When Fairfax published its extraordinary investigation into decorated soldier and Seven West executive Ben Roberts-Smith on Friday, the response from both Roberts-Smith and Fairfax’s main competitor The Australian was swift.
News Corp’s Weekend Australian nabbed a sit-down interview for its Saturday front page, countering the front-page story running the same day on the front pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
And since then, the Oz hasn’t let up in its support of Roberts-Smith, with front-page stories on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Roberts-Smith has hired PR firm Cato and Clegg, with former investigative reporter Ross Coulthart as a consultant. Coulthart’s tactics have included going to the Herald and The Age executive editor James Chessell to tell him the story was “completely false”.
Crisis management expert and former Age editor Mike Smith said the Roberts-Smith story was a striking example of consultants “going to the opposition” when the media outlet pursuing you isn’t letting up.
“When the Oz gets hold of a story they don’t let it go, and they really relish the opportunity to get stuck into Fairfax and the ABC, so I think this will keep going until they run out of people willing to come out in support of him,” Smith said. “The newspaper industry is particularly ripe for this kind of game at the moment because some of them are so keen to attack the credibility of their opposition. I can’t remember a time in the last 50 years when the papers were so keen to eat each other and destroy each other’s credibility.”
Smith said that both outlets had legitimate stories they were running, even though they were taking different lines.
“I thought both papers at the weekend — although strikingly different in their approach — did a public service,” he said.
While Coulthart’s involvement has raised eyebrows among some journalists — a respected investigative journalist working to discredit the work of other investigative journalists — Smith said he was a good fit for Roberts-Smith as a client.
“He’s in a delicate position because he’s obviously got an emotional and professional investment in his client. He’s written at length about the wartime culture, and I have no doubt he honestly believes in his client,” he said. “If Ben Roberts-Smith needed that sort of help, [Coulthart is] an ideal candidate and I’ve gotta give him points for engineering that treatment in The Australian.”
That said, Smith was sceptical about whether Coulthart’s tactics might harm his career in PR in the long-run. “His tactics with Fairfax were over the top, a case of allowing your passion to help your client overheat the cool head required in a media crisis. It may not do him much good in future media relations.”
Another veteran spinner, Toby Ralph, told Crikey that the nuance in the story was lost when it was played out “as a proxy for the enmity of Fairfax mastheads and The Australian“.
“Examination by media is fundamental to a democratic society, but trial by it is an abuse,” Ralph said. “Sadly it is becoming much more common, probably because media changes mean organisations can no longer fund a sufficient pool of skilled journalists.”
As well as continued stories in the Oz, Smith reckons the story will also be managed behind the scenes, with briefings for politicians on the story by Roberts-Smith’s consultants.
“It’s often wise to make sure relevant people in Canberra know your side of the story so they’re at least informed if they want to enter the debate,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were briefings going on with people such as the Defence Minister, MPs who’ve served, those who are close to defence issues, parliamentary committees.”
Roberts-Smith has denied the allegations raised in the investigation and reported by Fairfax. He’s reportedly suing Fairfax for defamation and has called on the Attorney-General to request the Australian Federal Police investigate the leaks to Fairfax.