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.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

14 thoughts on “Glasshouses, stones and the problem with player journos”

  1. Good piece! But very few in the Canberra press gallery are genuine ‘observers only’. A good case for never letting journos settle into the gallery as a lifetime career. Three years max I reckon! Turnover is key to getting closer to objective reporting.

  2. Hi Paula.Yes, I remember you. Got a feeling you were around in the Downer leadership days. I remember writing a piece in the Canberra Times about the seeming inevitability of PG journos taking sides in leadership struggles, because they are sourced from one side or the other. It wasn’t really my thing journalistically, and I can’t recall playing any part in the Keating-Hawke struggle in print or behind the scenes. I don’t recall the conversation you mention. – could it have been ironic, because i wasn’t a big Keating fan. I do recall Keating coming into the SMH office to tell Tom Burton and I that the SMH’s problem was that unlike Murdoch’s papers, no-one controlled Fairfax journos! BTW, no t in Margo…

    Thanks for noting that I’ve made no criticism of Steve. From what I’ve read he was trying to get a scoop in very complicated circumstances.

    My policy re personal beliefs is to be open about them, because I see that as part of the transparency required for a strong relationship between journalist and reader. My bottom line philosophy was to dig out the truth and hold public figures accountable to it, no matter what colour the politician. For example, Ros Kelly publicly blames me for her downfall over sports rorts. I chased that story for months when no-one else in the gallery would touch it. One senior gallery member even chastised me, saying there was no point continuing because she was best mates with Keating and would never be sacked. I also played a significant role in forcing Richo’s resignation over the Marshall Islands scandal.

    Anyway, perhaps we might have coffee sometime? So many people from my old life entering my new one – it’s strange but nice.



    1. Thanks for the extra info Margo (with no t 🙂 ). Investigative journalism of the type you’ve outlined is undoubtedly a two-edged sword, as Steve Lewis could probably attest.

      Very happy to catch up for that coffee.

  3. Paula, I did not accuse Latika of being a political player. I accused her of failing to ask questions I believe any self-respecting journalist would ask of Bishop that day. She is in a privileged position to be able to do so, and, IMO, it was part of her job to do so. Some have said that maybe Bishop did the interview on condition she was questioned only on foreign affairs. If so, in my day anyway the journo would have refused to do the interview. The only other possibility would be to tell viewers that this was the condition on which the interview was granted.

    My complaint against the Tele editor is that he behaved in a way inimical to ethical journalism. A great story is a great story. Add to that the Tele’s huge coverage of the start of the case, and he had an extra obligation to be fair.

    Maybe they are both political players. So what, all journos are, whether we admit it or not. That is not the point I am making here. I am arguing about the practice of good journalism.

    1. Yes, that’s what I have learned through 25 years’ working with journos: all have views, but some have agendas.

      In choosing to run a particular angle, on page 1 or page 17, or ask/not ask a question, media participants are actively shaping the story and are therefore players.

      Perhaps we the public are naive in thinking they could be otherwise. In a similar fashion, I’ve had interesting discussions on Twitter with some journos who say there is no strong identifiable boundary between opinion and analysis. If this is the case, it’s yet another way that the media can shape and direct any news story or narrative.

      Thanks for commenting on my post and contributing to the discussion on this topic.

      1. Editor’s note: An additional comment by Margo that wordpress would not let her post:

        My point is that there are journalistic bottom lines in news judgement and that these two [Bourke and the Daily Telegraph] crossed them big time. I believe the vast majority of journos, with whatever agendas, would agree, at least in private.

  4. The main difference I note between Kingston and Lewis attacking politicians, is that Kingstons was based on verifiable fact, Lewis used supposition, suppostion that turned out to be quite wrong, much like when he did the same with utegate. If he stuck to facts to attack politicians, he might hold more ‘gravitas’ (as youse journos like to say)

    In fact, if more journos stuck to facts, I think that we’d all be a lot better off

  5. Nice article Paula.

    “Perspicacious” less than perspicuous and had to refer to my Oxford!



  6. The words we use and write – as journalists or in any other capacity – do not just represent reality they also help shape how we feel and think about it. In this sense, all journalists are political players.

  7. Journos are all just a bit too cosy with each other. It seems pretty obvious that we now have a MSM news club that is not bound by factual, objective, investigative reporting, but more about chums, networking and future job opportunities.

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