The theme of this year’s Walkley Media Conference is ‘What’s the story?’ It’s about how we develop a powerful narrative and “make our stories sing and sell”, a very contemporary theme at a time when social media allows us to become our own marketing machines. But it’s also possible to lose the plot — which is what happened when the MEAA decided to invite Exxon Mobil to be the Golden sponsor of the Walkley Media Conference.

As Exxon Mobil public affairs told ABC PM’s Jess Hill, on Wednesday: “We’re always very interested in hearing about how a powerful narrative can help.” Public relations help is certainly what Exxon Mobil needs. It’s not easy to spin a story about being environmentally responsible when you are the world’s biggest oil corporation trying to live down the nightmare of the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill at a time when oil spills suddenly shoot to the top of the news agenda.

As well, you have organisations like Sourcewatch and Greenpeace tracking your notorious history of funding climate scepticism as you try to negotiate your way through the shifting sands of climate-change politics. Last year the ABC reported that Exxon Mobil had reneged on its promise to stop funding groups such as the Heritage and Atlas Economic Foundations, quoting London School of Economics policy director Bob Ward as saying: “They are trying to mislead people and frankly we have seen these sorts of tactics before, for instance in the case of the tobacco industry, who for many, many years, funded campaigns and misinformation about the adverse effects of their products.” Exxon Mobil’s response is that it is now funding different views within the debate.  Even News Ltd outlets, including The Australian, are onto the story.

All this explains why it was such a shock for many when they learned this week that Exxon Mobil was funding the Walkley conference. The first duty of journalists is to understand that even a good story should not stand in the way of seeking the truth. The difficult task of environmental journalists is to sort out the greenwashing from what is actually happening. The professional development arm of the union, The Walkley Foundation is supposed to be about promoting excellence in journalism and an ethical bulwark in times when many working journalists find themselves under pressure to bend their ethics to meet commercial and ratings pressures.

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Sponsorship is about forming a public association that can enhance the credibility of the sponsor and provide economic benefit to the organisation being sponsored. This is why it was beside the point for federal secretary of the MEAA Chris Warren to tell the ABC PM program that journalists would not be compromised by joining Exxon Mobil for a cup of tea at the conference. It’s sadly ironic that as someone who has championed the public right to know, Warren, when asked to reveal the precise details of the relationship with Exxon Mobil, declined because it is “commercially in confidence”.

An underling issue that may have led to this potential PR fiasco for the union may be the merging of public relations and journalism professionals into one union. However, in this case, the MEAA move is just as offensive and a conflict of interest for its members working in professional communications roles in research, government, universities, politics, big NGOs, environmental organisations and many other companies.

No one is denying the need for some sponsorship. Various universities and media outlets, including Crikey, had agreed to sponsor the conference. It is likely that many of them were not aware of the Exxon Mobil gold sponsorship. Qantas is also providing in-kind travel support.

Journalists, academics, public relations and other communications people, media students, environmentalists and many others are signing an open letter asking the MEAA to withdraw from the sponsorship.

Meanwhile, there is a big story happening in PNG at Lake Kutubu. It’s a hard one for Australian journalists to cover because it’s expensive to get there. Last year, Oilsearch, Exxon Mobil’s partner in the huge LNG pipeline carving its way through the once pristine World Heritage area, flew  The Age’s Jo Chandler up there where she reported on the complexities of development. Unfortunately, she missed the  “ecological disaster” caused by oil drilling in the area  that two weeks later SMH environmental reporter Ben Cubby discovered from his desk in Sydney. Since then the only major follow-ups have been by UTS student reporter Calliste Weitenberg in non-mainstream publications Reportage-enviro and NZ publication Pacific Scoop.

Maybe some Walkley media sponsors could band together to send a team of reporters  to Lake Kutubu to give the people there the chance to be part of a “powerful narrative”.

*Wendy Bacon is the director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, which is the publisher of Reportage-enviro. UTS journalism was approached for sponsorship but could not justify the expense of a cash contribution (there is an agreement, however, for UTS students to contribute by videoing the conference and helping out with administrative tasks).

RESPONSE: Since this story was published, MEAA Federal Secretary Christopher Warren has provided the following response:

Your comments about the support the Walkley Foundation is receiving from ExxonMobil for our Media Conference in Sydney next month deserve an appropriate response.

The Walkley Foundation is a politically neutral organisation pledged to further excellence in Australian journalism and we do not make political judgements about organisations as it would not be appropriate for us to do so.

We rely on the support of our partners to do this vital work in support of transparency and press freedom and insist that, in all their engagement with us, they accept our fundamental beliefs. Journalists are not strangers to commercial arrangements. They’ve been fundamental to journalism for centuries. Our principles mean that all are arms length and are not permitted to in any way to influence the content of what we do or say.

I have absolute confidence in the ability and integrity of journalists to both understand these principles and to work to the highest ethical principles.

As you would know, Exxon is among our corporate supporters, the most prominent of which is the Copyright Agency Limited, which helps journalists secure royalty payment for use of their work.

Our other sponsors include Qantas, the ABC, Al-Jazeera, APN, Fairfax Media, News Ltd, APN News and Media, SBS and Leader Community Newspapers.

Our academic partners include The University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. Your own university, UTS, is also lending its support by pledging five students to report on proceedings with the help of video cameras provided by us by Flip.

You should note that among the organisations that ExxonMobil supports in this country are Opera Australia, the charity United Way, the Australian Drug Foundation, Royal Children’s Hospital Safety Centre in Melbourne and the National Youth Science Forum.

Globally the list of organisations is too exhaustive to go into, but includes Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University all of which are investigating alternative fuel technologies.

The various co-signatories to your open letter who work at Monash University would know that the university also receives support from ExxonMobil.

It is inevitable in all of this that the company will have funded organisations that you or I may not agree with. However, this is true of almost every corporation in Australia, particularly global corporations.

You refer to the Media Alliance Code of Ethics in your letter. The Code requires that journalists: “Do not allow personal interest or any belief, commitment, gift or benefit to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.”  Further Clause 5 requires that journalists disclose any possible conflicts of interest. Clause 6 exhorts journalists not to allow advertising or any commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.

In all its dealing with hundreds of sponsors over the years, the Walkley Foundation has consistently upheld this principle and will continue to do so.

With best wishes

Christopher Warren
Federal Secretary, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance