How My Santos Story Got Swiped

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The mainstream media constantly complains that online journalists leech off their hard work. But last week, the mainstream media were the parasites.

Some weeks ago, I pitched a story to New Matilda about the coal seam gas industry’s PR spin. At that stage I didn’t know how big the story would be — or that it would result in Santos pulling one of their coal seam gas ads after I busted their pro-CSG farmer on somebody else’s land.

After several days researching the way PR and advertising agencies use social media, I rang Drew Hutton from Lock the Gate. He had appeared on a panel with Katherine Tey-White from Futureye (specialists in "social licence"). I asked about Futureye and if any of the CSG miners were using dodgy ads. He put me in touch with farmer and anti-CSG campaigner, Rosemary Nankivell.

Rosemary was sure one of Santos’ pro-CSG ads featuring farmer and Santos employee Warwick Moppett, was not filmed on his farm, which was actually at Gilgandra, some 200 kilometres away. She thought the scene showing Moppett pulling up at an old gate with water in the background was filmed on Don Hubbard’s property. A number of cotton bales that also appeared in the ad were identified as belonging to Ben and Trish Kelly.

I contacted Hubbard and the Kellys. Hubbard recognised the old gate and the shores of Lake Goran beyond. He as adamant that it was his and was pretty sure a third scene, showing Moppett walking through a canola field, was filmed on his neighbours, Ben and Phoebe Clift’s, property.

I rang the Clifts who verified the crop was theirs. I was also put in touch with two people who had seen the crew filming near Clift’s and Kelly’s. I spoke to one of them. We verified the date by the fact the canola crop was flowering and when the cotton bales were collected.

It was essential for my story to show why Santos’ ad agency didn’t choose to film on Warwick Moppett’s real farm. I rang anothe contact, who put me in touch with Milton Judd, who described the property. I spoke to Judd and verified with him that he’d never seen canola or cotton grown on the Moppett farm.

I then rang Santos for the name of the ad company. It is KWP! Advertising in Adelaide. I left several messages with KWP’s Karyn Smith advising I was publishing the story asking if they would like to comment. I followed up with an email on 2 November.

The next day, Trish Kelly received a phone call from Mark Rogers of Santos, apologising for using their cotton bales for the ad without permission.

I received an email response from Andrew Fotheringham of KWP! on 5 November. He advised that they had strict guidelines about private property and the ad was filmed from the road or "fringe" on the property. I responded that the guidelines had indeed been breached with two scenes clearly showing Moppett and the film crew trespassing on both Hubbard’s and Clift’s properties.

The story ran in New Matilda on 6 November and unleashed a torrent of complaints on Twitter. Santos’ Group Manager of CSG Policy and Communications, Matthew Damon, was involved in various heated exchanges, especially with Nankivell and the Greens’ Jeremy Buckingham.

The next day, the website Independent Australia reposted the story with a link back to NM. In the introduction to that piece, I suggested Santos would pull the ad by the end of the day. Independent Australia’s Dave Donovan also posted the heated twitter exchange that called for the ad to be pulled.

That day, ABC Rural’s Kerrin Thomas, Catherine Clifford and Lisa Herbert ran the story, using almost the same lead and quotes from the very same people.

ABC Rural’s lead:

"Don Hubbard, from Spring Ridge on the Liverpool Plains in northern NSW, was shocked when he turned on the television and saw another farmer standing in his paddocks, selling the virtues of coal seam gas."

My lead in New Matilda on 6 November:

"When Don Hubbard sat down to relax during spring this year after a day’s canola harvesting, he was shocked to see his property and that of his neighbours, Ben and Phoebe Clift, featured in a Santos coal seam gas (CSG) ad on the TV." 

Then Don’s quote:

"I’ve travelled a lot and there isn’t much better dryland farming country in the world than in this particular area on the lower Liverpool Plains. If you can’t stop coal seam gas development here, then I really despair about agriculture in general."

Mine in New Matilda on 6 November:

"There is no way an operating broadacre farm can co-exist with CSG wells and there is no better dryland farming anywhere in the world than here on the Liverpool plains. If governments haven’t the wherewithal to protect that, I despair about the future."

Me in Independent Australia on 7 November:

"Don Hubbard, who has travelled extensively around the world, describes the O’Farrell government’s decision as ‘plain crazy’.

"There is no way an operating broad-acre farm can co-exist with CSG wells, and there is no better dry-land farming anywhere in the world than here on the Liverpool Plains. If governments haven’t the wherewithal to protect that, I despair about the future."

I can understand if Don Hubbard (whose name they no doubt discovered from my story) gave them the same quote, but if I’d been reporting the story, I’d have asked for a fresh quote.
I contacted the ABC but have had no response.

On the same day, Sam Crafter from Santos was interviewed on ABC’s 2CR by Dugald Saunders. No mention was made that the story was broken by me in New Matilda.

Crafter said Santos might not run the ad in the future. I rang him that day and left a message asking for confirmation that the ad would be pulled.

That night, at 7.20pm, I received a call at home from Santos’ Matthew Doman. He advised that Santos would no longer run the ad. He asked for my home email address and sent a confirmation email. He then rang back to verify I’d received the email. I confirmed to him that I would immediately contact all the farmers involved and would post his response on both New Matilda and Independent Australia’s websites. It did that in the comments below each article.

The following day, ABC Rural’s Lisa Herbert ran the story that the ad had been pulled, again failing to mention it was my investigation that forced Santos to do so. The Australian Financial Review also published an unattributed story about Santos being forced to pull the ad.

Content is only valuable when it can be trusted and the journalists’ code of ethics upheld. Not only was my story plagiarised but in doing so it was stripped of context. It took me nearly a week to uncover the subterfuge in Santos’ ad. I am a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and am scrupulous about attributing original sources. All I ask is that the mainstream media comply with the same standards being set by those of us in the new media.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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