Fans of now-freelance journalist Michael West might have thought the lead item on the ABC news last night looked familiar. ABC business journo Stephen Long interviewed tax insider George Rozvany, who was West’s key source for his exclusive investigation launched yesterday, and the resultant news package led with pretty a very similar story. It didn’t mention West, nor did the introduction by the host, although West first brought the story to light.

Once a journalist uncovers something or gets someone on the record, going to a journalist’s sources for a fresh interview without mentioning the original piece is fairly common practice. It’s not plagiarism to ask a source similar questions. A source has no responsibility to speak only to one journalist — it’s often in their interest to speak to a variety of outlets. That said, journalists understandably don’t like it.

West took the ABC to task on Twitter over it last night. Juanita Phillips, who fronts the ABC Sydney bulletin, sent West her “humble apologies” on Twitter, saying she hadn’t been aware West had broken the story. On PM’s broadcast of the same story, host Mark Colvin mentioned West at the end, telling readers how to find his website. Long said on Twitter this morning that he had suggested Colvin make the plug. “[West] and I are great mates and credit to him.”

It wasn’t the only similar incident on the ABC yesterday. In the morning, Junkee discovered that Pauline Hanson’s policy platform had been plagiarised from a number of sources. The youth news site claimed it as an exclusive, but a few hours later, the ABC had reported the story, without mentioning Junkee. This morning, the text on the ABC’s story was amended. The second paragraph now reads:

“Chunks of the party’s policies on halal certification, sustainable development and medicinal cannabis have been copied off the internet, the Junkee website reported.”

Meanwhile, West said on Facebook this morning that he was glad the ABC gave the story a good run. “It is of great public interest.”

“[W]hile I was disappointed there was no attribution, this is a grey area. The reporter Stephen Long did a great job. We have been friends for years. Although I did ask Stephen to link if possible, there was no explicit agreement, signed in blood, that there had to be attribution.

“Media organisations often don’t credit their sources. They don’t like to credit other media if it is not necessary. In this case, it was not a condition of running the story. I had introduced Stephen to the source, George Rozvany, and the result was a compelling, well produced story which led the evening news.

“I’ve always worked on the principle that the story comes first and byline scuffles are just an inevitable part of the caper that is journalism.

“It is quite plausible that, in this instance, had the ABC producers deemed it was necessary that an external organisation, such as the incipient media empire, had to be credited with the story, then the story may not have had such a good run. All’s well that ends well.”

West might not be holding grudges, but things like this pose a broader issue for how journalism is meant to be funded. Journalists are happy to see their stories followed up elsewhere, and it serves the public interest to have important stories widely disseminated. But if readers and viewers are never told where a story originated, how can they hope to reward and visit the media outlets responsible for the heavy lifting of originally unearthing a story?

And when it’s the publicly funded broadcaster — operating on a news budget that runs into the millions — that’s failing to attribute, is it adding insult to injury?

Update: two days later … 

On Tuesday, an opinion piece by yours truly made the point that journalistic follow-ups that don’t acknowledge where a story came from threaten to undermine the business models underlying original journalism. The piece used two examples from that day, both involving the ABC. But ABC sources have since told Crikey we weren’t being entirely fair to Stephen Long, the business reporter whose story on the nightly television news centred around the views of George Rozvany, who had been the key source in former Fairfax journalist Michael West’s exclusive investigation released earlier that same day.

Turns out West and Long had spoken of doing stories on Rozvany ages ago, when West was still at the SMH. The idea was anything Long did would run on the same day as West’s piece, to maximise the impact. With that in mind, West introduced the two, and Long interviewed Rozvany last week (rather than, as our piece assumed, in response to West’s story that day). There was no set agreement that the ABC would credit West with having broken the story, as our piece on Tuesday quoted West saying.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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