The Peter Slipper affair hasn’t only raised awkward questions about what does and doesn’t constitute s-xual harassment — it’s re-opened a debate almost as old as journalism itself: how close should reporters get to their sources in their bid to break a story?
On Tuesday, the Commonwealth lodged documents in court suggesting that News Limited had been involved in an elaborate plot to destroy Slipper’s career. One four-word text allegedly sent by journalist Steve Lewis to Slipper’s accuser James Ashby — “We will get him!” — has caused the most controversy.
That text was allegedly sent less than a fortnight before Lewis broke the Slipper story on Saturday, April 21 in News Limited’s tabloids. On the same day, Lewis wrote a comment piece saying: “In the history of Australian political crises, the allegations filed in court against Peter Slipper are among the most serious ever raised — and they rank as potentially deadly.”
Other texts tendered to the court also revealed that News helped to pay for Ashby’s accommodation costs while he was preparing his s-xual harassment claim.
Here, some background is useful. Lewis is a long-serving — and extremely well-liked — member of the Canberra press gallery. He’s not speaking publicly about his involvement in the Slipper affair because he may be summonsed to appear in court. He has been covering Slipper’s taxpayer funded spending forensically for years — long before Slipper defected from the Libs to become speaker. He’s also the journalist who, after many dealings with Treasury mole Godwin Grech, broke the 2009 “ute-gate” story that turned out to be based on a phony email.
On Tuesday, Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese told parliament the ute-gate affair “showed that certain parts of the media were involved in the attempted sabotage of a democratically elected government”.
As for News Limited and Lewis’ involvement in the Slipper affair, he thundered: “It is very clear that we need to draw a distinction and that people in the media need to recognise whether they are reporters or participants, observers or activists. There is an important distinction between the two that has to be upheld for the sake of the integrity of the media.”
Speaking on the ABC’s The Drum program that evening, 2UE radio host John Stanley was far more forgiving:
Stanley: “As for saying we will get him, I think the thing here is you don’t put these things on the record. These are conversations, over the years, I’m sure journalists have had when they’re trying to get close to a contact or a source…”
Annabel Crabb: “So it’s alright as long as you don’t put it in writing?”
Stanley: “Yes, probably. You’re saying we’ll get him because you’re trying to empathise with someone to get a story out of them. I’m not apologising for it because we may hear more and we’re obviously going to have to hear more about how this was planned.”
The relationship between journalists and their sources has always been a vexed one — as Janet Malcolm argued in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Denis Muller, a former assistant editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and associate editor at The Age, tells Crikey the line between journalist and participant is often fuzzy. But he added: “This is participation in what is alleged to have been a political conspiracy to wrongly unseat a member of parliament.
“We all engage in some form of social ingratiation to win people over. Of course we want to win people’s trust – the important thing is that we do it with integrity.”
The Lewis text, he says, “looks terrible because it is terrible”.
“First, there is the use of plural first person — the ‘we’. That indicates that he is making common cause with his informant; that he is taking sides. He goes on to ‘get him’ — and that seems indicative of a desire to do harm. It appears that he is making covert common cause with Ashby to do harm to Slipper. There’s no other way of interpreting it — unless Mr Lewis offers another explanation,” he said.
Muller, now a professor at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism, says several clauses in the MEAA code of ethics appear relevant: “Use fair, honest and responsible means to obtain material”; “Do not suppress relevant available facts”; and “Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism”.
Muller says that exposing allegations of s-xual assault against an MP is undoubtedly in the public interest, but the proper administration of justice is equally as important. There was also little public interest, he says, in the public learning about the Slipper allegations before the case appeared in court.
“I can’t see any case for the public interest being served here. If anything it’s being harmed,” he said.
Ethicist and media commentator Leslie Cannold says the reporting of the Slipper affair threatens to further undermine the public’s trust in journalism.
“It’s in the public interest to know about things happening in the political sphere but the journalist has failed to disclose the political machinations behind this,” she told Crikey. “He hasn’t given us the full story … It’s part of a journalist’s job to make judgments about why people are leaking, whether they’re being used and whether the story is in the public interest.
“If journalists are campaigning for the underdog — people without the power or authority to have their story told — then there’s no reason to be concerned about that. But it’s very different if a journalist is colluding with the powerful to achieve a political outcome. The two could not be more different.”
Bill Birnbauer, a former investigative reporter at The Age, says although journalists should aim for “professional detachment” from their sources this is difficult to achieve in reality.
“Journalists frequently empathise or identify with their sources in order to get information in a way that makes sources believe they are on their side … ‘We will get him’ is fairly out there but journalists, all the time, give the impression that they’re onside with people.”
Birnbauer, now a professor of journalism at Monash University, added: “At the end of the day: the question has to be: is the story in the public interest? Are you getting close to a source so that the public learns about something important or so they talk to you rather than someone else?”
Former Fairfax political correspondent Kerry-Anne Walsh, who spent 25 years in the Canberra press gallery, says she won’t make judgments on Lewis’s reporting until she hears his side of the story.
“There is clearly a public interest in knowing about Peter Slipper’s expenses and any allegations against him — that definitely warrants scrutiny. But so does the subterranean warfare that started as soon as he was dragged into the speaker’s chair,” she said. I was in Parliament that day and it was clear from day one that the LNP were out to get him.”
She says press gallery journalists are under more pressure from their bosses than ever before to score scoops. “There is a fierce competition to get a story and it’s not always healthy. You’ve got to show to your proprietor that you are value for money,” she said.
In the federal court yesterday, Slipper’s counsel David Chin agreed to give Lewis until July 6 to comply with a subpoena to produce all text messages, documents, phone records, emails and memos sent between him and Ashby between February and April 2012.
Lewis and Campbell Reid, News Limited’s editorial director, declined to comment to Crikey.
In a written statement a spokesperson said, “News Limited notes reports concerning one of our senior journalists Mr Steve Lewis. News Limited stands by its journalists undertaking investigative reporting into matters of public interest. The matters in question cover serious allegations against one of Australia’s most senior politicians – the Speaker of our national Parliament. It is entirely legitimate that news organisations should investigate and report on such allegations.”