The discomfort of asking hard questions is
one of the biggest psychological hurdles journalists have to overcome. I guess there are some people to whom it
comes easy, but they aren’t very nice people. Nevertheless it is vital that
journalists ask the b-stard question, no matter how powerful, polished and even
likeable the subject of the interview might be.
Journalism isn’t nice, but it should be good.

This is a test The Australian Financial Review and journalist Verona Burgess seem
to have failed in the profile of senior public servant Jane Halton, published on
the weekend. Halton, of course, was the
public servant at the centre of the children overboard affair. In David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory there are enough allegations about her role to keep
public service ethics classes occupied for semesters. The politics of asylum
seekers is one of the hottest moral issues of our time, and the proper role of
public servants is at the heart of the issue.

But all this is only marginally visible in
what is generally a soft and favourable profile. If Burgess asked the hard
questions, you can’t tell from the interview. Halton, we are told, admits the
children overboard affair is a very “painful subject” and a
“career low”. And she was
obviously upset by the public scrutiny involved.

But does she defend her role? What does she say to the allegations made
about her? We can’t tell. Instead there
are cryptic comments about how she has learnt to pay attention to internal
“niggles” and about the need for better information systems to store
records. Is a reference to the
government having issued photographs of children in the water in what can only
be described as a misleading context? It
isn’t clear. And apparently the issue
wasn’t pursued.

Perhaps Halton refused to answer questions. Perhaps there were no-go areas as a condition
of the interview. If so, they should have
been declared. And the comments Halton
did make should have been clarified, or the reasons they could not be clarified
made clear. Instead it looks as though
hard questions were not asked, and not pursued.

The result is a profile written as though
there are no moral issues, but only issues of smartness and career progression
in working at senior levels of the public service in Australia. We know about Halton’s shoes, but not about
her ethics.

Maybe Halton has plenty to say for
herself. Maybe not. We don’t know. That is a failure of journalism.

Peter Fray

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