Bad blood continues to flow between the The Age‘s Media House HQ and the Herald Sun‘s Southbank bunker with The Age accusing its rival of ripping off a ball-tearing scoop last week under the cover of darkness.
On Thursday night crack Age journos Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie filed a front page story revealing the Office of Police Integrity had been bugging the phone calls of former Victoria Police deputy commissioner Sir Ken Jones. The impressive splash was based on days of independent research and verified by multiple sources within the state’s power nexus.
But it didn’t stay exclusive for long. The next day’s Herald Sun contained substantively the same yarn re-written by crime reporter Anthony Dowsley. Dowsley had filed his 14 par effort after The Age arrived at Southbank at about 11:15pm. When he saw the scoop, Hun editor Simon Pristel rang his charge and ordered a write-up for the second edition — a tough ask on a school night when most people in Melbourne — even meddling police powerbrokers — are sound asleep.
In a swift piece of rejigging undertaken by Pristel personally, two existing pointers at the top of the Hun on retail therapy and Jim Stynes’ cancer battle were shifted to the bottom of the page, a page two story on super funds was cut down and moved to the right hand column and a story on Tiger Airways reducing services disappeared — freeing up space for Dowsley’s rapid fire take. Gallingly for The Age, not only was there no acknowledgement or attribution, but the pointer contained the line “REVEALED: DEPUTY SPIED ON AFTER OVERLAND COMPLAINT.”
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On Friday, irate Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge penned a letter to his News counterpart Phil Gardner complaining about “plagiarism”, and branding it ”one of the worst examples of a story being lifted, without attribution, by a competitor newspaper”.
Ramadge appears to be on solid ground. Generally if a competitor has an exclusive and a rival editor orders a pick-up, it should be attributed with a line like “according to a report in Fairfax newspapers”. Failing to do so is considered a serious breach of media ethics, not to mention fair play.
But Pristel defended the result this morning, telling Crikey that it was “similar to what radio stations do in the morning” when following up a story in the papers. The Herald Sun didn’t need to attribute because its own journalists had independently verified the story themselves.
Pristel said that the bugging claims had already been “bubbling away for days” and it was touch and go whether The Age or the Herald Sun was going to run with them first.
“We were very close to getting it up, and when The Age decided to go with it we woke people up, held the presses on the second edition and made our own checks. We’re all wading around in the same kind of stuff at the moment and people are leaking things everywhere.”
Pristel said that after he, Dowsley and another reporter had hit the phones, it ceased to be an Age exclusive and passed into the realm of general information. And he claimed that because The Age had a history of “getting it wrong”, it was incumbent on him to check.
However, former Herald Sun and Sunday Age editor Bruce Guthrie told Crikey this morning that the Herald Sun should still have attributed, given the tabloid would have published nothing if Baker and McKenzie’s story hadn’t appeared first.
“The only way to do a pick up like that ethically is to match the story but credit the organisation, perhaps using ‘according to reports in Fairfax newspapers’ rather than ‘The Age’ to soften the blow.
Guthrie said that while, in the internet era, “the notion of a scoop has changed…I still think it’s unacceptable to do it without credit.”
“At that hour of the night — with only about 45 minutes to confirm the story — you just have to credit your rival and chop your arm off.”
Stung into action, the next day News marshalled its resources with the Herald Sun and The Weekend Australian deciding to copyshare for their Saturday editions, turning up a host of new angles.
A senior Age source told Crikey said that they would always credit the Herald Sun “if it had the guts of the yarn first”. They drew our attention to today’s page 3 story by Reid Sexton reporting an email sent by Sir Ken claiming the Baillieu government was “on to Overland”. The story, acknowledged Sexton, was first “reported in yesterday’s Herald Sun.”
But Pristel rejected that interpretation — the difference being the Herald Sun had an exclusive copy of the email which hadn’t been seen by The Age.
This is not the first time The Age has arced up over a story in its higher selling rival. Crikey understands Ramadge and Gardner also exchanged barbs last year after photographs taken by Age photographer Wayne Hawkins of a riot outside an Oakleigh Bob Jane store were apparently used by the Herald Sun without attribution. Hawkins was the only journalist present during the ugly scenes, with News’ snapper arriving well after the angry mob had dispersed.