Do allegations of attempted blackmail against Unaoil compromise a months-long Fairfax/Huffington Post investigation into the inner workings of the company?

That’s the question that’s been asked in The Australian for the past three editions, starting with a lengthy piece by national chief correspondent Hedley Thomas on Saturday, revealing Fairfax’s investigation had coincided with an attempt by someone called “Komrade” to extort the Ahsani family, which owns Unaoil, for US$5 million worth of bitcoins.

Unaoil, Fairfax alleged in March, was the central linchpin in a years-long campaign by Western firms to bribe ministers in resource-rich developing countries for contracts and favourable access, impoverishing local populations by moving profits from local economies to shareholders in the first world (and the pockets of those few receiving bribes).

In the original, explosive Fairfax reveal, Age investigative journalist Nick McKenzie wrote of how he’d been approached in early 2015 and told to put an ad in French newspaper Le Figaro to begin contact with someone who thought he needed to dig deeper into Unaoil. He wrote:

“The sources of this story never asked for money. What they wanted was for some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in governments and companies across the globe to be exposed for acting corruptly, and with impunity, for years.”

It is possible Fairfax’s primary source (who gave Fairfax the extensive Unaoil documents) was not the person who tried to extort the Ahsani family. Thomas writes in his piece that Fairfax was unaware of the extortion attempt, and he doesn’t suggest the company acted inappropriately. But, he adds, the situation raises questions for how journalists approach such stories:

“This is a story, too, about the potential moral hazard for journalists and media outlets in an age when cyber criminals are increasingly acquiring vast sets of unlawfully obtained emails from companies, and putting them in the public arena …

“If extortionists, such as Komrade, are playing both sides of the fence — by presenting to media outlets as pure whistleblowers ­motivated to leak because of integrity issues while simultaneously running a criminal enterprise that uses the threat of leaking to the media as leverage against wealthy targets — the risks to journalism are inevitably heightened. Journalists doing their jobs without fear or favour may become ­unknowingly embroiled in cybercrime.”

Age editor-in-chief Mark Forbes is quoted in the coverage defending the motivations of Fairfax’s sources by repeating McKenzie’s characterisation of them. “The emails are true and accurate and exposed Unaoil’s involvement in bribery and corruption,” he told The Australian. “They were reported fairly and accurately and with the help of multiple sources.”

The following day, Unaoil’s Australian lawyer, Kennedys partner Rebekah Giles, wrote a piece in the media section of the Oz saying Fairfax had taken it upon itself to act as “judge, jury and executioner” in its dealings with Unaoil. She questions Fairfax’s transparency in dealing with the information:

“[I]n all the inside accounts and story-behind-the-story showmanship, does Fairfax offer its readers any insight into the checks and balances they undertook? Or did they reveal what assurances were given to the source before conferring a blanket of anonymity? Are The Age’s readers any the wiser on what steps were taken to ensure there documents were even genuine?”

The coverage continues today, with a small, unbylined article on page 2 that covers Unaoil’s public statement about the extortion claims, first given exclusively to the Oz.

Crikey contacted Forbes to ask if he wanted to comment further, either specifically on the allegations first raised in News Corp or more broadly on the use of sources who might have had less-than-pure motivations. He said he couldn’t comment due to ongoing legal action — Fairfax is being sued by one of the people named in its expose, Primary Health Care CEO Peter Gregg, and Unaoil said last night: “We will be vigorously defending ourselves and are exploring all legal options”.

“I cannot comment on the detail, but would point out there were many errors in Hedley’s story,” Forbes said. “We absolutely stand by our coverage.” So does Fairfax’s partner, the Huffington Post, as it said in a statement this morning, which trumpeted how seriously the allegations, based on 100,000 documents, were being taken by law enforcement in several countries.

Targeting the motivations of those who leak or reveal corporate wrongdoing is a defence tactic as old as investigative journalism. At her Press Freedom speech earlier this month, Adele Ferguson revealed the repercussions against those who had spoken to her for some of her recent investigations. She spoke of attempts to mar their reputations (and hers) and question their motivations:

“We still have a long way to go [in how we regard whistleblowers]. So too does the conversation about what motivates them. Do they have to be pearly white?

“At the end of the day, shouldn’t their motivation be irrelevant?”

It’s a rare source who leaks to a journalist purely for altruistic reasons. But if a source helps reveal serous corporate malfeasance, does it matter what his or her own motivations are?

Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief at the Age and now fellow at Melbourne University, doesn’t agree with this analysis, telling Crikey the motivation of sources is always important to consider. “If you don’t look at the motivation of sources, you can’t make judgements about how accurate the information you’re getting is — how complete, or how slanted it is.”

In the case of anonymous sources, he adds, the reader can’t make these judgements either — which is why he says the media should, in all instances, limit its use of anonymous sources (on the other hand, Ferguson’s Press Club speech shows exactly why sources in this type of story would rely on anonymity — losing it makes them a target).

Gawenda does acknowledge that whistleblowers and sources are almost never lily-white and often act for more complex reasons than the public good. It’s a murky area, but one journalists and their editors manage.

When it comes to dealing with confidential material stolen or otherwise improperly obtained from private companies, he again says there’s no hard and fast rule. But motivations are important to consider, as is the public interest. “If something’s been stolen, a crime has been committed. You’ve got to ask yourself, as journalists and editors, whether the public’s interest outweighs the way this info came to you.”

It’s a vexed and difficult area, and one editors should be involved in making decisions on, Gawenda says: “Reporters get too close to their stories — which is natural.”

Speaking more specifically in the case of the Unaoil investigation, he says if Fairfax had known about the extortion attempt — and there’s no evidence the media company or any of its employees did — it would have been better to tell its readers.

“I imagine they would still have gone with the story,” he said. “But if they had known, they should have revealed it on the basis that you give your readers as much information as you possibly can. It helps them to judge things.”

There is, he says, undoubtedly a measure of commercial interest in The Australian going after a Fairfax story in this way. It did so, it’s worth remembering, the Monday after the scoop was revealed: media columnist Mark Day questioned whether this type of investigative reporting was what Fairfax should be doing given its commercial difficulties. But that’s not necessarily a problem, Gawenda adds. Perhaps giving both sides room to make their case to a sympathetic outlet is just media diversity at work.