The Age as you can see about half way down his home page: http://timblair.spleenville.com/

And the subsequent discussion by all the right wing posters unsurprisingly sticks the boots in:
http://timblair.spleenville.com/archives/006017.php#comments

There
should be a solid debate about the way Forbes, a well-respected hand,
put this story together, especially now that the PM is on the attack.

However,
without saying Forbes is in the clear, the bottom line remains that the
Government’s claims about Iraq’s WMD have not materialised so either
the Government or the intelligence agencies have some explaining to do.

Chatham House rules and the leak debate

A political spindoctor writes:

“Journos
often do not keep Chatham House rules – I’ve come across a number of
occasions where specialist media people in particular have registered
for events without identifying themselves as journalists and then gone
hell for leather. Financial wire service people have been the worst
offenders, too.”

Meanwhile, another subscriber writes:

“What
stunning hypocrisy! Crikey rants that Sam Chisholm should resign from
the Telstra board because of an unproved leak. “Leaks of this kind
should not be tolerated by any major company board.” And yet, only a
paragraph earlier, Crikey gives details of the e-mail address set up –
in order to deliver it leaks!  If it wasn’t for leaks and
anonymous contributions, Crikey wouldn’t exist.”

CRIKEY:
Indeed, this is true and journalists as a rule should not make a habit
of attacking public officials who leak material in the public interest.
However, we are contending that Sam Chisholm is leaking material that
might benefit his old friends, Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. The
last thing they would want is for Fairfax to become a Telstra-backed
gorilla. Chisholm is no public-spirited whistleblower, he’s a ruthless
backroom power player with a history of playing tough and for keeps.


———————————————————-

Your feedback on the Forbes debate

A former bureaucrat writes:

Isn’t there an ethical
issue at stake, here? Mark Forbes attends an ANU seminar (I understand)
as a registered student. (His occupation as a journalist is therefore
‘on hold’.)

He then reports in the press what was said by a
speaker at the seminar. Chatham House rules don’t apply to this, so
long as there is no attribution.

But copyright surely does.

Students
aren’t free to publish lecture notes (other than for academic
purposes), unless permitted by the lecturer concerned. So, I question
Forbes’ journalistic ethics on this.

That said, simply by
attributing comments on security issues at the seminar to ‘an
official’, Forbes effectively disclosed who that official was. This
would have been evident to anyone who cared to look up the relevant ANU
seminar program. It would also have been easy enough to guess, anyway
— the Canberra ‘intelligence’ community is not that big.

So, I am not very impressed with Mr Forbes’ journalistic performance, at all.

The
consequence, of course, is that senior government officials will be
very reluctant now to contribute to and participate in University
seminars and in giving (free) guest lectures (as I and many of my
public service colleagues used to do), very likely to the detriment of
the students and academics involved, and to the detriment of this
country’s higher education generally.

Thank you, Mark Forbes. You dill!

The Former Bureaucrat

Peter Fray

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