The swipe at me in The Australian’s Media Diary column this morning is so predictable one wonders if it is even worth a response. To anyone who has been following my reporting over the past week, it will be perfectly clear what is going on.
First, the faux controversy, which seems to trouble only The Australian, about my tweeting in court. Here is what I have said before about the circumstances, including how The Oz brought the tweeting to magistrate Peter Mealy’s attention before making a news story out of it.
But some relevant context. What was it that I tweeted, and why might The Australian be so exercised about it?
The material I reported by Twitter on Wednesday afternoon was information that News Limited has spent more than 18 months trying to suppress — the Australian Federal Police Commissioner’s account of his conversation with then Australian editor Paul Whittaker, in which the latter allegedly questioned “how many lives” would be lost if The Oz published its scoop.
The paper’s attitude now is that it has nothing to hide, or be ashamed of, and that what Whittaker did was merely appropriate push-back from a brave editor combating the bureaucrats. Why, then, did The Oz take Federal Court action last year to prevent the ACLEI-OPI report, that criticised the paper for this conduct, from coming out?
Why did editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell write to the OPI saying that he would “use every journalistic and legal measure available to pursue what can only be described as an outrageous fabrication” in the report? (A threat on which he delivered in spades.) Why not allow the information to come out, and explain the paper’s position back then? So much for the Right to Know.
Why did News Limited then, in the lead-up to the current case, make it known to the AFP that it wanted its co-operation to oppose the release of the Negus-Whittaker conversation details?
It was Crikey that initiated the move to get lawyers into the Magistrates’ Court last week to contest the latest suppression attempt. We were successful, with the support of The Age, and the information came out — after Crikey’s normal lunchtime deadline.
That was the material I was tweeting, and while I understand and respect the concerns later expressed by Mealy, I don’t regret getting the information out by the means at my disposal. I could have written something on my blog, I suppose. Instead I chose to tweet. I breached no suppression orders or rules of the court and was certainly alive to the issues involved.
It is also clear that while there will be particular concerns in particular cases, including this one, there is no blanket reason why tweet reporting should be banned, any more than reporting by any other means — including updates filed to the web, rolling radio reports, emails to editors or others, and so forth.
The general issue of tweeting in court, is something I have reported on in the past. I was by no means the first reporter to do it, and journalists from The Australian have both done it in the past, and planned to do it in the future — though presumably the erection of the paywall online will alter the newspaper’s attitude. I was aware of this history when I made the decision to tweet.
The best round-up of the current state of play on tweet reporting in Australian courts that I have seen was written by Law Institute of Victoria public affairs manager Kerry O’Shea in a paper delivered to the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration in September. To quote from the conclusions:
“We have a 24-hour news cycle. Court reporters no longer file one story for the next day’s paper — they blog, they tweet, they do live updates from the steps of the court. Social media, as one of my colleagues has described it, is just regular media on speed.”
Next, to assertion from Mitchell that I lack experience in police reporting, and that I did not speak to him or Whittaker. I have spoken to Whittaker and Mitchell about this case several times over the past 18 months. Generally, those conversations were not for publication — by their choice. Suffice it to say, I have heard the “it’s all about police rivalry” argument, and considered it.
There clearly is police disagreement and rivalry at work. That was made clear in the evidence I reported on Friday, if not before. But to pretend that disposes of the matter of how The Australian conducted itself is wrong and self serving.
I tried to talk to Whittaker about the Artz case a couple of weeks ago. On that occasion, he did not wish to comment. On the day that the news of his conversation broke (via my Twitter stream) I reported his statement, emailed to me by The Australian reporters in court.
The following day, I alluded to and linked to Mitchell’s statement in my report.
Finally, the allegation that I lack experience in reporting police matters is, well, laughable. It shows that Mitchell knows nothing of my reporting background and career. I reported the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption in Queensland for 18 months, before being seconded onto Fitzgerald’s staff to help write his final report. Later, I was a finalist in the Walkleys for my reporting on Victoria Police.
The Australian, in its periodic return fire when I criticise it, prefers to refer to me as a gardening writer. I wonder why.