The Only ‘Plot’ Is The One The Australian Lost Long Ago

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The Australian has used its Saturday front page to accuse New Matilda of engaging in a plot to bring down the Prime Minister. Which is of course true. Editor Chris Graham responds.

Ten years ago this November, five Australian Federal Police officers arrived in the early morning hours on the doorstep of my home in Canberra. They had cheap suits, and a search warrant.

At the time, I was the editor and one of the owners of the National Indigenous Times (NIT), and we’d been publishing – for two weeks – a raft of leaked Howard government cabinet documents which revealed the many lies John Howard and Philip Ruddock told about their dealings with Aboriginal people and organisations.

NIT – just a few years old at that stage – had struggled along financially. We broke some great yarns, and managed to feed ourselves, but publishing was – and still is – a tough business.

The raid changed all that.

NIT went from a newspaper no-one had ever heard of, to one that was on everyone’s lips. If you’re trying to make it in Aboriginal affairs (or, let’s face it, in any branch of the media) it’s hard to beat being raided by the wallopers on the orders of the Prime Minister’s office.

At the time, I described my feelings as ‘personally disgusted, and professionally delighted’. Those words were ringing in my ears again late on Friday afternoon, when I took a call from The Australian newspaper.

I’d been warned earlier in the day that The Oz was hunting a yarn about the ongoing police investigation into the leaking of confidential information which revealed Frances Abbott – daughter of the Australian Prime Minister – had been awarded a secret $60,000 scholarship to attend the Whitehouse Institute of Design, a private college based in Sydney.

That story broke in May and revealed, among other things, that Tony Abbott had not declared the secret scholarship on his parliamentary interests register. He still hasn’t.

When the call finally came through, I considered not taking it. Unfortunately, as my mum and dad and numerous friends will attest, a substantial part of my personality loves a fight.

Because the matter is the subject of an ongoing police investigation, I’m obviously limited in what I can say. My first obligation as a journalist is to ‘protect the source’. So I’d considered simply replying, “We do not comment on ‘on daughter operations’”. However, in the course of our reporting, we’ve not once personally attacked Frances Abbott (although I acknowledge she and others might not see it that way). I figured the irony of that statement might be lost on many, so instead, I suppressed my natural tendency for smart-arsery and gave straight, serious answers where I could, and ‘no comments’ where I couldn’t.

The journalist, Brad Norington, was polite and professional in his approach. I’ll acknowledge that upfront. But the resulting story… well, it contains a number of false assumptions, misleading statements, and big, dirty, factual inaccuracies.

Some of them are not Mr Norington’s doing, and some of them are. I don’t have the space to reprint the whole article here, but helpfully, we only have to wait for the second par for things to start falling apart.

“Wendy Bacon, the prominent journalism teacher and contributing editor of New Matilda, has claimed the leaked information – which also involved a hacker allegedly gaining illegal access to the files of more than 500 other students – was justified in the public interest.”

This sort of statement is what I like to call ‘a f**king train wreck’.

Wendy Bacon has not justified the hacking of 500 students’ private records on the basis of public interest. There’s two simple reasons why that has never occurred.

Firstly, the ‘public interest’ justifications The Australian reports actually come from tweets Wendy sent in May – two months earlier. They were tweets about the story generally. They were not tweets about the alleged hacking of 500 students’ records.

And why is that? Because (a) until yesterday Wendy had no knowledge that any such allegation existed (and neither did I), and (b) more importantly, because the hacking of 500 student’s records never occurred.

The claim was made by the Whitehouse Institute. The claim is false.

How do I know? Well, I’d love to tell you, but at this stage, I have no intention of weighing into a police investigation, nor of providing information which may assist it.

I should note: it is not Mr Norington’s fault that Whitehouse misled him. He was provided that information, and he was obliged to report it in good faith. It is, however, Mr Norington’s fault that the paragraph attributes a ‘public interest justification’ to Wendy Bacon that she never made.

But let’s move on… to the next paragraph, which is no better.

“Ms Bacon, who co-wrote the New Matilda article with the publication’s editor, Chris Graham, has tweeted multiple times since it appeared on May 21, declaring that the documents showed a scholarship awarded to Frances Abbott by the Sydney-based Whitehouse Institute of Design was not based on merit.”

The article was not co-written by Wendy Bacon. It was co-written by Max Chalmers, a rising young reporter with New Matilda. That fact is clearly stated in the story, by way of the byline, which notes ‘By Chris Graham & Max Chalmers’.

At the bottom of the story, Wendy’s name appears as ‘additional reporting’. While Wendy’s involvement in the story was – and always is – invaluable, as The Australian well knows the display of a byline in this style means that Wendy’s role in this particular yarn was limited.

How then to explain the fact that Wendy is the focus of The Australian’s fury? Indeed, it’s Wendy’s picture that is published in the online version of the article. And she starts copping it from the second paragraph.

I can just imagine the morning news conference at The Australian, after Chris Mitchell emerges from his fall-out shelter to stock up on canned goods, and stumbles across an editorial meeting.

Chris says: ‘Has anyone got anything on Wendy Bacon or Jenna Price?’

Loyal underling says: ‘Wendy’s got an ‘additional reporting’ byline on a story police are investigating.’

Chris says: ‘Excellent. Make the story about her.’

The rest of The Australian’s missive, I can’t really comment on… police investigation etc blah blah.

So let’s fast forward to the final paragraph.

“Ms Bacon did not reply to questions last night about whether she would have concerns if material from Ms Abbott’s student records, and those of others, were inappropriately and possibly illegally obtained.”

It’s an interesting paragraph. If Wendy did not reply to Mr Norington’s questions (and in fact she did – we’ll get to that in a second) then why did he report in paragraph two that Wendy had justified it on the grounds of ‘public interest’?

That’s the kind of gaping hole that you can drive a truckload of leaked documents through. It’s helpfully separated by about 1,000 words in the middle, so that you likely forget (brevity not being The Oz’ strong point when they’re on a crusade… nor mine, admittedly).

As for the claim Wendy didn’t respond, that is also false.

Wendy Bacon received a call from Mr Norington mid-afternoon. She returned that call, and it went unanswered. So she emailed him.

Mr Norrington spoke to Wendy some hours later, and asked her if she would reply to his questions. Wendy indicated that she would respond in writing to written questions, but hadn’t received any. Mr Norington acknowledged that, and sent them. Wendy replied a few minutes later, noting that she still gives occasional lectures at the University of Technology, Sydney but, “as a journalist I do not discuss stories involving confidential sources”.

And yet, the story online and in the first print edition suggests that Wendy did not respond to questions. This was corrected in later print editions, but not online. The incorrect version remains on the web, and was later posted on Andrew Bolt’s blog.

There’s another part of the article which is grossly misleading, but I’ll come to that shortly, because it’s worth exploring why The Australian feels the need to jettison ethics and common sense in zealous pursuit of a semi-retired journalism professor.

There’s a lot I like about Wendy Bacon – her passion and her professionalism, not least of all. But perhaps my favourite fact about Wendy is that The Oz has been trying to get her for years. A better recommendation, I can’t imagine.

Given the parlous state of journalism in Australia, I’m fairly cautious about getting too close to people in my industry, lest they turn out to be morally vapid ratbags. But I was an admirer of Wendy’s before I took over New Matilda in May, and having now worked with her for several months, I’m an even bigger fan. And the more the ‘Great Unhinged’ attack her, the more I like and respect her.

And attack her they do – twice in one day as it turns out. Under the headline ‘Left about-turn takes Israel in new direction as villain’, Wendy and former colleague Jenna Price copped a spray from Christian Kerr for their opposition to the Israeli assault on Palestinians.

Ironically, this is not Kerr’s first sortie. When we first reported the Whitehouse yarn, The Australian’s response was to unleash Kerr to dig up some dirt. But not on Abbott. Kerr got a hot tip that Wendy’s children had received free scholarships to UTS.

Sadly, the angle turned out to be false. Drat. But The Australian’s idea of how to get a fresh angle on a prominent news story is instructive.

Don’t go after the issue. Go after the issuer.

If you look at The Oz’s coverage since the story broke, it has filed just one lonely yarn on Whitehouse – an opinion piece on May 22. It was a robust defence of Tony Abbott, with a fleeting and dismissive mention of the secret scholarship.

That’s what passes as news coverage and analysis at The Oz.

To get to the bottom of their style of ‘reporting’ – and I warn you in advance, it’s a long way down – it’s also worth looking at how The Weekend Australian’s most recent coverage has been received.

On the left, it’s been greeted by fits of hilarity. On the right, however, there is seething, steaming, boiling rage.

New Matilda has, among many other things, been accused of once again attacking Frances Abbott. Last time I checked, it was The Australian that dragged this issue from its slumber – we stopped reporting on it months ago. And last time I checked, it was the Whitehouse Institute that leaked the information to The Oz about the police investigation, in a bid to (a) secure a bit of free publicity and, (b) exact revenge on those it believes wronged it.

The Whitehouse Institute exploiting their relationship with the PM’s daughter again. Oh dear.

But back to The Oz, because this is the part where I have to acknowledge how ‘clever’ their smear is. Their reporting doesn’t actually say that Wendy Bacon and New Matilda directly hacked the private records of 500 college students. Things are just left open to that interpretation.

The broader inference, of course – the one that is supposed to hurt – is that Wendy Bacon and New Matilda engage in criminal conduct in order to assassinate characters. And even worse, we’re hypocrites for doing so because in the past we’ve railed against the gross breaches of privacy perpetrated by media.

And just to be clear: I’m not saying that’s what The Australian has reported. They’re not that stupid. Unfortunately, resident News Limited crazie Tim Blair is.

Blair took the issue up on his blog on Saturday morning with his trademark ‘caution to the wind gusto’, under the side-splittingly funny headline ‘New Matilda of the World’.

“An earlier hacking scandal led to multiple inquiries, police charges and even the closure of a newspaper. Now a new hacking scandal has already claimed two jobs, with possibly more to follow.

“In 2011, Bacon wrote that the News of the World hacking disgrace involved “the ”active participation of senior executives. Keep that in mind…”

Actually Tim, it led to multiple jailings… of colleagues from your organisation. But anyhoo….

Tim was joined in his apoplexy on Twitter by a host of angry folk who are only ever one dry whine away from a stupor.

 

Obviously, it’s ridiculous to even have to point out the differences between the two issues, but I do so now in case Tim and his Army of Outrage are reading, and their synapses have already started misfiring.

New Matilda relied on documents and information supplied to us by brave sources, in order to expose the fact that the daughter of the Australian Prime Minister received a secret $60,000 scholarship, one that Abbott did not declare in his parliamentary interests’ register because, he falsely asserts, the scholarship was awarded on merit (the leaked documents and information show clearly it was not).

The story came to us shortly after the Abbott Government handed down a budget that would ensure the cost of a university degree for students not related to a Prime Minister would sky-rocket.

University fees and student loans were both slated to rise – spectacularly so in the case of fees – and more than $800 million in public monies will now be accessible to the private sector… money which will go straight into the coffers of private colleges like Whitehouse Institute… a college that gifted the Abbott family $60,000… and whose chairman, Les Taylor, is a close family friend.

If that’s not a matter of substantial public interest, then my name is Chris Mitchell. But don’t take my word for it: Look no further than the amount of media coverage the story generated at the time, and is still generating today.

Now, compare that to the established facts of News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal.

Journalists and senior executives – not sources, but journalists and senior executives – personally engaged in the hacking of private mobile phones over a period of years in order to (a) write salacious pap about celebrities; and (b) to obtain ‘inside information’ about the brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old child.

That the zealots of News Limited cannot see the distinction between the two issues speaks volumes about their twisted moral compasses.

What’s so outrageous, of course, is that it was the journalists and senior officials of The Australian’s parent company – News Corporation – that engaged in the phone hacking in the first place.

And so here’s what we stand accused of: New Matilda allegedly received confidential information. While I make no comment on the truth of that accusation – again, it’s the subject of an active police investigation – I will say, more generally, newspapers receive ‘confidential documents and information’ all the time. That is our dirty stock-in-trade.

I acknowledge that notion may be confronting for some at The Australian, who are more accustomed to receiving belly tickling ‘official leaks’ from ministers and minders, which bring with them rewards of favour and access, as opposed to warrants and writs.

But real journalism is about weighing up privacy interests against public interests, as opposed to matters that the public is simply ‘interested in’… the stock-in-trade of many at News Limited… and Fairfax for that matter. It’s no simple balancing act, but it’s a crucially important one.

By way of example, here’s an email from Mr Norington to Wendy, after she replied that she would not comment on sources: “I can certainly understand you not wanting to discuss stories involving confidential sources. Can you say, though, if you would have concerns if you learned that material for stories was inappropriately, and possibly illegally, obtained?”

I think it’s time The Australian dumped the vendetta journalism. It’s see-through, it’s embarrassing, it’s ridiculous, it’s childish.

Under Chris Mitchell, The Australian’s journalism has become a ‘reds under the bed’ crusade, without any of the comedic value of McCarthyism. They see conspiracy in every corner, and any assault on ‘their boys’ (and, notably, they’re mostly boys) is to be met with the shrieking howl of outrage and smear.

The Australian is well known for this. I suspect that partly explains why the publication has operated at a financial loss for so long. But I’m certain it explains why New Matilda’s readership is growing exponentially, and The Australian’s is in serious decline.

So on that front. I’d like to personally thank Chris Mitchell and his team.

The only thing better than accusing New Matilda of being ‘involved in a plot’ to bring down a Prime Minister would be accusing New Matilda of being involved in a plot that did bring down a Prime Minister. And for the record, we’re not fussed whether it’s a Labor or Liberal one – our job, in stark contrast to those at The Australian, is to keep all the bastards honest.

Web traffic to New Matilda is setting new records. The subscriptions are rolling in (ok, they’re trickling in, damn you free online media business model!) and our site has nearly crashed from traffic on several occasions in the past 24 hours.

New Matilda struggles with profitability, and paying real wages and writers. We possibly always will. But we still lose $30 million less a year than the Australian does. We’re not a wealthy publication, but even if we were, we could never have afforded this level of free advertising.

So thank you, Chris Mitchell, from the bottom of my empty wallet.

Now if only I could convince the NSW Police to raid my home.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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