Fairfax Media struck a deal with WikiLeaks to simultaneously publish the raw cables it has relied upon for its series of impressive scoops by Philip Dorling, but according to newsroom insiders the whistleblower website is yet to uphold its end of the bargain.
The revelations, relayed to Crikey by a senior Age journalist, cast a new slant on complaints from other sections of the media that The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald had led readers astray by failing to air the Cablegate source documents for fear its commercial competitors would mine them for journalism gold.
The senior scribe with knowledge of the operation said that WikiLeaks had welched on the pact partly because of the legal turmoil in London involving its founder, Julian Assange.
“Phillip has a relationship with WikiLeaks, he got the information — the agreement was that they would put the up concurrently with our stories and then we would put them up.
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“Now for some reason they haven’t been putting them up and I suspect that’s because Assange has been otherwise occupied…but we felt uncomfortable putting the cables up if they hadn’t. We needed their express permission to put our cables up, which we weren’t getting.”
Following the breakdown of the agreement, the journalist said Fairfax would finally publish on its websites later today the “around 60” cables it has relied upon so far for its splashes, which began to be rolled out last week. They are expected to be read by rival outlets with interest.
This week, in a double-barrelled attack, ABC Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes and ABC Drum correspondent Alan Kohler slammed The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for refusing to release the raw material, denying the public the power to rate the veracity of Dorling’s reports.
Holmes made reference to Fairfax’s ignorance of “scientific journalism”, while Kohler described the media giant as a “parasite that deliberately keeps its host alive while harvesting its blood.”
Last week, Crikey‘s Bernard Keane wrote that, “We cannot, as Assange says, “judge for ourselves”, because Fairfax won’t let us…we’ll have to wait until this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week, to verify the account and see the full context, by which time the media cycle will have long since moved on.”
In a response to Holmes sent yesterday afternoon, SMH editor-in-chief Peter Fray defended his decision not to publish, saying he was currently working to get the cables online. But he added that some of the documents contained multiple stories and that to release them prematurely “would be to give access to our competitors in the local market.”
In her media diary column for The Australian on Monday, Caroline Overington hinted at News Limited’s disgust, writing that “envoys from other media organisation [sic] are telling WikiLeaks it’s surely against the spirit of the free-information movement to give juicy cables to some media organisations while keeping them from others.”
News has been left in the lurch by Dorling’s contacts inside WikiLeaks, often forcing it to play catch-up on each day’s exclusives in its second and third editions. In one notorious piece, reporter James Massola, rather than cover that day’s revelations about Kevin Rudd, penned an attack on his former Canberra Times colleague, who he described as sporting a “waxy, wan appearance” — an apparent hallmark of figures associated with Australia’s intelligence community. In another piece, the newspaper argued the WikiLeaks stories weren’t news.
However, logistical issues have also played upon Fairfax’s decision to keep its powder dry. The Age journalist contacted by Crikey said the company had received the raw data just days before the first revelations ran. The scenario differs markedly from that of the Guardian and The New York Times, who received their stash months ago. Following a rigorous dissection, the official partners post the raw cables exclusively on their websites — alongside the relevant write-up — before WikiLeaks uploads them a few days later.
The source said Fairfax was scrambling to get its stories up each day: “we’re still getting fresh cables now. And we’re a much smaller organisation. It’s actually a fairly big task to transmit the information in a way you can put online,” adding the cables were received in a strange format that required work to make them publishable.
“Because we’re working on a vast trove of documents, we thought ‘let’s get some documents to WikiLeaks they’ll put them online, we’ll get there eventually’. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened as smoothly as we would have liked.”
Meanwhile, the journalist said the public wasn’t the least bit concerned by the lack of raw material.
“The only people who are raising concerns are other journalists…we haven’t had a single Age reader who’s asked ‘where the hell are the cables?’ It’s just other journalists that want to exploit the cables themselves.”
“I understand the argument, but at the same time, the public aren’t outraged.”
Crikey understands that Fairfax were originally set to publish in February next year but that the yarns were brought forward because News’ local arm had been secretly trying to buy the documents through representatives in Europe (despite The Wall Street Journal having previously passed over them).
That pitch is believed to be continuing, but as yet, no newspaper in the global Murdoch stable has managed to land a Cablegate scoop.