The Age’s editor-in-chief has accused crosstown rival the Herald Sun of receiving a Coalition drop on the East West Link intended to draw attention away from the documents being released to journalists in a budget-style lock-up this morning.

The controversial plan to build a 18-kilometre tolled road link connecting Melbourne’s western suburbs to the Eastern Freeway was one of the key issues in the recent Victorian election, and upon winning government Labor promised to release the previously secret business case surrounding the proposal.

It has done so in a lock-up for journalists this morning. The lock-up ended at 12.30pm, but the Herald Sun received a leaked copy of the business case over the weekend and published it on its website this morning. The front-page story in this morning’s Herald Sun revealed that the former Coalition government had considered increasing the tolls on several other Melbourne roads in order to make the East West Link financially viable.

The leak blindsided rival journalists, many of whom have slammed it as a “drop” as they pondered the point of the lock-up now that they could read the documents from their offices. But Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden says his journalists will be going to the lock-up anyway.

“In our experience drops to the Herald Sun never tell the full story, and are used by one side to place their spin on a news story,” he told Crikey. “The deal with the Herald Sun is that it does no independent journalism to test the veracity of that information.” The Age, Holden says, doesn’t agree to such conditions, and so it doesn’t get such drops.

Crikey can’t say whether the Herald Sun’s scoop this morning was a drop or a leak, but we have outlined how drops work in the past. They’re often used strategically by political actors who include a requirement that the outlet receiving the drop seeks no alternate comment on the information before going to print. The drop thus assures only one side gets an airing on the first day of publication. Leaks generally come with no such preconditions.

Holden says the Herald Sun’s scoop is “obviously a drop from the Coalition, in an attempt to place the best possible message on the EW business case, and to disrupt the release of all documents”. More than 5000 pages of policy documentation is being released today at the lock-up — the Herald Sun has published only 200. “No doubt [the Coalition] hopes no one will bother to read the complete coverage now that one portion of the information is in the public domain.”

But Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston says Holden is being hypocritical, as The Age’s website is this morning “ripping off” the Herald Sun’s scoop, “even linking to heraldsun.com.au so his readers can access the 223 pages we’ve published”.

“So one the one hand he’s saying with typical Fairfax pomposity ‘we refuse to publish information from one source without seeking an alternative view’, yet at the same time his own website is republishing our East West business case scoop. Fairfax reporters were happy to sit back and wait for the scripted release of the business case in a lock-up, while our journalists worked through the weekend getting a scoop.”

The Age has this morning published a piece outlining some of the key take-outs from the documents leaked to the Herald Sun. The Herald Sun’s scoop has also been widely covered on talkback radio, and the Age’s piece draws on some of the comments made there.

Holden says it’s business as usual at The Age this morning. “Thankfully Age readers have little regard for Murdoch journalism, and we’ll provide the service they expect.”

Peter Fray

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