Glasshouses, stones and the problem with player journos

Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.

Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.

The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.

There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.

Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:

If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.

But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.

Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.

Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.

As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.

So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.

Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.

Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”

I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).

Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.

Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.

She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:

Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.

In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:

Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.

Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.