The Questions Harto Won't Answer


"Your bias against our organisation over many years and the errors and omissions in your recent New Matilda piece renders your right to answers from me completely redundant. It is deeply troubling to me and to all of our editors that someone like you has any role in teaching young journalists in Australia.’"

This is how John Hartigan responded to journalist Wendy Bacon when she wrote asking him questions about journalistic practices at News Ltd papers. Read the original New Matilda article that he mentions in his response here. Wendy Bacon elaborates on why she wanted to interview Hartigan — and what questions she wanted to ask him.

There are number of aspects of The Australian’s coverage of the phone hacking story last week that worry me. The response to News Ltd CEO John Hartigan’s decision to carry out an editorial expenses audit of the Australian branch of News Corporation did not seem to take on board the sharing of resources that goes along with being an "integrated" global company.

Characteristically global companies adapt their products to local situations. So it seems relevant for Australian journalists to be exploring ethical developments at Australian News Ltd papers, relationships between media executives and politicians, relationships between News editors and journalists and the impact of the high concentration of Australia’s media on journalism. In this context I wanted to interview John Hartigan. Knowing chances of this were slim, his assistant and I agreed sending questions was the best course of action.

I included a question about payment for information and articles which was endemic at News of the World in the UK. Cheque book journalism was a hot ethics topic in Australian journalism until it more or less became accepted that commercial television and magazines often pay for stories. There are problems with this as it can provide a financial incentive which affects the tone and content of information supplied.

I was a little surprised to see that the News code of conduct does allow newspaper editors to approve payment. So I wanted to know more about how this has been applied.

There have long been concerns about the influence that media bosses, particularly those at News Ltd, wield over the Australian political process. Now Conservative and Labour politicians in the UK have admitted that they were afraid of News International and therefore did not press the phone hacking investigation and other matters. I therefore wanted to know how Hartigan views this matter.

I informed Hartigan that I had a deadline but wrote: "Even if John cannot meet my deadline would appreciate answers as soon as he is able".

Below are my questions in full.

Attention: Mr John Hartigan

Dear John,

1. I notice that News Ltd papers continued to report stories from News of the World well after phone hacking scandal broke — was this practice discussed by you with editors or other executives in the company? In retrospect, do you have any concerns about this? Why or why not?

2. I note that editors of at least some News Ltd publications including newspapers can give permission for payment for information or articles. Is this a matter that is being included in your editorial audit? Wh[y]or why not? How many occasions has News Ltd paid for information or stories over the last two years? Are there different rules for different publications? if so, what are they?

3. I notice from reports from Australian News Ltd journalists who have spent time working at News of the World (one of them being Rosie Squires) that payment for information and stories was endemic at News of the World. What is your opinion about this? Did you ever raise any concerns about this within wider international circles of News Ltd? Was this discussed at international News Ltd meetings?

4. Are there any circumstances in which you believe it would be acceptable for journalists or papers to hire private inquiry agents to assist with stories — what would these be?

5. Do you consider that bias by newspapers in cities where only one company owns a newspaper could ever be an issue? How do you monitor whether fair means of reporting the news are being applied across the company? What auditing or monitoring mechanisms do you apply? Are there occasions when you do take up matters of bias with editors?

6. Do you think that it would be a good idea if the Australian Press Council became an independent body with funding from both media and other sources including government?

7. Do you think it is appropriate for politicians and media owners or senior executives to meet privately? What would be the purpose of such meetings?

I know you are busy but would appreciate answers to these questions or the opportunity to interview you.


Wendy Bacon

See also: New Matilda’s discussion of questions for a media inquiry in Australia here.

Read our timeline of media regulation in Australia here.

Read an opinion piece by Wendy Bacon on John Hartigan’s response in The Sunday Age here.


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