There’s nothing more demeaning for a journalist than a public accusation of getting your facts wrong, but that’s exactly what Fairfax’s Philip Dorling had to cop on Saturday courtesy of the front-page of The Weekend Australian.

For the second time in as many weeks staff journalist James Massola cast doubt on Dorling’s reportage. Citing Julian Assange’s commitment to “scientific journalism”, the Capital Circle scribe combed through the raw WikiLeaks cables that Fairfax finally released last Wednesday under pressure various media outlets.

But in an example of just how low relations between the country’s two major media groups has plumbed, the Saturday story, boldly headlined ‘Fairfax got its facts wrong on cable leaks’ was refuted in yesterday’s Sunday Age and Sun Herald, with a terse rejoinder ‘The facts about WikiLeaks and Mark Arbib‘. The Oz was back lobbing grenades today, publishing a brief by Mark Dodd titled ‘Fairfax admits to Arbib errors’.

Throughout the running battle there has been no substantive contact between the two camps, and Crikey understands Massola failed to ring Dorling on Friday to get his side of the story.

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

The vast majority of the rap sheet relates to Dorling’s misreading of the US date format of the cables — a relatively simple faux-pas that probably should have been picked up, especially given the preponderance of dates that cannot be interpreted both ways. However, there are also several more serious allegations.

Let’s treat each complaint in turn.

1) Claim: “a comment attributed to Senator [Mark] Arbib in one report was in fact made by Kevin Rudd’s brother Greg.”

Massola is alleging that Dorling deliberately misattributed a statement apparently made by Greg Rudd to the US Embassy that his brother “wanted to ensure there are viable alternatives to Gillard within the Labor Party to forestall a challenge.” The cable then goes on to say that Arbib “once told us a similar story”. Dorling, Massola is suggesting, deliberately inverted the statement to suit his slant that Arbib was a Yank in the government’s ranks. He also notes that Dorling got the date of the cable wrong, because he mistakenly misread the format.

Fairfax responded yesterday that the report “incorrectly attributed some comments made by Senator Arbib to US embassy staff as having been included in a cable sent in October last year when the cable was, in fact, sent in June.”

Verdict: Partially true. Notwithstanding the date format mix-up, the key point of contention is the meaning of the words “similar” and “once”. The contested quote is not coming from either Arbib or Greg Rudd, but from the US Embassy. It is possible that Arbib “once” made a similar statement to Rudd. But in that case, it is unlikely that it would have happened during the 10 day window that makes the statement true: Dorling made a specific (incorrect) reference to the month in which Arbib is alleged to have made the comment, and not simply the month in which the cable was sent. On the other hand, The Age might have another cable in its possession that validates the quote, and which it is yet to post on its website. And the main thrust of the story — that Arbib was a long-running source of for US intelligence gathering — is substantively correct.

2) Claim: Massola states that Dorling is guilty of “misquoting former US ambassador Robert McCallum” over a comment that was actually made by Tony Burke to Charge d’Affaires Dan Clune, that Julia Gillard was the “clear front runner” to succeed Rudd.

Fairfax has not specifically disputed the error.

Verdict: Half true. Dorling’s story does not attribute the “front-runner” quote to McCallum, noting only that “…US diplomats had no doubt about her ambitions and as early as June 2008 declared here the ‘front runner’ to replace Mr Rudd.” The US diplomats quoted could indeed have been paraphrasing Burke, although the relevant cable is written in a manner which makes clear the opinion was Burke’s rather than the Embassy’s. The “June 2008” date matches the McCallum report.

3) Claim: Massola says Dorling was wrong in “claiming former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation was a ‘blessing in disguise’ when the WikiLeaks cable quoted US officials saying it was a “blessing for the government”.

Fairfax argues that “US diplomats…variously reported [emphasis added] Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation as defence minister last year as ‘blessing in disguise’ and as a ‘blessing for the government’.

Verdict: Partially true. There is no ‘blessing in disguise’ phrase in Fairfax’s cables so far. Fairfax sources say that there is another cable — which the company is yet to publish — that uses the phrase ‘blessing in disguise’ in relation to Fitzgibbon. And there is no substantive difference in meaning between ‘blessing in disguise’ and ‘blessing for the government’ — the government still ends up blessed. If another ‘blessing in disguise’ cable fails to emerge, then Dorling would have perhaps been better off paraphrasing, rather than directly attributing.

4) Massola compares the statement: “The embassy also applauded what it described as Ms Gillard’s ‘pro-Israel’ stance, reporting in October 2009 that she had ‘thrown off the baggage’ of being from what one analyst called the ‘notoriously anti-Israel faction’, of the ALP” with “what the cables actually said.” He then selectively quotes the cable, dated June 10, 2009, which states that “Gillard has thrown off the baggage of being from what one analyst called the ‘notoriously anti-Israel faction’ of the ALP.”

Fairfax have not specifically disputed the error.

Verdict: The error is overstated. Dorling has again read the dates in the wrong format. But the cables do actually describe Gillard — in a heading that The Australian excludes — as “Pro-Israel”.

Conclusion: When Julian Assange talks about the importance of raw documents to “scientific journalism” he probably isn’t referring to the kind of nitpicking undertaken by The Weekend Australian, but rather the ability for the reader to examine news reports for bias and spin. In the context of Massola’s previous attack on Dorling, and The Australian‘s claims that the Wikileaks revelations aren’t news, the front page assault — especially sans comment from either Dorling or Fairfax — seems churlish.

Massola has also made his own share of mistakes in relation to Wikileaks. In a previous article attacking Dorling for his “waxy, wan appearance”, he wrongly suggested the stories stemmed from his ex-colleague’s friendship with Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray. However Crikey understands that Dorling’s initial approach was in fact made to Age editor Paul Ramadge.

The Australian has also repeatedly referred to Dorling as a Fairfax ‘freelancer’ when he is actually a regular employee.

Peter Fray

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