By Peter Clarke
March 11, 2013
Margo: My first journalism job was at The Courier Mail. One day I wrote a story about a disagreement in the Queensland National Liberal Coalition Cabinet about condom vending machines. My first paragraph quoted the then health minister Mike Ahern. My second said that his statement contradicted another minister, Lyne Powell. The chief sub editor, Graham Earle, called me over to demand an explanation for my story. ‘What is this?” he asked. ‘The truth,’ I replied. ‘Your job is not to write the truth, your job is to write what people say.”
I was devastated.
I was relieved when Fairfax’s the Times on Sunday, successor to the National Times, offered me a job as its Queensland reporter. Truth was what counted for Fairfax then. I felt honoured to work for them
Still, I encountered variations on the theme there too, particularly when I covered the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal re-hearings into Alan Bond’s bribe to Sir Joh to pay him $400,000 to settle a defamation claim in exchange for, well, you know, the ability to do business in Queensland.
I was steeped in the first hearing, and during the second reported when the evidence diverged from the first hearing. Again, I was told, your job is to write what people say. I fought that view, and won.
So this is a recurring theme in journalism.
In Canberra I was aggressive in press conferences, and back in Sydney I was aggressive too. I remember one occasion when I was writing stories on how it was imperative for developer donations to be disclosed in NSW. I went to a Bob Carr press conference on the Bali Bombings, where I questioned the Premier on the matter, to be met with false allegations that I had condoned the bombings.
The then news editor, Mark Coulton, complained to the editor of smh.com.au, for whom I worked, that it was unacceptable to press the Premier so hard, to be so ‘aggressive’. So I posted the audio and asked for comment. The majority of readers backed me.
Is our job to report what people say or to search for the truth? And if it is the former, does journalism serve a useful purpose in our democracy?
Examining over the last few weeks the intricacies of the Jon Faine affair, has been fascinating. I have encountered so many differing perceptions, views, narratives, claims, assertions around the original Faine broadcast interviews and the unruly notions of ‘factual’, ‘balance’, ‘impartial’, ‘accuracy’, ‘argumentative’ and, yes, the biggie, TRUTH.
Then, there have also been claimed ‘bias breach’ and process attributes such as ‘consistent’ and ‘proportionate’.
Most of these encounters, but not all, have been with news media professionals or the executives within the ABC whose job it is to hold the line and keep the ‘fair and consistent process’ alive and functioning no matter the manifest anomalies.
What has become very clear to me in researching and discussing this still unfolding story around Faine is that there are two realms from which to observe and appraise it: inside the ABC, where apparently process and its survival is everything, and outside the ABC where the view can be entirely different. Read the rest of this entry »