Simon Nasht, former journalist: 

Recently Crikey got hot and bothered in a number of commentaries about Dick Smith. None of the various articles dealt with the substance of Dick’s current campaign questioning our economic growth obsession. They were shooting the messenger, not arguing the message.

“So what?” you might well ask. Dick can look after himself and take a hit or two. But one piece in particular has exposed Crikey to some deeply troubling questions, and sadly this journal has been found wanting.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Crikey and have been a subscriber for a long time. It is dedicated to ruffling feathers, and you don’t have to accept every Razer, Keane or Rundle rant to value its contribution in the increasingly barren landscape of Australian journalism. It does a lot with little, and that’s to be admired.

So it disappoints when Crikey gets it so very wrong. And I don’t mean a comma in the wrong place. I mean a big fat total professional fail, with worrying signs of blame-shifting to boot.

The article in question came from former ABC Media Watch editor David Salter. You might expect with that pedigree that David knows a thing or two about journalistic ethics, as he has certainly spent a good deal of his career lecturing others on their failings. Apparently not so.

His commentary attacks Dick for alleged hypocrisy. You’re entitled to you opinion David (and full disclosure, as a friend of Dick’s and sometime collaborator with him on documentaries, I can say I don’t always agree with him either). Others have offered responses that deal with your claims. They don’t hold much water, but that’s no big deal.

However, what I can’t understand is why Crikey would allow this to be published without checking whether it had the even slightest validity:

“There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a successful entrepreneur, or a good salesman. Smith is both. The problem is the credibility gap between what he says, and what he actually does …

“… The man apparently believes that his honesty can be measured by the amounts he promises to give away. These totals are always quoted in neat millions. Gosh, isn’t he generous! That wonderful Dick Smith bloke really puts his money where his mouth is. Or does he? Do the media ever check whether all those millions, so breathlessly reported at first, were actually paid out as promised? We’re still waiting.”

The clear intent of this is to imply that Dick Smith is a fraudster, deceitfully “promising” to make huge charitable donations when he doesn’t.

Let’s consider for a moment if this was, in fact, true. Clearly Dick’s entire reputation would be shredded. It would amount to a monstrous swindle perpetrated by some kind of mad egomaniac. Given some of the claimed donations were to tax deductible charities, he would likely be facing criminal charges. He would go down in history as an evil swindler up there with Bond and Skase in the pantheon of Australian crooks — even worse, because he would have been ripping off scouts and Salvos and hospitals and refugees.

Except it’s not true. Not a vicious, bile-filled word of it. Salter offered not a shred of evidence for this monstrous attack. He did no research to establish his case, and made no effort to contact Dick for a response before pushing the send button. He just made it all up. It wasn’t journalism, it was character assassination by innuendo and Salter should be ashamed.

What’s worse, however, is that Crikey would publish this rubbish without the slightest editorial oversight, and then spend the best part of a fortnight dancing around its responsibility to correct the damage it has done. Little wonder I had one of Australia’s top defamation lawyers ringing me keen to take the case. After the Bauer outcome, it’s lucky that Dick isn’t the litigious type. It would be farewell Crikey.

Like birthers calling into question Obama’s origins, it seems these days you can publish any old tripe and get away with it. Facts have alternatives. Truth is optional. And according to Crikey you make stuff up and it’s all OK if the victim eventually gets an opportunity to respond — after the headlines have garnered the requisite clickbait.

Dick was forced to respond. Of course the damage had already been done, but for what it’s worth, it turns out he’s donated more than $40 million to charity. I’ve personally seen him write cheques for the family of a murdered policeman, bail out an Australian kidnapped in the Middle East and other many other acts of spontaneous kindness that aren’t even on these lists. I mean the guy has built a school for girls in Afghanistan for goodness’ sake! and not wanted any recognition for it whatsoever. You may not like the man, but it’s hard to fault his generosity.

I took this up with Crikey’s editors and what has followed is a dispiriting exercise is buck-passing. Rather than just seek room for an opinionated response, I wanted (unlike David Salter) to ask some questions so we might all be better informed about what went wrong.

I asked three simple questions:

  • Does Crikey/Salter stand by the original article?
  • What factual evidence was it based on?
  • Given the gravity of the accusations, why was Dick Smith not given the opportunity to respond before publication?

Sadly, I’m still awaiting a response and have been given various reasons why it is not possible to get these questions answered. And the usually very voluble Salter is apparently not available to share his insights. To quote your own article David, “we’re still waiting”.

So I am left with a very much inferior option. Crikey will publish this opinion piece from me in Dick’s defence. Just another war of words in a world of cheap commentary. Facts be buggered, just shout back. Apparently, that’s what stands for quality journalism these days.

As a young cadet at The Age in its heyday, I was schooled in the importance of the paper’s occasional “We Were Wrong” columns. “This is where our credibility is put to the public test,” I was told, “and we owe it to them to get it right or correct it when we fail”.

Dear Crikey. We are none the wiser where you stand on this. That original article stands uncorrected, permanent digital ink unfairly trashing a good man. And that’s just not good enough for a supposedly serious journal. Why is it so hard to admit to us that you stuffed up and are taking steps to ensure it won’t happen again?

Response from David Salter, freelancer writer:

Crikey has already printed a letter from Dick Smith and now a long piece by his business associate, Simon Nasht, in response to my article of September 7 that dealt with Smith’s complaint that his anti-immigration campaign had not been properly covered by the ABC.

The main thrust of my commentary was that for 30 years or more the media have been unquestioning in their fawning coverage of Smith, his various enterprises and publicity stunts. Nasht has now interpreted this as an allegation that Smith does not make good on his promises of philanthropy.

That is a false claim. If Nasht had bothered to read the article carefully he would understand that my point was about the performance of the media. Here’s the relevant line: “Do the media ever check whether all those millions, so breathlessly reported at first, were actually paid out as promised?” 

So I would advise Nasht — and Crikey — to calm down. There was no “allegation against Dick Smith”. There was no “professional lapse”. Crikey did not get anything “badly wrong”. I asked a question about the adequacy of the media’s reporting of Smith. That’s all.

Response from Eric Beecher, chairman of Private Media, publisher of Crikey 

We got this badly wrong. We should not have published the allegation against Dick Smith without checking it, and if we had checked it we wouldn’t have published it. We are embarrassed by this professional lapse. This is not the kind of journalism Crikey wants to be known for. There have been no legal threats over this story. We are publishing this apology because we got it wrong. So sorry, Dick.