Suki Kim
Author Suki Kim

Issues of confidence have divided the journalistic community in the past week, after three reporters quoted people who weren’t aware they would be published.

At the Brisbane Writers Festival last week, journalist and author Suki Kim went to a cocktail event held by the festival for its guests. While there, she shared her opinions on the controversial keynote she had just heard by Lionel Shriver. She voiced a common complaint about Shriver’s talk, which is that for all of Shriver’s talk of the empathy authors bring to their work, it was still the case that white authors were heard more often than those from minorities. She gave a personal example: she said her own book on North Korea hadn’t been as well received as a far less rigorously reported book, also about North Korea, written by a white author two years earlier.

A few days later, her comments were paraphrased in The New York Times. Turns out one of the men she’d been speaking to, Rod Nordland, was a reporter for The New York Times, who then wrote up the festival and quoted Kim’s comment.

Kim complained, and the NYT’s public editor looked into the issue. She was sympathetic to Kim’s expectations of privacy. But the Times itself is leaving the quote up and hasn’t offered an apology. According to the public editors’ piece on the issue, Nordland agrees with Kim’s characterisation of the circumstances of their discussion, but says she knew he was a journalist, and so she should have expected they were on the record.

Standards editor Phil Corbett said it would have been better if Nordland had checked if it was OK to use the comments, but he described the whole thing as a “clash of expectations”. Given she was in a hotel room full of people, Corbett said, “I’m not sure how much expectation of privacy there could reasonably be”.

At a public session the previous day, Kim had made the same substantive complaint, with one crucial difference — she hadn’t named the author to whom she was referring. She wants the quote removed; it’s still up.

Issues of when situations can be considered on or off the record are at the fore among Australian journalists as well, with books by former editor-in-chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell and BuzzFeed political editor Mark Di Stefano both accused of breaking confidences. Former prime minister Tony Abbott has said he is “disappointed” by passages in Mitchell’s book, one of which includes an account of Abbott making fun of his former political rival Julia Gillard and her body shape. Last night both authors were guests on The Drum, where host Julia Baird asked where they draw the line. Di Stefano said he took the view that everything was on the record unless explicitly stated:

I truly believe that some people within the Australian political media like to sort of say that everything is off the record until it’s on the record. So, my approach to reporting a book and my approach to reporting at BuzzFeed, everything is on the record until it’s asked to be off. Somebody says to me, this is off the record, it’s a negotiation, so I say OK, let’s have a chat. It becomes off the record.” 

Most political journalists consider all their interactions with politicians off the record unless otherwise negotiated, though some are famous for not sticking to the convention.

Mitchell said:

“I have retired, and most of them have, too. I think in my book, I’m talking about five prime ministers and Rupert Murdoch. I am not talking about other journos. My view on source protected confidentiality is that it’s absolute. But if somebody is — a prime minister is ringing me demand I sack a particular reporter or pull somebody off a story for instance, I think that’s a reasonable thing to relate in retirement. I also think that ordinary journos don’t know much about this. They know about their own dealings with politicians. They don’t know that the editor protects them year in and year out from a fate that for them and their families would be worse than death. Nobody is more powerful in this country than a prime minister. Certainly not an editor.”

The Australian Press Council doesn’t cover books, so people who feel that their confidences have been broken can’t make a complaint to the body if they feel in need of redress. It’s also a fraught issue because many authors of autobiographies and memoirs who have not worked as journalists also break confidences in the process of writing about their lives, without having previously worked in an industry with on and off the record.