The biggest story in Washington so far this year has been the plea
bargain under which lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to
charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. It is believed that his
disclosures may incriminate senior members of Congress, most of them
Republicans.

So full marks to The Australian yesterday for
getting a local angle on the scandal, in the form of an op-ed piece by
Doug Bandow
, who was sacked from his job at the Cato Institute, a libertarian
think tank, after it was revealed that he’d taken money from Abramoff
to write articles. Bandow has reworked a piece that appeared last week
in the Los Angeles Times now with a “cash for comment” headline and including the line “I’ve
probably written as often for The Australian as for The Washington
Post.

On the surface, it’s a mea culpa: “The blame lies
with me, not him, so I deserved to pay a professional price.” But it
seems Bandow still really doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He says
that “the ethical boundaries in this business simply aren’t as obvious as
some might think,” and asks: “Who decides which conflicts are direct or
obvious enough to matter?” But although grey areas do exist, the rules
are generally very clear.

There’s nothing wrong with writing for money; I’m
doing it now. Only a blockhead, as Samuel Johnson said, ever wrote for
any other reason. But if you expect to be taken seriously, your readers
need to know where the money is coming from, so they can form their own
judgement about whether that affects what you say. If you write for a
newspaper or magazine, they can look at the advertisements to get an
idea of who’s ultimately paying the bills.

The problem with “cash for comment” isn’t the cash,
but the lack of disclosure. Bandow, just like Alan Jones and John Laws,
was getting money that his audience didn’t know about. What looked like
disinterested opinion was actually being paid for by someone with an
axe to grind.

I like Bandow’s stuff, and I’m quite happy to
believe him when he says “I never took a position contrary to my
beliefs” and “it’s silly to suggest that a thousand dollars or so would
buy my opinion.” But that’s not the point. His readers should have been
allowed to make up their own minds about that, and he was keeping
important information from them.

The rule is simple: if in doubt, disclose.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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