This week I had to sit through the nauseating sounds of Courier Mail editor David Fagan telling a Brisbane Development Association luncheon that his paper was “the real Opposition” in Queensland, and that he was proud of the Curious Snail’s record in campaigning on corruption (even claiming the credit for the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which I always thought had less to do with the bone-lazy Queensland media and more to do with the diligence of the southern broadsheets and the ABC).
What Fagan did not talk about was how his paper has perfected the art of rumour-based reporting, a formula that consists of stringing together anonymous claims by (usually aggrieved) sources whose own motives are never explored and whose identity is never revealed.
Mix in a bit gossip, dredge up some previous and similarly anonymous stories on the same topic, flesh it out with some background and build it all around an unflattering photograph of the subject and an hysterical, misleading but seductive headline.
Today is a case in point: a story by newly dubbed “crime editor” Robyn Ironside (she was born for the job, with a name like that!).
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Fetchingly titled: “I’ve been stabbed in the back”, the story is based on comments alleged (by an anonymous source) to have been made by a senior Queensland officer at a closed meeting of top state police. The female officer is alleged to have told the closed meeting that she was aware of a series of rumours about her partner.
Ironically, the baseless story describes the rumours themselves as “baseless”, yet it has the gall to “base” an entire story on them!
The senior officer who is reported to have been “stabbed in the back” is not quoted, nor does it appear she has been asked to comment, perhaps wisely deflecting the investigative journo to the minister’s office.
The editorial trick here is that the story becomes validated, and in the Courier Mail’s eyes worthy of its readers, simply by asking a spokesperson for the police minister to comment. The comment is “the rumours are wrong” and “such behaviour would be a breach” (note the conditional tense here), but the recipe has worked, because there is now enough bits to cobble together to create a salacious yarn.
The only thing worse would have been to offer “no comment”.
The Courier Mail has been doing this for years, but the victims of these tactics can be reassured that the story’s credibility is quickly assessed by the complete lack of interest by other media. The story dies within 24 hours.