Gerard Henderson has published the latest entry on his blog, Media Watch Dog (best viewed in Netscape Navigator 2.0 or Lynx). And he has, once again, some great scoops. For instance, did you know that Kerry O’Brien once worked for Gough Whitlam?

Mr O’Brien was once a senior staffer for former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam – although you would never know this from reading Red Kerry’s CV [what about the ABC’s commitment to the public’s right-to-know? – Editor].

Apparently, the ABC’s failure to disclose that O’Brien worked as a press secretary for Gough Whitlam and Lionel Bowen in the 1970s is a great fraud upon the public – rather than simply reflecting that his 7.30 Report bio is intended to highlight his lengthy and prestigious journalistic history. But it’s shameful to keep the Australian public in the dark – if only there was some easily accessible way they could find out about Red Kerry’s shady resume.

But Gerard doesn’t just have the dirt on the skeleton in Kerry’s closet. He has the latest gossip, fed to him by a Coalition staffer who had a conversation with Kerry on Budget night:

The Coalition staffer’s note of the conversation – which was witnessed by another Coalition staffer – is as follows:

O’Brien was visibly…[delete this word – let’s go with “tired and emotional” instead, Editor] but was friendly and candid. He was aware that he was talking to Coalition staffers….

Coalition Staffer: “Kerry , you realise…I respect Peter [Costello] a lot.”

O’Brien: “Well good luck to you then – I don’t. He doesn’t like politics; he has always been the first one out of here (Canberra) on Thursday. Peter Costello does not have the nation’s interests at heart. He is only in it for himself, always has been, always will be. He needs to get out.”

Coalition Staffer: “I actually really respect some of the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era.”

O’Brien: ”Howard and Costello never recognised the importance of their reforms. Costello simply rode on the consequences of the Keating and Hawke wave of economic reform.”

Setting aside the question of whether Kerry’s (alleged) opinions about Costello were right (and for the record, I think he’s right on the money), this raises a couple of interesting issues.

First, is it terribly troubling news to learn that Kerry O’Brien might have certain political opinions? Journalists are voters too, and I don’t for a minute imagine that each of them has their own political opinions. What matters is that they don’t let that affect the way they behave when they’re journalising – if their political attitudes affect their ability to ask incisive questions, uncover facts and report on events, then it’s a problem.

In just the same way, I don’t have a problem with the fact that there are conservative journalists. What I have a problem with is journalists who engage themselves in advancing and assisting their preferred political agenda, rather than reporting on political events.

But it seems Henderson is trying to snidely imply that O’Brien’s reporting must be biased, both because of his past employment and his expression of views on current events – never mind that those views were expressed off-camera, in a private conversation.

Second, was it reasonable or appropriate for Henderson to report the conversation? Here’s his justification:

Now, normally Nancy would not publish the note of a conversation conducted in private on a dark Canberra night or morning. But this is what the 7.30 Report’s political editor Michael Brissenden did concerning a conversation he and two others had with Peter Costello in 2005. Mr Brissenden’s release of the details of this off-the-record conversation a couple of years later was specifically approved by Kerry O’Brien. [For the full details of the saga see “Dining Out With The ABC: A Warning”, The Sydney Institute Quarterly, Issue 34, December 2008 – which is on The Sydney Institute’s website.] So, clearly, Mr O’Brien can have no legitimate complaint if someone records, and someone else releases, the record of a conversation held with him.

There are some cliche responses that might be appropriate here – “two wrongs don’t make a right” and “you’re giving up the moral high ground”, for starters.

But Henderson also seems to have looked only at one side of the equation. Yes, Brissenden (apparently with O’Brien’s approval) disclosed a private conversation. But the decision to report the conversation was made because it contradicted public statements made by Peter Costello. The journalists involved (not only Brissenden, but Tony Wright and Paul Daley) took the view that it was in the public interest to report the conversation in 2007, when Costello denied having planned to challenge Howard if required. Henderson attempts to argue that he is also serving the public interest:

Nancy has revealed the details of Kerry O’Brien’s (private) thoughts in the interests of the public’s right-to-know, of course. She believes that Mr and Ms Citizen have a right to know that Kerry O’Brien’s line on the Howard/Costello administration is a standard Labor line – namely: “Hawke/Keating “Good”; Howard/Costello “Hopeless”. In other words, praise the Labor Party; damn the political conservatives; and pass the tequila.

This seems a weak argument to me. Naturally, the public has a right to know where a journalist may have a conflict of interest. But interests need to be distinguished from mere opinions or preferences. Once again, the issue for me comes back to whether it can be demonstrated that the journalist’s capacity for professional reporting is affected. Henderson begins with the presumption that O’Brien is biased, but he needs to demonstrate this with evidence more compelling than, “But he made Malcy cry!” Until then, I fail to see how Henderson’s great revelation can be argued as serving the public interest.

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