Whose Job Is It To Expose Corruption?

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Let me start with a pre-emptive admission: the media, I hereby confess, are deeply superficial.

By media, I mean mass circulation print, radio and TV outlets and online news sites. Committed journalists have come to realise that the public discerns the media in which they work as all these still popular outlets.

So we exist in an Australian industry which includes entertainers and shock jocks, the cash-for-commentator Alan Jones and the lie detectors, Kyle and Jackie O. Celebrity journalism, now so pervasive with its paparazzi photos and the cult of personality instantaneously accessible worldwide through internet sites provides endless entertainment and voyeurism. Through the commercial imperative, mass media has become largely entertainment. So at the outset of any discussion about the role of the media in the anti-corruption effort, let us understand the reality and the limitations in commercially driven editorial decisions.

I am an activist for public broadcasting through a working life in print and broadcast journalism because I am very aware of the commercial realities behind modern media. Good luck to the commercial entities — but all countries need complementary mainstream, independent non-commercial public broadcasters to engage audiences as citizens, not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers.

Politicians privately hold the media in contempt because they perceive its superficiality in their daily dealings. In adversarial politics, they only have to bluff their way through a crisis in the sure knowledge that the 24-hour news cycle will take their current public relations difficulties off the front page and TV bulletin leads.

Unless, of course, the media and its public-spirited and committed editors and practitioners by good luck or hard work — often assisted by a brave informant — cracks the government or corporate facade. That’s when the media can have a real value-adding impact. Then there can be resort to an inquiry by a standing body or a judicial officer or indeed by a regulator. In any event, public consciousness — public memory about an issue — is raised. Thus is "public opinion" slowly formed.

Nationally, the AWB Iraqi wheat scandal, the Haneef stitch-up, the Cornelia Rau and Vivienne Solon affairs, the Alan Kessing exposure of domestic airport insecurity, and the veterans’ entitlements revelations by journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey are strong recent examples of the journalist using his or her skills to expose corruption and incompetence. (You’ll notice that I’ve left Utegate to one side — problematic informant it seems.)

Journalism is about telling the public what is really going on. And, my friends, that is hard work. That is why we have come to rely on informants. Sometimes they come with documents. We like documents, unalloyed by spin, most of all. Some informants are public spirited. Some are not.

My ABC colleague Chris Masters made his reputation as an investigative journalist on legwork and informants, famously naming the bagman of Queensland, Jack Herbert, in his "Moonlight State" Four Corners exposé of police corruption. Masters and his researchers produced a document which will go down in the history of Australian journalism. It was a contract of sale on a Bowen Hills house. The vendor, known organised crime figures Geraldo Bellino and Vic Conte and the buyer, Jack Reginald Herbert — a known friend of Sir Terrence Lewis, the Commissioner of Police. There on the one exquisite document was the link: the names of both parties — organised crime and the police.

For honest police watching the program, the penny dropped. Jack was back on the take. What was exposed was "the joke": a bribes network built up over more than a decade with regular payments to participating police up to and including the commissioner. Corrupt police committing crime rather than fighting it.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Kate McClymont and Anne Davies broke the Bulldogs’ salary cap scandal a few years ago after a substantial dig which produced both informants and documents. And last year, Channel Nine investigative reporters Ross Coulthart and Nick Farrow secured on-camera interviews with the victims of a Bega surgeon. Without these informants, their story would have been difficult to tell and could have been lost in a thicket of claims and counter claims.

In Melbourne, The Age reporter Nick McKenzie used his informants and investigative skills to expose the criminal milieu surrounding the activities of Tony Mokbel and his links to corrupt police.

Journalists paid to be actively on the lookout for corruption are few and far between. Some media outlets have been using Freedom of Information applications to telling effect. But we are a long way from what could be called "open government". Some stumble on evidentiary leads while reporting other things.

Some people come to the media after all avenues of redress of their problems or concerns appear to have been exhausted. Among them can be some genuine whistleblowers. Some phone anonymously with tips. Some are nutters with obsessions and conspiracy theories and piles of hand written documents including acknowledgement letters from Her Majesty the Queen and the Governor General. Judgement is required before precious resources are applied to any investigation or lines of inquiry.

Some informants may not be public spirited. Some are out to create grief or trouble for a rival or enemy and will try to use the journalist’s practice of protecting confidential sources as cover for their mischief-making. I confess I was led up the garden path a few times early in my career, usually by politicians.

Media lawyers require as much probative evidence as possible in substantiation of any allegation to be published before advising that taxpayer or shareholder funds can be put at risk from defamation and damages actions. The old Watergate methodology of having two (unattributable) sources noted in the reporter’s notebooks is not sufficient when making allegations of criminality. If push comes to shove, Australian judges will slot the journalist for contempt of court when he or she abides by Section 3 of the Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics to respect confidences in all circumstances.

Journalists do not have coercive powers. Such is the low regard in which media is held by the public at the moment that many will say that is a good thing.

We cannot legally tap telephones. We can ask for documents and hard drive material but we cannot legally raid homes and offices and seize them. So we rely on informants and we work within a generally accepted code of ethics.

For example, if you look at Section 3 of the code, you find that journalists are obliged to "aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances."

Section 8 of the code requires that journalists "use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice."

This code of ethics guides the journalist in Australia but right now, we are campaigning for more effective shield laws for journalists. We do not want to be held in contempt of Australian courts when, by adherence to the code, we must decline to identify our sources when asked in court. The Federal Government is proposing a reform that will require federal courts to place greater weight on a journalist’s obligation to protect his or her sources. This would avoid a repeat of the situation that Harvey and McManus found themselves in. By obeying the code of ethics these two fine journalists now have criminal records which have hindered them in their work and international visa applications and accreditation. The states have yet to engage on the issue of shield laws in their jurisdictions.

Committed journalists do not want shield laws to encourage commercially exploitable salacious material for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the public. We need shield laws to protect the identities of the informants who in some cases put their lives and future employability at stake to warn the public about corruption, incompetence or criminality. Legislators should see shield laws as another check and balance in our robust democracy against the abuse of power.

Why? Because corruption occurs in secret. It is, by its very nature, a conspiracy. Unless the participants are idiots, there are no document trails or incriminating emails. There may be a money trail but unless a whistleblower or informant photocopies or produces evidence of its hidden methodology, it will be hard, almost impossible, to substantiate to meet a media lawyer’s requirement of probative evidence. Without the informant, the whistleblower or the source, it is hard to crack.

While we can search company directorships, pecuniary interest registers and slush fund donations and we can lodge FOI applications (if our employer has sufficient funds for a fishing expedition), we cannot demand bank and telephone records.

Recently the Dirty Digger — Rupert Murdoch — got himself into trouble in the UK after The Guardian reported that News Corp newspapers had paid out more than a million pounds to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of his journalists’ repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories. The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures — as well as gaining unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators.

If Rupert’s people were doing this to gain needed evidence of corruption or malfeasance, people could possibly forgive them. The London Telegraph‘s payment for a leaked database of MPs’ expenses rorts was a different situation. It was clearly a matter of public interest to expose a contemptuous and shameless exploitation of parliamentary privilege and a collective abuse of power.

But tapping celebrity and royal telephones for some salacious sex scandal or personal idiosyncrasy to provide material for commercial exploitation and voyeuristic enjoyment has, I’m afraid, set back journalism. It can only encourage legislators the world over to strengthen privacy laws. Shame on you Rupert. Shame on you James.

This is an edited excerpt from a speech delivered to the Corruption Prevention Network Conference on 9 September 2009.

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