There’s a truism battered into the brain of every young journalist: when a story’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t. That’s why it demands rigorous fact-checking.
This is something The Daily Telegraph should have had in mind when it received the now-notorious drop of Energy Minister Angus Taylor scolding Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore over the city council’s travel expenditure. Taylor has conceded the figures in this document are wrong, but says no one in his office was responsible for changing them.
When the story first appeared on page three of the Tele last week, it looked like just another shot fired in the federal government’s and News Corp’s climate wars. Now the story has blown up in the faces of both the Tele and the government. It has also reinforced the suspicion many media critics have of Australian journalism: the media never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.
This stuff-up neatly skewered the core principles of the Right To Know campaign, which had otherwise dominated the news of the week. The demand that journalists have legal protection relies on the core of journalistic practice: that, in a flood of information and political spin, journalists alone can (or should) be relied upon to question the otherwise reckless speech of our politicians. It’s the key justification of the media’s role in a democratic society.
Generally speaking, in this Trumpian post-truth age, politicians are increasingly trying to shrug off this journalistic constraint, continually testing the limits of what they can get away with. Yet too often journalists take them at face value, forgetting the warning of famed US journalist I.F. Stone: “all governments lie”.
However, as The Guardian exposed, in the case of Taylor and the Tele, the News Corp masthead seems to have adopted the worldview of its parent company’s new business partner Facebook: statements from politicians are “newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard”.
Unfortunately for journalistic rigour, this “newsworthy content” seems to have neatly aligned with many points of the paper’s own worldview: the ineffectiveness of climate action, the hypocrisy of virtue signallers and dislike of Sydney’s Lord Mayor. It’s the outcome of one of the unwritten processes of Australian politics and media, where politicians are expected to feed News Corp exclusive drops of documents that will feed the company’s outrage sensibility.
The inevitable trade-off in this access is bad for politicians and journalism alike. It encourages politicians to focus on stunts like Taylor’s letter to Moore; it encourages journalists to disarm critical faculty. Asking whether a drop is accurate becomes less important than ensuring those drops continue to feed their readers.
As Stone warned about access journalism decades ago, “You can’t just sit on their lap and ask them to feed you secrets — then they’ll just give you a lot of crap”.
The Tele brought out the “he said-she said” defence. In response to The Guardian’s exposure of the letter, a Tele spokesperson said: “The letter was newsworthy in its own right and we approached Ms Moore for comment. She disputed figures quoted in Mr Taylor’s letter. The Daily Telegraph accurately reported her response.”
Oh well, job done then.
This defence is not a substitute for working out the truth. Indeed, in the absence of fact-checking, it’s just more words filling space.
Frustratingly, the letter was surprisingly easy to fact-check. The core claim should have rung editorial alarm bells in at least one level of the editorial process. Did no one ask if that scale of travel cost could really be true? Worse: the document that was misquoted was publicly available online in the formal accounts of the Sydney council.
But there is some good news. While the practice of access journalism largely created this mess, good journalism — asking questions, checking facts — was able to expose it.