News Ltd has appointed a couple of judges to check up on its editorial expenditure — just to satisfy itself that it hasn’t been paying private detectives here to hack into people’s phones. There have also been calls for a parliamentary inquiry — into what I’m not exactly sure. And those eager to shut down exposure of the rich, powerful and famous have dusted off their old Victorian and NSW Law Reform Commission reports into the need for strengthened privacy provisions.
Yes, News Ltd probably has a lot of questions to answer but they’re not principally about ethics in journalism. For many of Murdoch’s heaviest hitters journalism isn’t their stock in trade but rather lobbying and propaganda. Sometimes this is to protect the interests of News and on other occasions it’s barracking for political friends and ideological family.
Those political friends in the Howard era, especially foreign minister Alexander Downer, had very strong views on how journalists, particularly in the ABC and SBS, should do their jobs. That had a hugely detrimental effect on freedom of the press. The Liberal Party/News Ltd nexus remains today and I have a few questions about it that need to be answered.
In 2004, when I was executive producer of SBS Television’s Dateline program, I took a call from Mike Ware. Mike was Time Magazine’s correspondent in Baghdad and he feared his good friend and our video-journalist, John Martinkus, had been kidnapped. It proved to be nauseatingly true.
In the post-kidnap debrief with SBS’s security consultant and former Special Forces soldier Tony Loughran, we pieced together what had happened to John. He was tracked by Sunni elements after he finished an extraordinary piece of reporting in Sadr City. It was a coup to get in there and a triumph to produce what he did and get out. But for whatever reason they didn’t trust him and they took him off the street. It all happened on his last day in Baghdad, almost in front of the Australian Embassy, just after he left the Al Hamra Hotel where most journalists stayed at the time.
Instead of sympathy, the first public response we had from foreign minister Downer was that John had been irresponsible, going to parts of the war-torn city no sane reporter would go. As I said, that simply wasn’t the case. But John was fair game because he worked for that "undergraduate left wing program" (as Downer’s press secretary once called us when his boss declined our request for an interview) which had embarrassed the minister over his handling of East Timor and the Pacific.
Like US president, George Bush, the Coalition government at the time was in "mission accomplished" mode. The war had been won and nothing was going to upset that talking point. So when John presaged the onset of a deadly insurgency, that was one step too far.
On his way home, still in shock, John told part of his story to the ABC’s Mark Willacy at Aman airport in Jordan. He was met by a wall of cameras at Sydney Airport where he asked Downer for an apology, explaining he’d been released because he wasn’t a legitimate target in the eyes of his captors — unlike those who were part of the occupation force.
What followed was a series of articles and blog posts that brought John Martinkus’s credibility into question. Leading the charge were the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt and the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair (who was not working at News Ltd at the time). They both consistently questioned what John had said about why he had been released by his captors. They underplayed the terror that "Jihad John" had endured and their blogs quickly filled with the most grotesque suggestions in the comments threads. You can still find some of them on the web today. Take this, posted by one Sortelli on Tim Blair’s site, "Another victory for appeasement. His head chopping has been delayed until the ones who fight back are dead". And this by BT, "John Martinkus escapes beheading: his gain, our loss".
The most insidious suggestion to come out of the foreign minister’s office was that John had not been kidnapped at all, that the videotaping of what might have been his last moments, flanked by hooded men with guns as another intoned in Arabic, was all set up as some bizarre publicity stunt!
Some months later, a Fairfax journalist contacted the media section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a synopsis of the Martinkus incident and received an email from the Department’s Lyndall Sachs referring to John’s capture and interrogation as the "alleged kidnap". So it seems DFAT was briefing against the victim too. SBS’s News and Current Affairs boss, Paul Cutler, was forced to write to DFAT asking it to amend its records.
Lyndall Sach’s inaccuracy was ultimately rewarded with the post of Ambassador to Beirut. It must have been inaccuracy — I can’t believe DFAT would purposefully release malicious material on an Australian citizen in trouble overseas.
Two years earlier, in the lead up to the Iraq war, the Howard government tried to discredit former Office of National Assessments (ONA) analyst and current MP Andrew Wilkie. He’d gone public about the lack of a genuine, intelligence-based justification for the conflict. First the head of ONA issued a statement suggesting Wilkie had no expert knowledge on Iraq. When that didn’t work, the attempts became more vindictive. A campaign of whispers suggested that Andrew Wilkie was unstable due to his marriage breakdown and therefore should not be heeded.
Finally in 2003, when Wilkie was making waves internationally, someone was willing to break the law to destroy a lone dissident who publicly disagreed with government policy; classified information was leaked to Andrew Bolt.
At the time, Labor demanded parliament be suspended so Downer could explain how top secret documents which had passed through his office were given to a journalist. On those grounds alone, Andrew Bolt would be an easy target for any review.
But what of the leakers, the criminals who passed the top secret documents on to Bolt? And why have the vicious whisperers been allowed to escape scot-free? Don’t we deserve answers to these questions?
It’s true, the vilification of John Martinkus and the attempt on Andrew Wilkie’s credibility would not have been as successful without the Murdoch press. While it’s not exactly hacking a murdered girl’s mobile phone, it’s still scarifying.
As far as I know, Alexander Downer has never apologised to John Martinkus and Andrew Bolt, Murdoch’s hit man at the Herald Sun, has never suffered any censure.
Read New Matilda’s 2005 interview with John Martinkus here.
**An earlier version of this story contained a number of errors. In it, it was alleged that Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt had “consistently and deliberately misquoted” John Martinkus in their coverage of Mr Martinkus’s kidnapping in Iraq. We retract this claim.
It was also claimed Mr Blair was involved in an “orchestrated campaign” against Mr Martinkus. We acknowledge that although Mr Blair’s coverage of the kidnapping in a number of blog posts brought Mr Martinkus’s credibility into question, this did not constitute an orchestrated campaign.
It is also acknowledged that Mr Blair was not in fact working for News Ltd at the time that he wrote the blog posts in question.
It has been pointed out to us that the article might have been interpreted as suggesting that Mr Blair had behaved improperly in his role as a journalist. We did not intend to convey any such suggestion. If the article did give rise to such a suggestion it was completely without foundation.
We greatly regret any distress or embarrassment that our article may have caused to Mr Blair, and insofar as it might have conveyed any such suggestion, we apologise to Mr Blair and withdraw that suggestion unreservedly.
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