“How do reporters find news? Mostly people tell them. It is as simple — and as complicated — as that.”
So says Sally White’s classic Australian journalism text book, Reporting in Australia, so good that it is still in use in many journalism courses despite being out of date. It fails to mention Google, and recommends that reporters keep encyclopedias, almanacs and yearbooks to hand. It was a simpler world.
But the complexity White describes is as relevant today as it was when she wrote. She nails the central modus operandi of journalists. They cultivate sources. They operate in the world of the unauthorised disclosure. And that is an essential game, but also an edgy one.
It matters because history and common sense tell us that when you have high level corruption in a police force and a body politic, the media is always involved. Those who want to achieve political outcomes, including spiking the guns of watchdogs’ efforts, must necessarily influence the media, which remains one of the most, if not THE most, powerful institution in society. In large part, the media determines the politically possible.
In the complex and murky world of the unauthorised disclosure, the notion of journalistic independence takes a hit. Independent from whom, or what? Journalists are biased — not necessarily in the narrow political sense, but in the sense that they will always want a good story. They lean towards the interpretations and the sources that offer them the most.
Just how complex that can be is very much on display following the Office of Police Integrity report, released yesterday.
Predictably, most of the media this morning soft-pedalled their coverage of the role of the media in the nasty and dangerous campaign of undermining Police Commissioner Simon Overland.
The Herald Sun ran this bizarre editorial, which neatly sidestepped the fact that many of the stories it ran in the first six months of this year were either wrong, or hopelessly skewed, as a result of ministerial adviser Tristan Weston’s activities. For the details, see the report itself or my piece yesterday.
There are other layers of complexity.
The truth is that in the desperately worrying state of Victorian law enforcement and anti-corruption efforts, most of the journalists involved in the reporting are caught up in a battle of the sources.
Most are, if not compromised then at least influenced by their sources. Understanding their copy becomes largely a matter of understanding from where they are getting their information.
Yet journalists who out other journalists’ sources are justly regarded as mud in the profession.
It is all devilishly complicated. So bear with me as I try to unpick what we are seeing in our media at present. It is worth the effort to understand.
Here are some baseline facts. The Office of Police Integrity is seriously on the nose with most journalists precisely because it is using its powers, including bugging of phones, to investigate leaks to the media.
Given that the OPI probably wouldn’t exist at all if journalists had not in the past cultivated sources and revealed corruption, this more than rankles. So we can expect that the OPI is going to get a rubbish run from many journalists, who will be predisposed to dislike it.
The question is, does it deserve it? The licence to bug telephones is a powerful and worrying thing. If it is being abused, we should all be worried.
Should the OPI be using its very great powers to trawl through the relationship between journalists and their sources? As a journalist myself, with sources of my own, I can hardly be comfortable with the thought. Yet it is hard to see, in Victoria at present, how a serious anti-corruption agency could avoid the issue. Yesterday’s report is testimony to that.
There are two broad camps in this (and this is an unavoidable over simplification). First, there are those who believe that Overland and the OPI are far too close, that the OPI is exceeding or misusing its powers, and that Sir Ken Jones and his allies are being unfairly targeted. This camp, which includes The Australian most notably, also tends to the belief that former Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and Police Association Secretary Paul Mullett were unfairly set up by the OPI, in its efforts to protect Overland.
The Ombudsman’s recent reports have tended to give ammunition to this camp. Relations between the OPI and the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, could hardly be lower. The Ombudsman reckons the OPI’s processes are of concern, and has suggested that the OPI did not have enough grounds to bug Sir Ken Jones in the first place. The Ombudsman’s most recent report stated that the OPI had no direct evidence that Jones was leaking. The Ombudsman has also said that Jones should be protected under Whistleblower legislation, because he was making serious allegations against Overland. See this article.
The OPI camp counters that in deciding to bug Jones’s phone, it was acting, not only on Overland’s unsubstantiated allegations, but on the complaints of two other people, whom the Herald Sun today describes as being “two senior people who worked closely with Sir Ken”. If that is right, then the OPI’s operation may have had more basis than the Ombudsman, or some in the media, suggest.
We can’t know for sure until more comes out.An aside to this: one ministerial adviser seems to have avoided the fallout from today’s coverage. Paul Denham, adviser to the Attorney-General Robert Clark, would seem to be involved in Weston’s activities up to his waist, if not his neck. Himself a former policeman, Denham was in part misled by Weston, but was also clearly part of the anti-Overland campaign. In a telephone call bugged by the OPI, Denham told Weston that the Ombudsman was “very much on side” and that the approach should be to “tip the acid on them personally [meaning Overland and Deputy Ombudsman John Taylor] rather than, you know, the Ombudsman himself”.
Back to the main narrative. In this battle, The Age investigative team, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, are lining up more on the side of the Ombudsman than the OPI. They refer today to the state Ombudsman’s recent report critical of the OPI’s processes, which states that ”the OPI’s file notes … do not refer to any persons having direct knowledge of Mr Jones releasing confidential Victoria Police information to the media”.
Did the OPI have enough grounds to bug phones in the first place, McKenzie and Baker ask? The question was picked up this morning on the Jon Faine program on ABC Radio, presided over by Raphael Epstein in Faine’s absence. Epstein, of course, is also a colleague of McKenzie’s and Baker’s at The Age.
I have considerable time for Baker, Epstein and McKenzie. Who could not, given their run of exceptional stories. They are the most talented investigative team I have seen in 30 years of journalism.
But they also have a horse or two in this game, because the OPI report fingers this story of theirs as having spiked its investigation into Jones and Weston. The Age investigative team revealed that Jones’ and Weston’s phones were being bugged, and that meant that the OPI (and the rest of us) did not find out as much as they might have about what Jones and Weston and their mates were up to. Who knows where that trail might have led, had the phone taps continued?
So The Age stands accused of compromising an investigation. And The Age accuses its accusers of potential abuse of power.
You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see that relevant in this might be the identity of The Age’s sources for its story revealing the fact that the phones were bugged. Who would have had that information? Who would have leaked it?
Remember also this controversy in which The Age accused the Herald Sun of plagiarising its scoop.
And then just last month, there was this McKenzie-Baker story that, scooping the OPI report, outed MP Bill Tilley as the source of the leak of the Ken Jones email to his wife.
I think in this saga the Herald Sun has been more clueless than culpable — although sometimes deep cluelessness can itself be culpable. When a journalist gets information from a ministerial adviser, most would understandably assume that their source is well-informed, and pursuing the government’s agenda.
In hindsight, the Herald Sun’s Carly Crawford should have done more checks, but in reality, how many journalists would, when the source is seemingly so impeccable? In some cases, Crawford made the right call and did not publish. But she also wrote stories that reflected the biased and incorrect information Weston fed her. She leaned towards the good story, and towards the source who favoured her, thus displaying the underlying bias of all reporters.
The Herald Sun, it is worth remembering, did not take part in the feral anti-Overland and OPI campaign that its stablemate The Australian ran last year. That was another murky affair, still being played out in the Melbourne Magistrates Court at present. The Australian conducted this campaign following its own conduct being investigated by the OPI, giving it a massive conflict of interest.
The wash up?
Very bloody complicated, with the irony being that journalists, in theory committed to disclosure of uncomfortable facts, are in fact involved in a partial shadow play, in which a key piece of the story — their dealings with their sources — is conducted behind closed doors.
In the attempt to make information public, they paradoxically agree to keep one piece of information secret — the identity of the source.
In the current imbroglio, that is a vital piece of information, yet no journalists can be comfortable with attempts to disclose it.
This is real life, not Hollywood, meaning we are dealing with shades of grey, not black and white.
None of the agencies involved in this are spotless. The OPI’s several serious stuff ups are a matter of public record. The concerns about its use of powers are not baseless.
And the Ombudsman is not beyond criticism, as past OPI reports show.
Overland could be arrogant, thin skinned and certainly made serious errors of judgment. Ken Jones’ faults and errors of judgment are all over the headlines today.
Yet there are some baseline facts that should not be ignored. Overland did more than any other cop of recent times to tackle corruption in the Victoria Police.
He and Christine Nixon were part of a reform movement. Not all of the opponents of that reform movement will be corrupt, but some of them will be.
And the role of the media will be relevant. When things go seriously wrong in the body politic, the journalists are always part of the story, not only observers. Their conduct merits scrutiny, whether they like it or not.
A prudent journalist in this mix will struggle with their innate bias towards the source. More than the usual care is required.