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Aug 30, 2016


Krystal Johnson arrives at the Victorian Supreme Court

Yahoo7 reporter Krystal Johnson added information not before the court into a story about an ongoing murder trial because she was had forgotten a jury was already hearing the case, her lawyer told the Victorian Supreme Court this morning. Supreme Court Judge Lex Lasry said the explanation “strained credulity”, though he accepted Johnson had not been acting maliciously when she filed an online story that caused the jury to be dismissed.

Two weeks ago, Johnson filed a yarn that extensively quoted and drew on the work of the Herald Sun, which had sent a reporter to court to report on the trial of a man who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. But Johnson went further than the Herald Sun, adding into her report extracts and links to a Facebook post highly prejudicial to the accused that was not part of the prosecution’s case.

In response the defence asked for the jury to be dismissed, and the prosecution agreed, with senior Crown prosecutor Andrew Tinney describing the material as “extraordinary”. Lasry agreed to dismiss the jury, blasting Yahoo7 and Johnson for her sloppy work:

“In this case, [the media’s] lack of understanding is going to cause this trial to be terminated, with all the associated inconvenience, cost and emotional consequences for both the accused and the family of the deceased woman …”

“Such events happen from time to time. This does not make it any the less serious that it has happened on this occasion.

“I propose to discharge this jury. I am satisfied there is high degree of necessity in this case to do so in order avoid the risk of unfair prejudice to the accused.”

Before a packed courtroom in the Supreme Court this morning, and accompanied by head of Yahoo7 editorial Simon Wheeler, Johnson said little. An apology on her behalf was delivered by Justin Quill, a high-profile media lawyer who counts News Corp’s Victorian papers among his usual clients.

“She is aghast. And very, very disappointed in herself,” Quill told the court of Johnson. “This is human error, as simple as that.” Johnson, Quill added, had been subjected to intense media scrutiny and criticism since the jury’s dismissal. While she did not begrudge the criticism of her, Quill argued the scrutiny had been punishment enough. He argued that nothing would be gained by the court taking the matter further. Lasry referred the matter to the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions.

Quill told the court that Johnson’s article had been published on an especially busy morning, and as her subeditor was busy, the article was put on the website without editing. Quill said that Johnson added the Facebook post as she had forgotten the case was before a jury, because she had been called away from the report to cover other breaking news stories.

Lasry said this particular claim “strained credulity”, though he accepted the material was published in error and there was nothing “malicious” in Johnson’s actions. In referring the matter to the DPP, he said he would make no indication as to what he thought should happen to Johnson. The DPP, Lasry said, had to deal with these issues on a daily basis and in other courts, and so was the most appropriate person to decide on what should be done.

Lasry also made the point that writing court reports off the work of other reporters who are actually in court appeared to be a “blossoming activity”. “There’s a great deal at stake … if people are going to become careless, we’ll encounter this more often,” he said.

Quill responded by saying Yahoo7 had made significant changes to its processes. “Yahoo7 will now have the requirement that any court reports go through the legal department.” He also said that legal training by an external law firm would be provided to editorial staff next week, a checklist of legal issues to consider when filing court reports had been provided, and senior editors had written to the newsroom about this issue.

“These steps, together with extensive reporting of this incident, is likely to significantly decrease the likelihood of this occurring in the future, and not just for Yahoo7,” Quill said.

Last night on Media Watch, a Seven journalist described Yahoo7 as a “journalistically shoddy”, “leanly staffed” organisation. As Crikey has previously reported, the newsroom is focused on getting content up at the start of the day, largely by (at best) repackaging and (at worst) ripping off content published in the morning papers and airing on morning TV shows. It remains to be seen how a detailed consideration of legal issues can be squared with the focus on getting content up quickly.


Jun 20, 2016


In two days, the UK will vote on whether to remain a part of the European Union, and a key proponent of the Brexit campaign has been former London mayor Boris Johnson. Before he was a politician, Johnson was, for a time, a journalist. And while he was a Brussell’s correspondent, he did more to cement the media stereotype of the bureaucratic bumbling EU than anyone else, as former Times foreign editor Martin Fletcher rehashed over the weekend.

“For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU — and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson,” Fletcher wrote on Facebook last Friday.

Fletcher writes that he was appointed the Times’ Brussels correspondent in 1999 — 10 years after Boris Johnson started reporting there for The Telegraph. “And I had to live with the consequences.”

Johnson, Fletcher claims, “made his mark in Brussels not through fair and balanced reporting, but through extreme euro-scepticism. He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.

“The Telegraph loved it. So did the Tory Right.”

Fletcher then references a quote Johnson gave BBC radio in 2005, where the former mayor said:

“Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.”

Johnson’s reporting had an “explosive” effect on Fleet Street, Fletcher writes:

“They were much more fun than the usual dry and rather complex Brussels fare. News editors on other papers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match them. By the time I arrived in Brussels editors only wanted stories about faceless Brussels eurocrats imposing absurd rules on Britain, or scheming Europeans ganging up on us, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rearguard actions against a hostile continent. Much of Fleet Street seemed unable to view the EU through any other prism. It was the only narrative it was interested in.

“Stories that did not bash Brussels, stories that acknowledged the EU’s many achievements, stories that recognised that Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments, almost invariably ended up on the spike.”

“Boris Johnson is now campaigning against the cartoon caricature of the EU that he himself created. He is campaigning against a largely fictional EU that bears no relation to reality. That is why he and his fellow Brexiteers could win next week. Johnson may be witty and amusing, just as Donald Rumsfeld was in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, but he is extremely dangerous. What began as a bit of a jape could inflict terrible damage on this country.”

In the comments to Fletcher’s post, the Times’ Simon de Bruxelles chimed in. “I recall increasingly apoplectic editors demanding to know why we weren’t getting the same stories that Johnson was coming up with week after week. The answer ‘because it isn’t true’ was never considered good enough.”

It’s hardly the first time Johnson’s role in cementing British attitudes towards the EU has been written about by his former colleagues. In February, former Brussels-based Europe correspondent Sarah Helm wrote in The Guardian of that in the 1990s she’d been sent on many a wild goose chase following up dubious stories written by Boris Johnson:

“The myths were usually funny, often absurd, sometimes traceable to a grain of truth, nearly always grossly distorted, or totally untrue. Very often they had first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

“Usually, their creator was Boris Johnson, who had for some years worked as the Telegraph’s EU correspondent, famous in the press room as a shuffling, shabbily dressed fellow, with a sharp intellect, huge ambition, and a talent for constructing myths.”

And in Andrew Gimson’s 2006 biography of Johnson, he noted how Johnson’s competitors in Brussels were “crippled by an excessive scrupulousness”, which “prevented them from cutting through the monstrous quantities of mostly very dull material with which they were confronted”.

“Meanwhile Boris fell with joy on stories about changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages, which could so easily symbolise the threat posed by Brussels to the British way of life … Boris did not invent euroscepticism, but he became one of its most famous proponents”.

The book quotes the Economist’s correspondent at the time Charles Grant:

“[Johnson’s] supreme point is to entertain so he doesn’t worry too much if his facts are wrong. He’d always put a good joke above the facts. I do remember as Boris became more sceptical, thinking it was an act, because he did it to make his name in the Telegraph.”

Johnson’s journalistic career started at The Times, but he was sacked after fabricating a quote about an archaeological discovery (the quote — attributed to Johnson’s godfather, the historian Colin Lucas — contained incorrect historical information, leading to a complaint). But he landed on his feet, finding a job at The Telegraph, and in 1989 was posted to Brussels, where he stayed for five years


Feb 29, 2016


A week after the story of “Louise”, who claimed she had been gang-raped by Middle Eastern men, was first splashed on the front page, and four days after Paul Sheehan acknowledged how it all fell apart, The Sydney Morning Herald this morning broke its silence on how one of its senior writers published a story of horrific abuse and bureaucratic indifference that was, probably, false. But the paper maintains Sheehan’s line that “key elements of the story were unable to be substantiated”, despite the wealth of evidence that the story told to Sheehan was highly unlikely, and should have raised red flags for both Sheehan and his editors.


The paper stated at the bottom of page 2 this morning:

“In last Monday’s paper, the Herald reported the details of an alleged sexual assault under the headline, ‘The horrifying untold story of ‘Louise’,

“A subsequent column printed in last Thursday’s edition … acknowledged key elements of the original story were unable to be substantiated. The original story, which has been corrected, included aspersions against the Middle Eastern community and raised untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police. The Herald sincerely regrets the hurt and distress this report caused to these groups and unreservedly apologises.”

The story highlights a startling case of journalistic error, made all the more significant because it came from such a senior writer and was taken seriously enough to put on the front page of Australia’s most trusted newspaper.

Sheehan has apologised several times in the past week, and got on the front foot admitting his error before Fairfax’s competitors got wind of it. He has been relatively transparent about the reasons why he came to believe ‘Louise’s’ story despite little corroborating evidence. But if he had not, it is likely the scandal would have come out anyway. In the days immediately following the story’s initial publication, many on social media noted that aspects of it seemed far-fetched. The similar claims made by a woman in several Reclaim Australia rallies were recalled. Some, like Richard Cooke, who tried to contact ‘Louise’ wrote that they found her a difficult subject who was unable to give journalists ways to validate her story.

Despite Fairfax’s apology today, Sheehan has said the fault for the column was his alone. In an interview with The Australian last week, he absolved his publisher of responsibility, while intimating his unblemished record ensured his editors overlooked any factual concerns. “The foundational error I made, from which all flaws in the process came, was that I was put in touch with the woman by a good source, who I trusted, on the basis that she wanted justice,” he said.

Sheehan continues clinging to his claim he was hoodwinked by a “carefully constructed” story “on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications.” He defended his lack of research telling The Australian, “We knew the column would have to make clear that these were allegations and her name were not in the police or hospital system over this matter.”

Despite Sheehan’s claims that this was fundamentally a case of misplaced trust, the very first red flag casting doubts on the story were there in his first dispatch.


In the narrative Sheehan tells, “Louise”, a tired nurse, parked her car a short distance from the hospital where she worked and went to sleep still wearing her uniform. She was then pulled from the car, raped, beaten, had her throat cut, teeth kicked out, mouth urinated in, spat on and was left to die.

Sheehan quotes:

“A couple of homeless guys found me … At the hospital they were asking my name and I couldn’t speak. They called me Jane Doe.”

“Louise” goes on to claim she was so badly injured — including 79 fractures — she remained in hospital for several months. When police came to visit she couldn’t speak. She claimed they said they would come back, but never did.

It is there where the fact-checking alarm bells should have started clanging. And even if Sheehan were consumed by his own narrative, it is certainly where bells should have sounded for his editors.

The very nature of the horrific crimes “Louise” alleged took place would have warranted the attending ambulance officers to notify police, and she would have been entered into hospital and police records. The crime scene would have been secured and forensic specialists would have processed her vehicle for evidence. Sources within the NSW hospital system tell Crikey her teeth, which Sheehan wrote had been “kicked out”, would have been collected along with samples from bodily fluids. Hospitals do not keep people in beds for two months without an extensive paper trail.

Meanwhile, on the police side, a call to police would have resulted in a file being created to show a call to police about a crime had been made, a NSW Police spokesman told Crikey. If police had attended, this would have then been the result of a “job” being created. Whoever attended (likely a detective given the type of allegations) would have then had to file notes from the visit to the job file, which would also collect any subsequent action by police. “There’d be two levels of record-keeping,” the spokesman said. The fact that “Louise” was unidentified at that stage wouldn’t matter — the crime’s date and location would be logged in the system. The spokesman added that requests from media about particular crimes were very common, and police media routinely and easily checked these records to confirm to media that police were aware of and had acted on an incident.

What “Louise” described and Sheehan recounted was a major crime, possibly even an attempted murder, where the victim had been found at the crime scene. But others have written that Sheehan did not contact police about the claims (Sheehan wrote that ‘Louise’ gave him the name of an officer who dealt with her, who allegedly said six months later that she could “never prove what happened” — Sheehan wrote he checked and the man was still in the NSW Police, but did not write if he approached him or NSW Police about the claims). Nor, it seems, did Sheehan’s editors search for her name, which would have yielded further red flags about her claims, as Richard Cooke wrote in The Monthly — the woman known as Louise had told a similar story, with varying details, to Reclaim Australia rallies.

Today, Sheehan has tweeted that the SMH “regrets any hurt caused to the Middle Eastern community. I add my name to that regret.”

When “Louise” told her story at a Reclaim Australia rally, her audience responded with chants of “fuck Islam”. When she told it again to Sheehan, the veteran writer lapped it up. Alas, he wasn’t any more clear-headed than the chanting throngs in the video clip.


Dec 16, 2015


When is a discussion an interview? And if someone talks to a journalist after insisting there won’t be an interview, is what that person says quotable?

News Corp’s decision earlier this month to publish a a conversation with Lindy Bryant, the younger sister of Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant, has angered the family, as Bryant says she insisted she wouldn’t give News Corp reporter Sarah Blake an interview when the Daily Tele scribe turned up at her door a few weeks ago.

Lindy Bryant has never given an interview to the media since her brother made her famous almost two decades ago. And, a family friend tells Crikey, she had no intention of giving one to News Corp.

Joan Errington-Dunne — a decade-long friend of Lindy and her mother, Carleen Bryant, who has acted as an unofficial media adviser and go-between for journalists — has been arguing the issue with John McGourty, News Corp executive editor. The family wants a letter printed in Lindy’s local News Corp tabloid to let colleagues, friends and acquaintances know Lindy Bryant hadn’t agreed to an interview, but so far News Corp has not agreed on this point. Another point of contention was the title of the piece, “My life spent running from my monster brother”, which was not a direct quote from Bryant. This has since been changed to a less emotive heading online.


The Sunday Telegraph’s splash on December 6

In emails seen by Crikey, McGourty does not deny Lindy Bryant had been reluctant to speak to Blake. But he insists an interview of sorts did occur.

According to Errington-Dunne, Bryant went inside after a brief confrontation when Blake turned up at her doorstep. According to an email Bryant sent to Errington-Dunne shortly after the encounter, Bryant told Blake:

“Who are you? How the hell did you find me? I’ve even changed my name because of people like you. I’ve spent enough years already on the run hiding from journalists, changing jobs, changing towns. Why can’t you just leave it all alone? Why do you have to keep on reminding and hurting all of us victims? Can we do an interview? No we can’t. I have no interest. What can you do to earn my trust? Nothing. There will be no interview. There never has been and there never will be.”

While the piece run in the News Corp tabloids was billed as the first exclusive interview with Martin Bryant’s sister, its quotes from Bryant were very brief, and there is significant overlap with what Bryant recollects having said to Blake. Bryant’s only comments to News Corp as quoted in the piece are:

“I have had 20 years running away from this … I have changed my name, I have moved from house to house, job to job. I have worked so hard to put all of this behind me … as you can imagine I just don’t have anything to do with him … I have no contact at all … When you think about it, you know, my mother and I, we are his victims too.”

Not quoted is anything about Lindy Bryant not wanting to do an interview, or being reluctant to talk. Instead, it’s described as “the only interview she has given since Bryant’s deadly spree in April 1996”.

When Errington-Dunne emailed McGourty saying Bryant had not consented to an interview, he replied:

“I understand that Lindy feels she may not have given a conventional interview. From what I know, the conversation happened with Lindy on one side of a security grille and Sarah on the front step. Lindy opened the door and answered Sarah’s questions. Sarah had hoped to speak to Lindy in her lounge room but this was not possible. However, Lindy did say the things attributed to her. Lindy’s decision not to give a longer interview is understandable. However, she did speak to Sarah.”

Errington-Dunne says the family wants a letter or apology published saying that Bryant had not agreed to an interview. But after a pushing this point several times with McGourty, he responded over the weekend that this would not be possible. McGourty said he was partly reluctant as such a letter would make public Bryant’s home state, but Errington-Dunne says it is a risk the family is willing to take to set the record straight. But News Corp has yet to publish such a letter.

“If there is some way of helping Lindy make her friends and colleagues understand what happened I am happy to pursue that,” McGourty wrote in an email. “But it couldn’t be an apology as an interview did take place and Lindy did answer Sarah’s questions.”

Speaking to Crikey, Errington-Dunne says News Corp took advantage of Bryant’s inexperience with the media. She points out that in the journalists’ code of conduct it states one must “never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice”, which she argues is exactly what News Corp did. She says when the interaction with Blake happened, Bryant was upset and angry to be approached by a journalist after doing her best to keep her identity and location secret.

“They’re fragile. They don’t want to know about the media,” she said. “The most important thing to Lindy now is that people, including her brother, would believe she said that and gave them an interview. And that was what was cutting her up.

“They’re traumatised by the media. Lindy didn’t stop crying for a whole day after this. She cannot speak to the media.”

Contacted by Crikey this morning, McGourty stood by the interview. “Sarah clearly identified herself, and who she works for, when she met Lindy. This is in line with the journalistic code of ethics,” he said.

“We respected Lindy’s request not to give a longer interview or to be photographed, and agreed to protect her privacy by not revealing where she lives.”


Sep 18, 2012


James Button’s account of his time working as a speechwriter in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is set to further strain the public service’s rigid insistence on complete confidentiality from its current and former employees.

Speechless — A Year In My Father’s Business is a combination autobiography, memoir of Button’s father John, and account of James’ time as departmental speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and then “writer in residence and communications adviser” within PM&C. It provides a detailed, though carefully limited, account of Button’s brief role as prime ministerial wordsmith and his exploration of the arcane world of top-level policymaking in PM&C’s Strategy and Delivery Division.

Button is careful not to reveal details of key policy debates on issues such as the Murray-Darling Basin, and his focus is mostly on senior public servants rather than ministers. Rudd himself, despite being a looming presence throughout, has only a cameo in the book; Button isn’t an adviser, he doesn’t work in the prime minister’s office but as a public servant in PM&C and provides only intellectual and policy, not political, content to Rudd’s office. More often Button deals with Rudd’s staff, who increasingly filter back the bad news that Button has (along with a growing proportion of the population of Canberra) somehow displeased the prime minister.

His one extended meeting with Rudd, when he joins the prime ministerial entourage on a flight to Sydney and accompanies him to Kirribilli, is dealt with circumspectly beyond matters directly relating to speechwriting. Few prime ministerial confidences are breached. Indeed, Rudd himself remains an elusive figure, at home in the crisis of 2008-09, increasingly at sea when politics returns to business as usual.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how Button, who has long since left the APS, wouldn’t fall foul of the sweeping provisions of s.70(2) of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, which provides:

“A person who, having been a Commonwealth officer, publishes or communicates, without lawful authority or excuse (proof whereof shall lie upon him or her), any fact or document which came to his or her knowledge, or into his or her possession, by virtue of having been a Commonwealth officer, and which, at the time when he or she ceased to be a Commonwealth officer, it was his or her duty not to disclose, shall be guilty of an offence.”

So far so good for Button on that front, though. A spokesperson for PM&C told Crikey “the Department has not referred Mr Button’s book to the AFP.”

But why does Button risk the offence (penalty: two years’ imprisonment)? For one thing, any breach may be minor.

“I reported on two conversations I had with Kevin Rudd while he was prime minister,” Button told Crikey. “But I kept the reporting of them to speechmaking. There was no material in my account that would be a revelation.” And the book is almost entirely about a former government, in one sense: Julia Gillard is almost completely absent from it, as nearly all of it transpires before she replaces Rudd.

And he’s open about the reason in the book. He regards the public service as critical to shaping the nation and the way we debate public policy, and is amazed that it gets so little attention, even from the politicians whom it has served — his own father pays little attention to bureaucratic ranks in his political memoirs. Button is fascinated by the internal operations of the Australian Public Service, the way it develops, argues over and then communicates policy advice to ministers. The secrets here are not the media-friendly ones of raging fights behind closed doors, but of process. Whole chapters are devoted to his own experience of it, which is necessarily that of an outsider, albeit one who increasingly understands the arcane world in which he finds himself.

The book shows him slowly coming to grasp how the APS works, albeit from the specialist perspective of PM&C. Unlike another speechwriter, Don Watson, who railed at bureaucratese and jargon but never really grasped why it is so dominant, Button comes to understand the risk-averse mindset that sees public servants implement rather than do things, to cloak their language in a kind of protective layer that ensures that, no matter what happens, it won’t reflect poorly on a minister.

This is thus no exposé; there are no villains. Then-PM&C head Terry Moran, who recruits Button, impresses him as he goes about trying to improve the APS’s capacity to deliver strategic advice and to deliver programs effectively (thus the name of the Button’s division). The sharp bureaucrats Button finds himself working with — some non-APS staff brought in by Moran to freshen up policymaking, others old hands who’d seen it all before — challenge and engage him. “I had a positive experience in the public service,” Button says.

And yet it’s not hard to see that the same former colleagues he paints so positively might read Speechless with a faint, or maybe not-so-faint, sense of betrayal; conversations and meetings intended to be private are detailed, rarely if ever to anyone’s disadvantage, but there they are on the public record. Those of a malicious mind can always exploit such material.

“What if every former public servant wrote a book like this?” I asked Button. He wrestles with the answer. “There a level of confidentiality needed, obviously,” he said, “although how long that confidentiality should apply is another question. It would have to be handled with care. The answer has to be a case-by-case one.”

But he sees enormous gains from more senior public servants writing memoirs: “It’d be great if public service secretaries wrote memoirs. At the moment all their knowledge about policy and the way they influence decision-makers from below is being lost.”

It’s hard for me to assess Button’s book objectively. I’ve been a speechwriter in a department, and a pseudonymous blogger and Crikey contributor while in the APS. I’d thus be in a poor position to judge Button harshly. Intent is important: Button isn’t damning anyone in his book, except perhaps himself when he talks of his inability to communicate properly with his father. His goal of explaining the operation of senior levels of the APS, and Moran’s efforts to overhaul it, is an honourable one.

“I’m really concerned about the quality of debate,” Button told me. “When Ken Matthews [veteran Howard-era secretary and head of the National Water Commission] retired, he spoke about the importance of the public servants responding when there’s crap in public debate, while being mindful of their ministers.”

Nonetheless, ministers will henceforth have in the back of their minds Button’s example, and perhaps be inclined to insert yet more protective layers of advisers between themselves and public servants.

The broader question, however, is the extent to which the APS can legitimately expect to continue to operate in an environment in which its huge number of staff must preserve virtually total confidentiality. More of that tomorrow …


Feb 6, 2012


The new website Journalist Complaints has a folksy front page — a picture of a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves, in what looks like a tense embrace with a member of the press, who also seems to be a swaggy going by the corks on the hat.

Journalist Complaints, launched just weeks ago, is an example of citizens taking the monitoring of the media into their own hands, in the absence of an effective regulator. It might be called gatewatching — that is, citizens using the capabilities of the internet to participate in the news publishing process, including by scrutinising and critiquing how the “gatekeepers” of the mainstream media do their job.

Journalist Complaints is this week’s entry to the New Kid on the Block series — a regular Monday morning look at indy media and new media start-ups.

So what about that boxing kangaroo? The idea, says founder Alan Corbett, is that the roo, representing the public, should embrace the media but keep its wits about it and its defences up.

Corbett has spent about $3500 of his own money on the site so far. In a previous life, he was the founder of the Better Future for Our Children Party. He served in the NSW parliament between 1995 and 2003, and now lives near Bundaberg in Queensland. See his maiden speech here.

His motivation for starting the site, he says, was that as an MP he had some bruising experiences with journalists that damaged him and his family. Yet he is not anti-journo. Rather, he says, the site exists to educate and inform, and because there is no “transparent, open and accessible public complaints process” by which the public can call journalists to account.

Take note the Australian Press Council and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, both of which deal with complaints about journalism and journalists. Corbett has experience with both, and the fact he has created his site is sufficient comment on how he regards his experience.

He lodged a complaint about The Courier-Mail with the MEAA in September last year. The complaint was about the way in which the newspaper had reported on the MEAA’s own processes for dealing with complaints.

The journalist concerned was not a member of the union, so Corbett was referred to the Press Council. He lodged his complaint with them in October last year. The Courier-Mail responded on December 12. Corbett asked the APC to proceed to adjudication, but was told The Courier-Mail would have to be consulted again. Almost five months after the complaint was first made, he is still waiting for a resolution.

The Journalist Complaints site is, he says, for Australians who have had unpleasant experiences with journalists and who want to tell the public about their experiences and the effects on themselves and their families. It is also about recognising and rewarding “journalists who have demonstrated a capacity to establish good-will, genuinely engage, connect or bond with their audience and build a trusting relationship”.

Thus the site contains pages for journalists to explain themselves, and for the public to air their brickbats and bouquets. There is a complaints page, and a section for public trust awards, as well as a cartoons section. Corbett, an amateur cartoonist himself, describes cartoons as his favourite means of expression.

So far the site is light on for content. Says Corbett: “I am not in any hurry to build up a following. It will take some time and that’s fine with me — I’m not selling anything. I would rather concentrate on settling into the role of moderator and ensuring the site gains a good reputation as a resource and a bridge between journalists and the public.

There is no money to pay for contributions — this is entirely a volunteer effort.

The site has succeeded in attracting a short article from media ethicist Dr Denis Muller who describes it as a “significant development. It adds a new dimension to an already fast-developing phenomenon — that of the internet as a mechanism of media accountability.”

The first complaint has been posted, telling a story of bias and conflict of interest. An environmental organisation believes a journalist refused to give them coverage because “the journalist and the journalist’s partner own a business which is actively involved in the environmental practice that we wanted to raise some concerns over”.

“If this issue is not resolved and we are not given a fair opportunity to voice our concerns, we won’t have any choice but to make a complaint to the journalist’s employer. An action we would rather avoid,” they say.

The site also has an “ask a journo” section, in which the public can query how the business works. The first question asks for an explanation of the difference between a reporter and a journalist. A comprehensive answer has been provided by the editor of the Bundaberg News-Mail newspaper, Christina Ongley, who writes:

“You may get a different answer to this depending on who you ask, but my personal view is that the term ‘journalist’ is the broad catch-all word to describe many different kinds of roles that make up an editorial department. So for instance, while my role is editor, I still consider myself a journalist and that’s usually how I introduce myself if people ask what I do. Other roles included in that term are reporters (the news gatherers and writers); subeditors (who do a variety of things from checking copy and writing headlines to designing and proofing pages); news editors and chiefs of staff (who help to manage the newsroom and make decisions on where stories are placed and how they are angled); and, depending on the size of the newsroom, a variety of other editor and specialist roles. But we are all journalists.”

Corbett says he has had nothing but support from the media around Bundaberg. “I have no idea where it will end up but I have enjoyed the journey so far and don’t regret a thing,” he says.


Oct 28, 2011


Brief pause here for a gentle “WTF?” at the statements of the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, about shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources.

The question in the NSW Parliament standing committee on Wednesday was about whether bloggers and other “non-traditional” media should have the same protection as those employed in the mainstream media.

Smith said that there was no public interest in covering bloggers, because they might be “ratbags” or representatives of terrorist organisations.

Said Smith:

“I am protecting bona fide journalist who actually receive money from a publication that is respected in the community and available to the public generally. That is what my shield laws cover.”

Asked whether he thought that new media was not worth the same level of protection as traditional print and electronic, Smith said:

“I think the problem is that there is very little sanction against those people and very little discipline, whereas a journalist can be sacked if he has a job with the  Sun-Herald or The  Daily Telegraph or something like that and he or she publishes something that is inappropriate or that has to do with the work of criminals. I have seen examples in the past in my experience as a criminal lawyer where journalists have been used by corrupt people to name an informer so as to destroy a prosecution.”

Now, Smith is in NSW, not Victoria, so his reflections on the protection of sources, and the responsibility displayed by tabloid newspaper journalists,   could not include recent events, highlighted by the OPI report  released yesterday.

But then the discussion moved on to whether your very own Crikey would be covered, and Smith said:

“I am not aware of Crikey publications being of the nature that anybody would bother asking who was the source of that information …  I had a subscription to Crikey for a while and I did not continue it because I did not think it was worth continuing. I am sorry, there is some useful stuff in it, but it is largely gossip.”

Which means, of course, that everyone should stop reading now …

For those of you still with me, there is of course a legitimate question, in an era when anyone can publish news and information to the world, of who is and isn’t a journalist.

The NSW approach is different to that taken in the Greens — initiated amendments to the federal Whistleblower Protection Act that protect citizen-journalists, bloggers and independent media organisations as well as news professionals from the mainstream media.

Just who is and isn’t a journalist is yet to be tested in court. One day, surely, it will be and that will be very interesting indeed.

Is bad journalism, such as Andrew Bolt’s recent litigated inaccuracies, still journalism?

Is good blogging journalism?

Interesting questions.

In the meantime, we’ll just carry on gossiping.


Oct 28, 2011


“How do reporters find news? Mostly people tell them. It is as simple — and as complicated — as that.”

So says Sally White’s classic Australian journalism text book, Reporting in Australia, so good that it is still in use in many journalism courses despite being out of date. It fails to mention Google, and recommends that reporters keep encyclopedias, almanacs and yearbooks to hand. It was a simpler world.

But the complexity White describes is as relevant today as it was when she wrote. She nails the central modus operandi of journalists. They cultivate sources. They operate in the world of the unauthorised disclosure. And that is an essential game, but also an edgy one.

It matters because history and common sense tell us that when you have high level corruption in a police force and a body politic, the media is always involved. Those who want to achieve political outcomes, including spiking the guns of watchdogs’ efforts, must necessarily influence the media, which remains one of the most, if not THE most, powerful institution in society. In large part, the media determines the politically possible.

In the complex and murky world of the unauthorised disclosure, the notion of journalistic independence takes a hit. Independent from whom, or what? Journalists are biased — not necessarily in the narrow political sense, but in the sense that they will always want a good story. They lean towards the interpretations and the sources that offer them the most.

Just how complex that can be is very much on display following the Office of Police Integrity report, released yesterday.

Predictably, most of the media this morning soft-pedalled their coverage of the role of the media in the nasty and dangerous campaign of undermining  Police Commissioner Simon Overland.

The Herald Sun ran this bizarre editorial, which neatly sidestepped the fact that many of the stories it ran in the first six months of this year were either wrong, or hopelessly skewed, as a result of ministerial adviser Tristan Weston’s activities. For the details, see the report itself or my piece yesterday.

There are other layers of complexity.

The truth is that in the desperately worrying state of Victorian law enforcement and anti-corruption efforts, most of the journalists involved in the reporting are caught up in a battle of the sources.

Most are, if not compromised then at least influenced by their sources. Understanding their copy becomes largely a matter of understanding from where they are getting their information.

Yet journalists who out other journalists’ sources are justly regarded as mud in the profession.

It is all devilishly complicated. So bear with me as I try to unpick what we are seeing in our media at present. It is worth the effort to understand.

Here are some baseline facts. The Office of Police Integrity is seriously on the nose with most journalists precisely because it is using its powers, including bugging of phones, to investigate leaks to the media.

Given that the OPI probably wouldn’t exist at all if journalists had not in the past cultivated sources and revealed corruption, this more than rankles. So we can expect that the OPI is going to get a rubbish run from many journalists, who will be predisposed to dislike it.

The question is, does it deserve it? The licence to bug telephones is a powerful and worrying thing. If it is being abused, we should all be worried.

Should the OPI be using its very great powers to trawl through the relationship between journalists and their sources? As a journalist myself, with sources of my own, I can hardly be comfortable with the thought. Yet it is hard to see, in Victoria at present, how a serious anti-corruption agency could avoid the issue. Yesterday’s report is testimony to that.

There are two broad camps in this (and this is an unavoidable over simplification). First, there are those who believe that Overland and the OPI are far too close, that the OPI is exceeding or misusing its powers, and that Sir Ken Jones and his allies are being unfairly targeted. This camp, which includes The Australian most notably, also tends to the belief that  former Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and Police Association Secretary Paul Mullett were unfairly set up by the OPI, in its efforts to protect Overland.

The Ombudsman’s recent reports have tended to give ammunition to this camp. Relations between the OPI and the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, could hardly be lower. The Ombudsman reckons the OPI’s processes are of concern, and has suggested that the OPI did not have enough grounds to bug Sir Ken Jones in the first place.  The Ombudsman’s most recent report stated that the OPI had no direct evidence that Jones was leaking. The Ombudsman has also said that Jones should be protected under Whistleblower legislation, because he was making serious allegations against Overland. See this article.

The OPI camp counters that in deciding to bug Jones’s phone, it was acting, not only on Overland’s unsubstantiated allegations, but on the complaints of two other people, whom the Herald Sun today describes as being “two senior people who worked closely with Sir Ken”.  If that is right, then the OPI’s operation may have had more basis than the Ombudsman, or some in the media, suggest.

We can’t know for sure until more comes out. Continue reading “Media soft-pedals approach to murky world of disclosure”


Oct 27, 2011


Journalism leaders and researchers have raised concerns about a deal between the pharma industry group Medicines Australia and The Australian, which has led to direct sponsorship of health journalism.

The Health of the Nation series, which has included feature articles and video footage from a roundtable meeting of health policy experts, culminated in a glossy, 24-page colour magazine last weekend.

The series advises readers that it is an “independent project” by journalists, and supported by The Australian Medicines Industry, an initiative of Medicines Australia.

Articles have been accompanied by prominent advertisements for the medicines industry, and the magazine also included journalese-style advertorials featuring the medicines industry.

The “Health of the Nation” dinkus on the newspaper stories included a tagline, “supported by the Australian medicines industry”. While this can be seen as open disclosure, it equally looks like effective corporate branding.

Medicines Australia said the arrangement arose out of meetings between its advertising agency and News Limited’s promotions and advertising teams, which “recognised common interests”.

“News was interested in creating a Health of the Nation series and vehicle to stimulate consideration, discussion and debate about health issues in Australia with its readership,” said a Medicines Australia statement provided when I was researching a BMJ story about the deal.

“Medicines Australia was interested in a communication platform to increase awareness of The Australian Medicines Industry as ‘supporting Australia’s health’ and get Australians thinking about the industry.”

Medicines Australia, which also sponsors health journalism awards run by the National Press Club, would not reveal the value of the deal, saying it was “commercial in confidence”. But it is clearly a sizable investment, especially with the series including a Newspoll.

The Australian’s editor Clive Mathieson says the newspaper has several editorial projects that are being run in co-operation with its commercial team, including another supplement also published on the weekend, The Australian Innovation Challenge, sponsored by Shell and the federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

“In every one of these projects, we retain full editorial control over the content,” he told me for the BMJ story.

Mathieson was adamant that editorial independence had been maintained in the pharma-sponsored series. “There is no way The Australian would have agreed to any commercial relationship that compromised its editorial independence and integrity. I would defy anyone to think there was any bias in any of that coverage, anything that was overtly favourable to Medicines Australia or the pharma industry.”

But journalists and researchers who are experienced in investigating conflicts of interest in healthcare and medicine (see more of their comments at Croakey) are raising serious questions about editorial integrity.

Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the US-based health journalism watchdog,, says the arrangement creates concerns about conflicts of interest, and could affect trust in editorial decision-making.

“No matter how you spin it, this is the drug industry influencing public discussions in one more infectious way,” he said. “Journalists should be sniffing out and exposing such deals — not being party to them.”

Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and a senior reporter at ProPublica (which was responsible for the acclaimed Dollars for Docs investigation in the US) said that keeping a line between advertising and editorial was important for credibility of news organisations.

Traditionally, “reporters didn’t know which advertisers would appear alongside their stories, and advertising sales reps didn’t know what stories would appear in the paper”, he said.

However, Carol Bennett, CEO of the Consumers Health Forum and one of the experts at the newspaper’s roundtable meeting, said she believed editorial content had not been influenced by the sponsorship, and that the series had provided a welcome opportunity to have substantial media space devoted to complex health policy issues.

I am entirely sympathetic to the notion that we need to find new ways of funding journalism, especially if it is to investigate issues that don’t generally get the airing they deserve — such as health policy. But letting the marketing arm of pharma infiltrate the process, especially at a time when publishers are under increasing pressure from advertisers, creates far more problems than it solves.

Health, as is so often observed, is a strife of powerful interests, and pharma already has more than enough muscle without powerful media organisations giving it a further leg-up. Concern about experts’ conflicts of interests is an enduring subject of investigation for researchers and journalists, fuelled by ever-increasing evidence of the adverse impact of such entanglement (as highlighted at Croakey today).

Media organisations and journalists need to be investigating these concerns — not becoming part of the story themselves.

*Declaration: I have an honorary role with an NHMRC-funded study investigating relationships between the media and health-related industries and am a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists


Nov 9, 2010


That tired “bloggers are not journalists” debate looks like it’ll surface in Australia’s Senate soon, thanks to the Greens. It’ll be annoying. But it’ll be a good thing.

At the end of October the House of Representatives passed the Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2010, which is all about protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. In the usual jargon, it’s a “journalist shield law”.

Australia was apparently the only major democracy without such a law in place or in progress, so it’s welcome. And, in the words of the new Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, “this bill is a good example of how all parties can collaborate on a worthwhile initiative in a way that would not have happened without the currently composed parliament.”

Bandt continued:

To facilitate its passage, the Greens will support the bill in its current form in the House, but I indicate now that we will seek minor amendments to it in the Senate. In particular, we believe that it should be made explicit that the bill covers bloggers, citizen journalists and documentary filmmakers, and that the privileges provided by the bill cover anyone engaged in the process of journalism, no matter who they are or in what medium they publish.

Well I reckon it’s great that the new law might cover more people, not just those who work as employee-journalists in the industrial media factories. It’s great that it might be technology — and medium-neutral. But …

What the heck is a blogger or a citizen journalist?

As the bill currently stands, the definitions of journalist and news medium are already quite broad. In Schedule 1, section 126G:

informant means a person who gives information to a journalist in the normal course of the journalist’s work in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium

journalist means a person who in the normal course of that person’s work may be given information by an informant in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium

news medium means a medium for the dissemination to the public or a section of the public of news and observations on news

My understanding is that observations on news is meant to cover the analysis and opinion (op-ed) that typically appears in newspapers and on current affairs programs. But many blog posts would also fit that description.

Heck, you could even argue that my Twitter stream is a news medium because it contains news (of what myself and others are doing) and observations thereupon, conveyed to “a section of the public”.

What I don’t know is whether “in the normal course of that person’s work” implies that a journalist has to be paid. Any media lawyers want to have a go at that?

In my view, journalism and blogging are two activities amongst many that end up producing certain kinds of media outputs. Whether you’re paid or not is a separate issue.

As I’ve expounded at length before, journalism is the job of producing the media objects needed by industrial-age media factories. That’s why I love John E McIntyre’s description of his work at The Baltimore Sun as sub-editor — copy editor in his American English — as “a shift at the paragraph factory”. On his blog.

Blogging evolved in a different environment. It produces a more fluid kind of media output — one that involves the readers in discussion. Indeed, I’m one of the people who thinks that the dialog is what makes it blogging — as opposed to an essay or a polemic.

There are other definitions, of course. I won’t list them all here except one. The idea that a proper capital-J journalist is a member of their professional association. In Australia that’s the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance. Like most professions it has a code of ethics.

Is a code of ethics what turns writing about current events into journalism?

Labor MP Graham Perrett supported the bill but was concerned about extending protection to those unruly bloggers:

I do support this bill and I support shield laws which provide a presumption in favour of journalists’ privilege. However, I believe that this bill could be improved by providing an expanded definition for ‘journalist’ or ‘reporter’ … As an additional safeguard, this definition enshrined in legislation would ensure that rogues — who do not uphold the journalists’ code of ethics — are not able to hide their shonky reporting behind shield laws. In terms of the modern day, it is easy to see people like [veteran political journalist] Laurie Oakes and the others who sit up in the journalists’ gallery as journalists, but there is then quite a continuum down to the perhaps aggrieved blogger who puts out something every week …

I would suggest to the Senate that the definition of journalist include some additional words. If we go to the 126G definition where journalist is defined, I would suggest that it also include ‘a person who ascribes to the journalist code of ethics as published and codified by Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’. This would be a narrower definition that would still cover the intent of the member for Denison’s legislation.

Perrett isn’t necessarily suggesting every blogger become a member of the MEAA. But I make two observations for now.

  1. The MEAA’s codification of journalistic ethics is not necessarily the only view of how things should work. I’ve nothing against the MEAA. Far from it! But I wouldn’t like to see them enshrined in legislation as the only view of how the media should operate.
  2. There are plenty of MEAA members who fail to live up to this high ethical standard. Witness any episode of ABC TV’s Media Watch. This test for ethical behaviour fails in practice.

When the recent changes were made to Australia’s Freedom of Information laws, it was proposed to grant journalists the first five hours of decision-making time free of charge. But as the new Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, told

There was a debate about whether someone was a journalist or not for the purposes of the Act. They resolved that by giving everybody FOI free for the first 5 hours.

The can of worms was not opened on that occasion. But it looks like it’s going to be this time. This will be an interesting can of worms to open. Good luck, Senators.

*This first appeared at Stilgherrian.