We live in a time of blurring lines, and some, such as the distinction between the personal and professional in relationships between journalists and sources, were never very clear in the first place.
Now, after a year in which the relationships between sources and journalists have been in the headlines, one of Australia’s best reporters, Caroline Overington, has been pinged for what on the face of it looks like a damningly inappropriate exchange of e-mails with a source – leaving herself open to allegations of trying to influence an election outcome.
Here is the exchange between Overington and Danielle Ecuyer, independent candidate for the seat of Wentworth and former lover of Labor candidate George Newhouse. Overington told me this morning that this exchange, first revealed on Media Watch last night, followed her visit to Ecuyer’s house, where they had a chatty, girlie conversation.
Was it a girl chat or an interview? I asked. It was both, says Overington. “We were establishing rapport.”
Ecuyer’s failed relationships featured, and so did chat about both women’s children, who are of similar age. None of this amounted to a story, but this was the context in which the e-mail exchange occurred. It was “never meant to see the light of day,” says Overington, but now that it has she thinks it hilarious “the funniest thing that has happened to me all week”.
She is also sure that the Media Watch sting “all earnest and unctuous” is payback for her sledging of that show earlier in the year over its failures to report on the Costello Dinnergate affair – another tale of the relationships between reporters and sources.
So what are we to make of this exceedingly tangled web? First, it rounds off a year that has made the lack of ethical training in our industry very clear indeed, as Matthew Ricketson neatly lays out in this piece in today’s Age. Who can disagree with his conclusion:
Journalists and politicians meet and talk in countless situations, most of which go unreported but which represent a large grey zone whose rules are unclear and rarely discussed in public, to the detriment of all parties including the public … The ethical issues can be resolved, but they do need to be thought through and discussed, preferably openly so as to build trust with the public.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. There simply is no ethical education in most media organisations, and it shows, including in good reporters like Overington and Brissenden getting into trouble. Affairs like this leave us all feeling, somehow, dirty.
So where does right and wrong lie here?
I am on the record with my views on the Costello Dinnergate affair.
As for the battle between Media Watch and The Australian, I agreed with much of what Overington said earlier this year by way of critique, but also think The Oz is displaying its usual chip on the shoulder and defensiveness in its claims that the program is biased against them. A couple of times Media Watch has got the Oz bang to rights, and the paper just doesn’t seem to be able to admit it, instead giving attacks of its critics coverage comparable to that justified for the outbreak of a small war.
So did Overington do wrong in this instance? She is a reporter I admire, but I am afraid I think the answer is yes.
We all try to build rapport with sources. Journalists are human beings, not automaton, and sources inevitably sometimes become friends. I do not condemn Overington for having girl chats with Ecuyer, although it does bring to mind Janet Malcolm’s famous saying about the purpose of interviewing being to gain trust in order to betray it.
Nevertheless, the professional aim of interactions with sources should surely be a relationship of respect and trust – not trust that the journalist will look after the interests of the source, but rather trust that the job of journalism will be done with disinterest and integrity.
This idea of disinterested journalism is under assault, and sometimes from the very organisations that employ journalists. They are increasingly encouraged to blog away, revealing their human side and interacting with the audience. I think this is mostly a positive trend. The faux objective voice of much news reportage too often cloaks something that isn’t objective at all.
But that doesn’t mean that the idea of disinterested reporting no longer has value.
Overington might have thought it was all a joke. It probably was. Doubtless she is correct when she accuses Ecuyer of “going all huffy” partly in an effort at self promotion.
But when a reporter gets caught out encouraging a politician to take a particular course with preferences because it would be a better story, and bagging a rival political candidate to boot, then we have to say a line has been crossed. It leaves us all feeling a little bit dirtier. It is not just a joke.