Good one John, but why stop at the ABC?

News that John Howard plans an “independent panel” to review complaints of ABC bias opens up an exciting opportunity to get more accountability all round – of the government and the commercial media.

In watching news stories develop, it’s always wise to ask yourself: “Who benefits?”

Let’s see. The government had no complaints about the ABC’s coverage of the war on Iraq at the time. That’s most unlike the first Gulf War, when Bob Hawke had plenty of contemporaneous complaints.

Richard Alston complained long after the war in retaliation for the ABC dumping its digital TV experiment for lack of funds. His complaints, 68 of them, were against only one program, AM, yet he alleged systemic bias.

The ABC’s internal review body dismissed most complaints, and found a problem in vocal tone in a couple. It also accused Alston of systematic misrepresentation and decontextualisation. First Alston threatened to complain to the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which has the power to investigate complaints against the ABC. But since the complaints have no substance, what better tactic to escalate the pressure than the threat of yet another another review body.

From Alston and Howard’s public comments so far it seems the “independent panel” will have no legislative backing. It will be an informal thorn in the ABC’s side, yet another way for the Government to discourage the ABC from fearlessly doing its job of keeping governments accountable to the people.

Who will appoint the members of the panel? The government, perhaps? They haven’t managed to control the ABC’s independence by stacking its board, so why not try something new?

Remember, Alston and Howard have been trying to emasculate the ABC as a fearless scrutineer ever since it got to power. Way back in 1996 Alston wrote in a leaked Cabinet submission that he wanted to review the ABC’s charter to “influence future ABC functions and activities more directly”.

Still, the new idea opens the door to an exciting public debate on improving accountability of the institutions in our nation essential for a vibrant democracy.

John Howard is now on record saying internal inquiries aren’t good enough. “I guess it’s inevitable if you have an internal review assessment, there’s always a tendency to declare yourself not guilty,” Mr Howard said. “Probably it’s better with the public broadcaster to have some kind of arm’s-length assessment of these things. I think that is better.”

Fantastic! He’s an old hand at calling internal inquiries when he or his government is accused of lying, misleading parliament, rorting travel allowances, abusing fair process and favouring its mates. Now that he acknowledges the unsatisfactory nature of such inquiries, perhaps our national government will finally get a national version of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Allegations of substance could go to this body for independent review and report to Parliament.

And let’s broaden the media aspect to the commercial media. The ABC is established under legislation, has legal obligations to fulfil – including balanced reporting – and the public has the right to complain and have complaints considered. Yet the commercial media is virtually unaccountable, despite its immense power and influence.

The former Australian Broadcasting Tribunal had power to consider every three years whether a TV licence holder was “a fit and proper person” to hold the licence, and hearings considered public complaints. Labor dumped that accountability under pressure form the networks, and the new Australian Broadcasting Authority is virtually toothless when it comes to enforcing voluntary standards.

The funny thing is that during the recent debate on the government’s proposed cross media changes, the Senate tried to get a bit more accountability for the commercial networks. Just a little bit, mind you – like allowing the ABA to require the networks to run an apology or give a right of reply if they got something wrong. The ABA already has the power to order the ABC and SBS to do so, but the government rejected every single attempt to bring accountability to the commercial media. Why?

How about extending the “independent panel” model to assess complaints of bias or owner interference in news against the commercial TV and radio media? A bit of balance on the commercial talkback radio networks, perhaps? A requirement that Alan Jones correct himself on air after he makes a false claim?

And what about newspapers? Fairfax is the only commercial media group to have a publicly available, super-strict code of ethics. It requires that commercial considerations play no part in news judgement, fairness in reporting and full disclosure of conflicts of interest. Yet there is nothing in the government’s cross media proposals to secure a commitment from any buyer of Fairfax to stick with its ethics code or to have any ethics code at all. How about a requirement that all newspaper and commercial media groups publish a similar code, with complaints about its breach going to independent panels for review?

The trick here, of course, as with an independent ABC panel, is that it has to be independent of government, otherwise you’re into the dangerous territory of government control of the media, a key indicator of the descent of a democracy into fascism.

Here’s my suggestion. Each media group is required to establish a panel to review breaches of ethics codes (or legislative charters in the case of the ABC and SBS). There would be three members – one appointed by journalists on staff, one by management and the third, to chair the group, by agreement between staff and management. These panels would have legislative backing and the power to enforce their rulings through publication of their decisions in the media group concerned, corrections and rights of reply.

Come on John, let’s get serious about media accountability, and your own. Unless, of course, you have a very different agenda.



Richard Alston’s complaints against AM are at dcita.

The ABC’s findings are at abc.

Send your findings to

Faulty evidence damaging the cause

Given the ongoing debate about the intelligence presented to justify the War on Iraq, I thought I would provide a perspective that supports the War whilst at the same time supports inquiries into the pre-war rhetoric. I can relate to the furious attacks on the credibility of Bush, Blair and Howard and I am angry and disappointed too but for very different reasons.

The attempts by the Coalition of the Willing to bolster its case for War has done significant damage to the credibility of the case for an active confrontation and control of terrorist regimes and networks. By presenting faulty intelligence to justify their position it quite rightly begs questions about the whole approach to the War on Terror.

It is my opinion that by focusing on a very poll conscious strategy to convince a doubtful public, the Coalition of the Willing has created more hurdles for itself in what will be long-term struggle against oppressive regimes and terrorist networks. Conservative policy-makers throughout America, Australia and Britain ( and doubtlessly other democratic countries)

were quite rightly “woken up” by the September 11 attacks. The ideological challenge presented to pluralist democracies could know longer be ignored as the threat of an escalation of continued domestic attacks was starkly highlighted by those terrible planes and prompted questions like “if they can do that, can they do much worse?”

Leading Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, in an interview on BBC World program HardTalk ( a program I highly recommend), argued that the intelligence presented by Colin Powell at the UN and George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address were not the key reasons for his voting for going to War in Iraq.

What then are the reasons that shaped (and will continue to shape) conservative policy-makers in Washington, London and Canberra in going to War In Iraq?

Before going into the specifics, I will first present the broad challenge that shapes their thinking. The long-term national security of Western democracies is clearly in jeopardy if a confluence of events occur in the non-democratic world. If either failed states or totalitarian regimes hostile to the West either gain WMDs or proliferate them to terrorist networks then the risk of a far more devastating warfare will unfold.

They argue that containment policies that characterised much of the approach by the West in the Cold War are ineffective against this asymmetric challenge. It is ineffective because the battleground is literally everywhere and so unlike the Cold War where War game strategising against the Soviet Union or proxy warfare in third party countries is not an appropriate response.

As such, Conservative policy-makers have taken the view that rather than letting either oppressive regimes or terrorist networks choose the battleground that they will go after them whereever they are. The criteria they appear to be using is that any nation that either actively sponsors, gives shelter to or ‘turns a blind eye’ to terrorist activities effectively surrenders its sovereign rights. Obviously, they have prioritised where the threats are most dangerous – totalitarian countries that have access to or are actively seeking WMD or who are actively sponsoring terrorist activities.

After Afghanistan, why Iraq? If viewed through a post 9/11 prism what was previously a tolerable containment of Iraq had become intolerable. The Iraqi regime that invaded Quwait less than two years after a long war with Iran, that had already used WMDs and that had sought to launch a nuclear program was clearly a threat.

It is true that an on/off UN Inspection program coupled with active No-Fly zones over Southern and Northern Iraq had been moderately successful. It is also true that the link between AL-Qaeda and Iraq was unsubstantiated, but it is also true that Iraq was a prominent sponsor of Palestinian suicide bombers and their organisations.

Christopher Shays argued that the ‘old’ intelligence on Iraq was in fact the reason why he voted for war in Iraq.

This is very different to the emphasis placed by the leaders in the run up to war. By giving prominence to the intelligence highlighting the immediacy of the threat, Blair, Bush and Howard were arguing that the situation had changed. They should have argued that their standards had changed because of September 11. Clearly this argument is a far more complex argument to make and perhaps less politically saleable than the argument they presented.

I support the war and see the ongoing challenges facing the West, yet I also support a vigorous inquiry into the misleading intelligence presented to justify the War. Furthermore, the leaders should be accountable for their actions, and if their governments fall so be it – even though it might cause irreparable damage to the cause of fighting terrorism. And that is what makes me angry.

I appreciate the high standards that the Australian media (in particular Fairfax and the ABC) have demanded of our leaders. Furthermore, I believe that the cheerleading of the Murdoch press in fact helps reduce the merits of the conservative policy-makers and paradoxically helps the anti- war arguments by reducing the debates to a passionate brawl.

In further contributions I would like to provide some historical perspective on U.S. foreign policy and ask whether what Bush is doing is really new and radical. I’d also like to discuss the domestic challenges the War on Terror has for Australians.

PS: I have some thoughts about helping the poor old Labor party find some winning strategies but am still deciding if I really want to help them. I hope the negativity expressed in your articles does not pervade the rest of your life.

Margo: The rest of my life is great at the moment – touch wood – so much so that I did a tongue in cheeker on the latest Howard ABC outrage. See Good one John, but why stop at the ABC?

Big end vision

The chairman of the ANZ bank, Charles Goode, gave a speech today in Sydney called The way ahead – issues facing Australia. It’s a pretty interesting take from the big end of town – Goode’s top priorities are education and the environment, and he wants more government spending for ‘nation building’ through more government debt!! Thanks to the Australian Institute of Company Directors for the speech.

The way ahead – issues facing Australia

by Charles Goode AC

Australia is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. Every time I return to australia from an overseas visit this is reinforced. I will not go into the numerous supporting evidence to the statement in this gathering but will take it as given. (Margo: Gee I wish he hadn’t taken it as given. I’d love to read Mr Goode’s list of the good things – it would help us work out why what we’ve got is worth protecting.)

In thinking about this topic what has struck me is that the issues facing our country are well known. There is a wealth of information on these issues and to a significant extent the solutions are also known. Further what action is being taken is mostly in the right direction. Why then are we worried about these issues?

I think it is because we are a comfortable society that moves in cautious steps. We need to be energetic and passionate and take bold and major steps in addressing our long term issues. We are too short term, too cautious, and too complacent.

In many cases action requires increased government expenditure, and as I am not advocating higher taxes, the response is often that the money is not available. Yet when the East Timor situation arises, or Iraq, we somehow find the money. Addressing our issues will require some reprioritisation of expenditure and it may mean some increase in government debt, but this would be used in addressing the nation building issues of our future.

We are blessed as a country with great natural resources. It is interesting to reflect on the strong economic performance of countries with virtually no natural resources except their people, and I am thinking of Hong Kong, Singapore, Israel and Japan. The danger is that when our standard of living gets to a certain level there is not a great deal of pain experienced in being complacent. However we need to realise our full potential and have the capacity to look after our environment and the less well-off members of our society.

I would like to see us bring to bear on our issues the passion and focus that we bring to Australian rules football and to rugby. In the office where I am located we have a weekly football competition; the results and the ladder are out by 10 a.m. each Monday morning. If the organisation could run its business as efficiently as the football competition we would leave our competitors far behind.

Now I will address five major issues; education, the environment, the economy, population, and our relations with the outside world.


In Australia we have a high standard of living and if we are to find employment for our workforce and maintain and improve our standard of living it is clear that we need a highly educated population. The leadership, skills, ingenuity and know-how of our people will be the primary determinants of our social and economic progress.

We are in a world not only of capital and people movement; through outsourcing we are witnessing the globalisation of labour. We therefore must continually move to produce higher skilled products and services.

When we consider the focus on education of the people in our Asian neighbour countries and education’s impact on growth, employment and innovation, there is an overwhelming argument to devote a higher proportion of our GDP to education. I am referring to our education system from school through to university, including vocational education and training and the professional development of our teachers.

Professor Dowrick at the Australian National University has said that an increase of one year in schooling in average educational attainment can be expected to boost output levels by about 8% in a typical OECD economy. In addition there are growth implications arising from the country’s ability to implement new technologies.

In relation to innovation there is a strong case for further incentives for increased research and development expenditure. Australia’s R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP is relatively poor for a country with our standard of living.

The Howard government’s policy called “Backing Australia’s ability” is to be commended, as are the premises behind the Opposition’s 2001 “Knowledge nation” policy,and Dr. Brendan Nelson’s policy of deregulating universities to be more autonomous, accountable and better funded.

The argument for deregulation is strong and is partly about allowing our universities to expand at a faster rate than that which would take place from available government funding.

Our HECS scheme recognises that those who receive education are likely to have higher incomes, and loans for education can be repaid out of these higher incomes. This scheme is one of world leadership in reducing the barriers to education imposed by income and at the same time providing increased income to universities.

There is much to be commended in the area of education but much more to be done to ensure the future employment of our people and growth of our economy. We also need to recognise education as one of our major export industries.

The environment

Whether or not we accept the scientific arguments of global warming, whether or not we accept that global warming has an adverse overall impact on our planet and whether or not we agree to join the Kyoto agreement does not alter the argument of having an Australian policy of caring for our environment and leaving it in no worse state for our children.

We can talk about our good economic performance in terms of growth in GDP, and I will also be doing this today, but if we included the reduction in our national assets from environmental damage it would not be such a pretty picture.

The report Australia: the state of the environment 2001 concluded that we are not managing Australia’s environment on a sustainable basis. This should be a huge wake-up call to us all; similar to that which would arise if Australia won no gold medals at an Olympic Games.

It needs a whole of government approach, community involvement and the use of market mechanisms. We need to address whether this is an area that the States should hand over to the commonwealth and we need to recognise that addressing some issues such as the environment and security will involve restrictions on our private property rights and civil liberties. This needs to be well debated.

We have made some progress on urban air quality and more energy efficient homes. However there is much to be done in addressing the destruction of prime agricultural land through salinity and the degradation of water quality in our river system.

We certainly need a national water policy which would include resolving issues such as the proper price for water, water property rights and the overlap of the states and federal jurisdictions. We need to recognise that salinity is the white death that is spreading across our country.

It is estimated that the equivalent of one football field of productive land would have been lost to salinity during the hour of this lunch and the equivalent of 50 football fields of bushland will have been cleared.

On greenhouse emissions we need a positive policy that takes into account its effects on the international competitiveness of Australian industry and at the same applies a stick and a carrot approach so there are incentives for research. After-all, technology will be the ultimate answer to emissions.

Again we have made some progress. The Hawke government in 1990 established Landcare, in 1997 the howard government established the $2.5 billion National Heritage Trust; and in 2000 the Commonwealth and the States signed the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

But we need to move much faster and further. A good start would be a national resource management commission similar to our productivity commission. The report of the Wentworth Group of concerned scientists published in November 2002 called Blueprint for a living continent has numerous constructive proposals. We need to ensure that funds allocated for the environment are not only wisely spent in line with well-researched holistic policies but actually spent, and there is some evidence that this is not happening today.

I would like to see us develop an environmental policy that is particularly suited to our country and to execute it in a manner that receives international recognition and approval.

Economic growth

We need to maintain our annual economic growth at one half to one percent above the average for OECD countries. This is an area in which we have been doing well. Australia’s rate of growth in average income (GDP per head) was below the OECD average from 1950 to 1990 and our ranking among OECD countries slipped from 5th to 15th.

However in the 1990s this changed, with the growth in our GDP per head being 2.5% as against the OECD average of 1.7%. We have moved from 15th position to 7th.

In recent years we have enjoyed strong growth as we have benefitted from the economic reforms of earlier years; a low level for the Australian dollar until the last six months, low interest rates, some fiscal stimulus, a strong housing cycle, relatively little excess capacity from the world high-tech boom and a good government complemented by a professional reserve bank.

We need to maintain this strong economic growth as it provides the wherewithal to address the main issues facing the country. This means we must continue to embrace change and guard against reform fatigue. There are benefits to be won for all Australians from further deregulation of the labour market.

We will be facing increasing budgetary pressure from the social and health calls on government from an aging population. It is also likely we will choose to increase our defence expenditure from its current relatively low historical level of 2% of GDP.

With this pressure we will have to be far better at interweaving our income tax and social welfare systems to provide greater incentives for people to move from social welfare to employment, especially part time. We need to encourage our society to be more self reliant and in particular carefully examine benefits paid to middle and upper income groups. I think we have gone too far in taxing superannuation, which, if encouraged, has the capacity to reduce people’s reliance in old age on the government. We would do well to examine the central provident fund system that operates in Singapore.

I personally would favour being pro-active in identifying, nurturing and encouraging growth industries such as education, medical research, the provision of health services, food processing, our service industries, and tourism.


I am in favour of net migration at the highest level that we can assimilate migrants into our community, and I think this is towards the higher end of a range of one half to three quarters percent per annum of our population. An increasing population assists to create a dynamic, diverse and innovative economy. It is also supported by humanistic and defence arguments and encourages us to be more outward looking in what is a globalising world.

The aging structure of our population presents a significant problem. While today we have six people of working age for each person over 65 years, in thirty years there will only be three people to support our over 65s. This has implications for the number of people contributing to economic activity and paying taxes, and also in respect to what will be a significant rise in social and health costs.

The aging population means living standards could grow at a considerably lower rate in future than those to which we have become accustomed. With a slower growing economy and a greater demand for social and health services there will emerge budgetary problems as well as social issues.

We need policies to reduce the wastefulness of unemployment and to encourage higher labour market participation.

In this respect we have not as a society recognised that with people living to an older age their working life has also been extended. There are far too many productive people at all levels that retire or are made redundant while in their fifties. Often this is at the initiative of the employer to free up positions for younger, and in many cases more capable and energetic people.

We need to create a respected class of employment such as “extended service” whereby a person can continue on in employment, with honour and respect, while at the same time moving to a less senior job and at a lower salary. They would have a less stressful job while contributing their experience to the organisation. We need a title for such employment and to recognise that such people are not being demoted but entering into extended service. We would be moving to rewarding the position rather than the person. This would require changes to the law and we would need to relate any defined benefits pension to the person’s highest earnings period. We should also consider incentives to encourage people to work longer by say a lower tax rate on salary and wage related income for those over sixty years of age.

Australia’s interface with the outside world

We have a world in which the USA has 4% of the world’s population and at market exchange rates 32% of world GDP. The other side of the coin is China with 22% of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s GDP. We have the pre-eminence of America as the world economic and military force, and the only comparable power that I can foresee is the emergence of China over the next fifty years. We have slow growth in Europe and the emergence of Asia as the increasingly important third economic region.

We are fortunate in having a close relationship with the USA through trade and shared democratic principles and values.

We are geographically located in East Asia with considerable trade in goods and increasingly of professional services; in tourism with approximately two million of the five million short term visitors to Australia coming from East Asia – that is 40%; and through students from East Asia coming to Australia. There are at any time around 140,000 students from East Asia or 75% of the total number of foreign students in Australia.

However we need to engage more with East Asia. Australia’s capital investment in East Asia is very low, averaging only around $110 million per annum over the last five years. We need a greater understanding of the culture, history, and languages of these countries, their distribution systems and their ways of doing business. We need greater investment in each others countries and in time representation both ways on the boards of each others leading companies.

We also need to focus more on our region and to recognise that to the countries of the South Pacific we can be seen as a relative super-power. Our position and strength in the region brings with it associated responsibilities. There is a role to be played by us in conjunction with their governments in the maintenance of law and order, in the training of their people, and in the formulation of appropriate development policies. I am thinking in particular of countries such as PNG and the Solomon Islands.

There are many other issues, some of them of great significance, on which I have not commented. These include security, taxation, health services, the drug problem, the position of our indigenous people and regional and infrastructure development.

In passing I would comment on health services that I think we are waiting for someone to design a futuristic system that moves medical remuneration from the input basis of treating sick patients to an output system that rewards doctors for looking after the health of a certain number in our community.

Now let me indulge and comment on a few issues on which I have a particular interest. One is our process of government. We have a good system but it would benefit from review and consideration being given to whether we move from three year parliaments to four year parliaments (which I would favour); the role of the Senate and whether it needs to be as large as it is, (given that it was originally set up to represent the interests of the individual states); whether we should have a reduced number of members of parliament and pay them higher remuneration; and how parliamentary debate might be improved.

We are in need of a national energy policy that encourages the use of various sources of energy including our natural gas reserves and renewable energy and provides incentives for energy efficient initiatives. We clearly need to encourage new investment in exploration and the development of our energy supply infrastructure. We need to examine changes to the petroleum resource rent tax to encourage deep water exploration and the development of marginal oil accumulations and stranded gas reserves. We also need a policy to arrest the decline since 1998 in our annual mineral exploration expenditure.

Another issue is our unfair treatment of expatriates in the areas of offshore superannuaton and capital gains on offshore assets. I wonder why we have enquiries every decade as to how Sydney could be a regional financial centre when we do not address some simple people issues such as the disadvantage faced by international professionals staying in this country for more than five years. There is no reason why we should not have policies that have us talking of a brain gain rather than a brain drain.

Another question is that of our foreign investment policy. As a country it is quite clear that we do and should welcome foreign investment, however it is also important to have a national identity in our business sector if we are to retain energy, cohesiveness and diversity in our society. It is the head offices of companies that are the centre of gravity that attracts the top talented people and provides the ancillary business to the investment banking, legal and accounting professions.

Corporate governance is not in my view one of our main issues but because of the nature of the gathering today I would like to make a few comments. Actually I do not think it is a problem in australia. To me corporate governance is about a board undertaking an active monitoring of the company’s activities and ensuring that integrity prevails within the company. It requires an environment that encourages well-informed, challenging and constructive discussion. The board needs to know and carry out its duties, and for this to happen there needs to be open disclosure between management and the board. While we will be encouraged to a more compliance mode we should remember that Enron, on paper, had all the corporate boxes ticked.

To conclude, the main issues facing Australia are well known as are many of the solutions. The way forward is for us as a community to intelligently and passionately demand bolder action on our major long term issues. We need to demand from the government a blueprint of their vision for the future and more importantly the actions they propose for our country to go forward and realise its full potential.We also need to realise that it is not only a matter for the government but there is an important role for the private sector and the whole community. If you asked me the two longer term issues foremost in my mind, they are education and the environment.

Howard’s ‘disruption programme’

As we ponder the lies our government told us on Iraq – on WMDs, on why he went to war, on when he decided to go to war – here’s a speech John Faulkner, Labor’s Senate leader and chief questioner at the unthrown children/SIEV-X inquiry, gave to the Fabian Society in Melbourne tonight on the inquiry’s aftermath.

A Certain Maritime Incident – the aftermath

by John Faulkner


In February 2002 the Labor Party, with the agreement of the minor parties in the Senate, established a Senate Select Committee to examine fully the children overboard incident. We wanted this inquiry, called the Certain Maritime Incident Committee or CMI Committee, to uncover the truth about the children overboard lie – the how, when and why of the Government’s deceit.

While the CMI Committee enabled us to investigate the children overboard lie, it also allowed us to scrutinise many aspects of the Howard Government’s asylum seeker policy.

Today, because of the work of the CMI Committee – especially the work of my colleagues Jacinta Collins and Peter Cook, we know a great deal more about the Government’s response to asylum seekers than otherwise would be the case. David Marr, who co-authored Dark Victory, believes that if it were not for the CMI Committee most of this information would not have been revealed to public scrutiny until 30 years after the event . The exhaustive cross-examination of witnesses would not have taken place.

The response to boat people or asylum seekers was the main focus of the Howard Government in the lead up to the last federal election. The Government’s strategy was based on politicising the asylum seeker issue for electoral advantage. It wasn’t just the Tampa episode, or the bald faced lies about children being thrown overboard, it was a systematic campaign to engender public fear about asylum seekers and the need to protect our borders against them at all costs.

But, what has interested me most of all about the Howard Government’s asylum seeker policy is the largely unknown policy to deter and disrupt people smugglers and asylum seekers in Indonesia – the so calleddisruption programme.

Tonight I want to focus on the disruption programme – the most clandestine part of the Howard Government’s people smuggling policy. Very substantial resources in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta have been used to support this policy and yet we still know little about the programme. What we do know raises serious questions that warrant serious answers.

CMI Committee – expansion of the terms of reference

It may surprise you to know that it was the Liberal Senators on the CMI Committee who wanted to expand the Committees’ terms of reference so that all aspects of the Government’s anti-people smuggling policy could be examined. Originally the CMI Committee was only going to look at the children overboard episode.

Labor agreed to their proposal. The Liberals thought this expansion would be politically beneficial. They thought they could expose the behaviour of desperate asylum seekers and “dehumanise” them. How wrong they were. I believe this was a real political own goal because it gave us a capacity to raise questions regarding the Tampa, SIEV-X and the Government’s disruption policy.


While the Government has claimed that Operation Relex (which aims to deter asylum seeker vessels approaching Australia through constant sea and air surveillance between Australia and Indonesia) had a significant impact on deterring asylum seekers from taking risky voyages to Australia by boat, I’m sure the SIEV-X disaster also had a great impact.

The people smuggling vessel now referred to as SIEV-X was organised by people smuggler Abu Quassey. On the 19th October 2001, a day after SIEV-X set sail for Australia, the vessel suddenly sank. Three hundred and fifty three people, including 142 women and 146 children, drowned . After a night in the water, two fishing boats rescued just 44 survivors from SIEV-X.

The news that SIEV-X had sunk killing around 350 passengers received worldwide coverage. This coverage sent a clear message of the high risks of such a voyage.

Much has been written about the SIEV-X disaster since that time. The CMI Committee investigated why the Australian Defence Force, who were surveilling the area where SIEV-X sank, by air and by sea, did not sight the vessel.

Even the question of where SIEV-X sank has been extraordinarily difficult to nail down. Let’s examine the evidentiary record.

Two pieces of evidence support claims SIEV-X sank in Indonesian waters:

1. The Defence Department Operation Gaberdine/Op Relex report dated 23 October 2001 stated SIEV-X “is suspected to have sunk inside ID TS [Indonesian Territorial Seas]”; and

2. Defence Head of Staff Brigadier Millen at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta phoned through to Canberra on the 23rd October that SIEV-X “sunk in Indonesian territorial seas”.

Four other pieces of evidence support claims SIEV-X sank in International waters:

1. The People Smuggling taskforce notes from the 23 October 2001 state “Vessel likely to have been in international waters south of Java”;

2. A DFAT Cable dated 23 October 2001 indicates “The exact position of the vessel at the time of sinking is unknown but it is judged as no further south than 8 degrees south latitude on a direct line from Sunda Strait to Christmas Is”;

3. A DIMA Intelligence Note dated 23 October 2001 states “At about 1400 hours on Friday [19 October], when approximately 60 Nautical Miles south of the Sunda Strait, the boat began taking water and finally capsized and sank at about 1500 hours”; and

4. A report from the Harbourmaster’s office at Sundu Kelapa in North Jakarta dated 24 October 2001 indicates that the fishing boats rescued the survivors from SIEV-X in international waters.

Given this evidence how could John Howard have claimed during the election campaign that SIEV-X “sank in Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters. It sunk in Indonesian waters and apparently that is our fault” .

As far as the Australian Defence Force is concerned I am sure it would be in their interest to end the public debate over Operation Relex’s surveillance at the time of SIEV-X’s sinking. And the best way to do that is to have as much information on the public record as possible about the ADF’s operations.

I note the ADF worked assiduously to cooperate with the CMI Committee – even when the Government and Defence Minister Robert Hill were deliberately obstructive.

That said, and I want to make this clear, we have seen no evidence to support claims that the Australian Defence Force ignored the plight of those onboard SIEV-X. And without any evidence I will draw no such conclusions.

But Labor Senators will not shirk from seeking answers to questions on these issues. We have not done so in the past and we will certainly not do so if further questions arise.

Regardless, I do believe the circumstances surrounding the departure from Indonesia of SIEV-X warrant further and closer investigation.

SIEV-X survivors themselves have provided information about their voyage that raises serious concern.

Before SIEV-X departed it was very low in the water and horribly overcrowded, carrying four times the number of passengers a vessel of its size should carry . About 30 Indonesian police were present. They beat some of the passengers and forced asylum seekers to board at gunpoint. The police appeared to be actively involved in the people smuggling operation .

SIEV-X survivor Issam Ismail’s account is disturbing:

“The Indonesian Police were there. They were carrying automatic guns. They were so comfortable. They were the ones who gave the signals with their torches. Turning on the torch was a signal to send out people. Turning off the torch meant stop. That was how it was done. We saw them with our own eyes. They had weapons we had never seen before. The latest brands”.

It only took minutes for SIEV-X to sink. Bahram Khan, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan, said: “The hull sprang a hole. The mechanic could not fix it and the boat sank.”

On the 25 October 2001 Prime Minister Howard was reported to be seeking more information about whether the reports that Indonesian security personnel forced asylum seekers onto SIEV-X at gunpoint were true. Since then the Prime Minister has not made public what information, if any, he received about the situation surrounding the departure of SIEV-X.

SIEVX was not the only people smuggling vessel to get a send off from Indonesian authorities.

As journalist Lindsay Murdoch reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001:

“Boats [from Indonesia] carrying hundreds of people have sunk, drowning all aboard. Some survivors say Indonesian authorities have, at times, helped push boats out to sea knowing they are not seaworthy.”

These boats include the KM Palapa which sank heading for the Australian coast. Those on board the KM Palapa were rescued by the Tampa, the Norwegian cargo ship. Passengers on the KM Palapa last year told a court case in Perth that the Indonesian National Police were involved in the people smuggling operation that organised the departure of their vessel from Indonesia .


But there is an untold story of the Howard Government’s anti-people smuggling policy – the disruption programme – the policy to deter and disrupt people smugglers and asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat from Indonesia.

Last year I was able to explore the Government’s disruption policy through the CMI Committee and at Senate Estimate hearings.

The people smuggling disruption programme can take a number of forms, for example through Australian officials informing people in Indonesia of the dangers and risks associated with people smuggling and the penalties they might face.

I have no problem with this at all – but there was a more active element.

The Australian Federal Police explained last year, in broad terms, that the primary objective of disruption is to:

“… prevent the departure of the vessel in the first instance, to deter or dissuade passengers from actually boarding a vessel.”

The Department of Immigration goes further, indicating that disruption involves the “interception at the actual point of attempting to continue their journey, either by sea or air”.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty informed the CMI Committee that once the Indonesians are tasked to disrupt then the AFP must leave it in their hands “as to how best they do it” .

AFP witnesses at the CMI Committee could not categorically rule out whether, as a result of the people smuggling disruption program:

* fuel suppliers had been encouraged not to supply fuel to people smuggling vessels;

* food had not been provided to people smuggling vessels;

* sugar had been put in the fuel tank of a people smuggling vessel, or that;

* sand was put in the engine of a vessel .

But what is deeply concerning about the disruption program is that there appear to be no accountability mechanisms – nothing to ensure that Australia’s disruption policy does not lead to illegal or life threatening events, either directly or indirectly.

We still do not know if disruption extends to physical interference with vessels, nor do we know what consideration has been given to questions of maritime safety.

Last year AFP informant Kevin Enniss, who admitted to taking money from asylum seekers, also, according to Channel Nine’s Sunday programme, bragged that he had paid Indonesian locals to scuttle people smuggling boats with passengers onboard on four or five occasions. Mr Enniss claimed that boats were sunk close to land so everyone got off safely . Mr Enniss has since denied involvement in sabotaging vessels in Indonesia .

We do know a number of Australian agencies are involved in the People Smuggling Disruption Programme. Along with the Australian Federal Police – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) all have a role.

Slowly but surely, details about Government funding and resources to support the disruption programme in Indonesia are coming to light.

Specifically in relation to ASIS, Dark Victory reports one Canberra source claimed that the Abu Quassey boat (SIEV-X) was a target of ASIS – Australia’s Foreign Intelligence Service – which by this stage had been instructed by the Australian Government to disrupt people smuggling operations in Indonesia .

Thanks to our questioning in Senate Committees we now know of:

* The establishment of the Canberra based Joint Agency People-Smuggling Strike Team, consisting of fifteen officers from the AFP and Immigration;

* The creation of a Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet led People Smuggling Task Force that met on a daily basis before the last election;

* A specific protocol between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police to target people smuggling syndicates operating out of Indonesia;

* Two Immigration positions at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta created to primarily work on people smuggling matters;

* Two AFP agents working out of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and reporting back to the people smuggling taskforce in Canberra on disruption activities, and

* An Inter-Agency Co-ordination Group on People Smuggling at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta involving the Ambassador and Foreign Affairs, Immigration, Australian Federal Police and Defence representatives. We know that disruption activities are a key focus of this group.

Minister’s knowledge of disruption?

Last year I began asking questions about Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock’s trip to Jakarta in June 2001 but received little information from any of the departments involved.

According to Dark Victory, when Mr Ruddock met with the Inter-Agency People Smuggling Group on the 13 June 2001 at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta he raised the issue of piracy, and why pirates were not targeting asylum seeker vessels.

Dark Victory sources claim that some present at the meeting thought Mr Ruddock might be “thinking of some covert action involving pirates”. AFP officer Leigh Dixon expressed frustration at Mr Ruddock’s line of questioning and eventually cut him off saying he was unaware of the actions of pirates.

Asked for a response to these allegations Mr Ruddock appeared to confirm the conversation about pirates to the authors of Dark Victory David Marr and Marian Wilkinson when he stated, and I quote:

“There had been a great deal of public comment on that topic around the time of several meetings I had during visits to Indonesia.”

Mr Ruddock also provided Marr and Wilkinson with a copy of an article dated 19th July 2001 about the issue of piracy. However this article explains little as it simply indicates that piracy was a growing problem in the region, and that pirates primarily target cargo ships not people smuggling vessels. I note the article was published a month after Mr Ruddock’s visit to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, so it sheds no light on why he would have raised the issue of piracy at the Embassy meeting.

In fact a search for media articles about the issue of piracy before Mr Ruddock’s visit to Jakarta in June 2001 draws a blank.

It is unclear why Mr Ruddock raised the issue of piracy at the Jakarta meeting – it is clearly time for Mr Ruddock to explain himself.

According one of Wilkinson and Marr’s sources who attended the same meeting, Mr Ruddock also asked whether people smuggler boats could be stopped by physically interfering with them. Mr Ruddock allegedly asked in a joking tone: “Well could we interfere with the boats?” Apparently in response Federal Agent Dixon reminded Mr Ruddock of obligations under Australian law. The conversation ended when Ruddock laughed the matter off and said it was just a concept in the air.

Mr Ruddock has not said whether the issue of sabotage was raised at this meeting. Mr Ruddock has told David Marr and Marian Wilkinson: “I have no formal recollection of any of those discussions which I am prepared to discuss”. Again, Mr Ruddock should come clean and say what he knows, or knew, about any covert operations involving people smuggling vessels in Indonesia.

Since the publication of Dark Victory Commissioner Keelty has confirmed that AFP Officer Leigh Dixon, who was present at the June 2001 meeting, discussed this matter with his superiors. Commissioner Keelty has told a Senate Committee that when he heard about the June meeting in Jakarta involving Mr Ruddock he “expressed concern”.

Let me say I have serious concerns about what took place at that meeting on 13 June 2001 at our embassy in Jakarta. I can assure you we will continue to investigate what transpired at the meeting and what resulted from it.

In September 2001 the Indonesian Government cancelled the protocol on people smuggling between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police. We still don’t know why the protocol was cancelled. I have been informed by highly placed sources that the cancellation was at least in part due to the Indonesian Government’s concerns about the disruption programme.

Despite the cancellation of the protocol, the Australian Federal Police and their Indonesian counterparts agreed that disruption activities could continue, on a case by case arrangement.

From documents tabled at the CMI Committee it is clear that such activities did continue after the protocol was cancelled. According to the Government’s People Smuggling Task Force notes on the 12 October, just a week before SIEV-X sank, the taskforce discussed ways of “beefing up” disruption activity in Indonesia. According to Commissioner Keelty this probably was an “operational call along the lines of: ‘The departure of the vessel is imminent; we’d better be doing everything we can possibly do'” to stop the vessel.”

What I want to know about the disruption program in Indonesia is what precisely Australian or Indonesian authorities were doing in order to disrupt vessels? What activities were acceptable or sanctioned; what were not? Where were the checks? What were the accountability measures? How can we be satisfied lives were not put at risk?

It is all very well for Australian authorities to assure us that everything done in Indonesia to disrupt people smuggling vessels was legal. But given that no accountability mechanisms appeared to be in place, how can we be sure?

I believe the only way we can be certain that nothing illegal or inappropriate has occurred under the auspices of the disruption program is through a full and independent judicial inquiry. I have consistently called for such an inquiry to be established. The CMI Committee in its final report also called for such an inquiry. Its establishment remains a high priority.

Australian Government focus after 11 September 2001

While the Howard Government was beefing up its disruption programme in Indonesia, the world was beginning to focus on the very real threat of terrorism after the attacks in America on September 11.

September 11 was more than just a wake up call to the nations of South East Asia. It became clear very quickly that al Qaeda was active in our region. In December 2001 the Singapore Government’s Internal Security Department arrested and detained 13 members of the al Qaeda-affiliated group Jemaah Islamiah who were planning to bomb a number of sites in Singapore possibly including the United States and Israeli Embassies and the Australian High Commission.

The Singapore High Commissioner Ashok Mirpuri, in a letter to the Australian Financial Review in April 2002 indicated “only the blind would have missed the increased religiosity and radicalism of Islam” in South East Asia and even his Government had been surprised to find that “jihad terrorism” could win converts in Singapore .

Australia’s intelligence effort in Jakarta

It is interesting to note that according to Dark Victory, while intelligence chiefs in Canberra after September 11 switched their focus and priority to the terrorist threat at home and abroad, Australia’s intelligence effort in Jakarta remained strongly focused on people smuggling. This was despite the warnings the United States Embassy in Jakarta gave to the Australian Embassy about the activities of al Qaeda in Indonesia.

Marian Wilkinson has claimed that there is a serious question mark over whether the Government gave the al-Qaeda threat in Indonesia the attention it demanded before the Bali bombings. An intelligence expert even told Wilkinson: “Those of us who believed the threat was there were called alarmists and pessimists, but we called ourselves realists.”

Research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, Rohan Gunaratna, has expressed similar concerns:

“Despite a dozen Australian citizens and residents having participated in JI and Al Qaeda training camps from Mindanao in the Philippines to Afghanistan, the Government’s assessments and operational agencies did not believe that the threat was ‘significant’ until the Bali bombings happened.”

Howard Government’s response to September 11

So there is an issue here, because although the Howard Government announced a number of counter terrorism initiatives after September 11 Australia’s focus in Indonesia appears to have remained well and truly on the electorally sensitive issue of people smuggling.

Well, could more have been done in the fight against terrorism in our region?

Let’s look at the record. Let’s compare the initiatives the Government has taken in our region on people smuggling to those it has taken in the fight against terrorism, particularly after September 11.

In 2000 the Howard Government signed a specific protocol under the existing MOU with Indonesia to “target people smuggling syndicates operating out of Indonesia”.

In 2002 Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia to counter terrorism.

In February 2002 and in April 2003 Australia and Indonesia co-chaired a Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. In two to three years time there will be another regional conference on people smuggling.

In March 2003 Alexander Downer announced that the Howard Government would organise in the next year an ASEAN regional workshop on managing the consequences of a terrorist attack as well as arranging with the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific a regional conference on security issues including terrorism. However to date the Australian Government has not organised a regional conference specifically focused on fighting terrorism – despite Labor’s calls for one.

In early 2002 Australia created the new position of Ambassador for People Smuggling “to promote a coherent and effective international approach to combating people smuggling, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region”.

In early 2003, almost six months after the Bali Bombings, the Government created the new position of an Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism. Last weekend it was announced that the Counter-Terrorism Ambassador Nick Warner, who had only been in the job for a few months, would now lead the Australian intervention force in the Solomons. What does this mean for Mr Warner’s role as Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism?

Don’t forget that the Howard Government has tried to link the terrorism and asylum seeker issues. During the last election campaign the Howard Government made the false claim that asylum seekers arriving on boats might be terrorists.

It was the then Defence Minister Peter Reith who first made this outrageous claim in a blaze of publicity – without any evidence to support it at all.

In the final week of the 2001 election campaign John Howard told the public and I quote:

“I mean you have to be able to say that there is a possibility that some people having links with organisations that we don’t want in this country might use the path of an asylum seeker in order to get here.”

Again, there was no truth to this claim. As ASIO Director Dennis Richardson indicated last year, none of the illegal immigrants arriving in Australia by boat to date had “received an adverse security assessment in terms of posing a direct or indirect threat to Australia’s security”. Richardson debunked the idea at a conference in Hobart in May 2002 when he said:

“Why would people use the asylum seeker stream when they know they will be subject to mandatory detention?”

The Government’s claims that asylum seekers might be terrorists were really low rent politics from a low rent Government. What else would you expect from the same Government who were directing the Defence Department during the 2001 election not to take “personalising or humanising images” of asylum seekers . Put simply, suggesting asylum seekers might be terrorists was just another way to fudge the facts and debase the political process right at the most sensitive time of the electoral cycle.


When another asylum seeker boat arrived off the West Australian Coast a couple of weeks ago with about 50 Vietnamese people onboard seeking asylum, John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland .

An awful lot of taxpayer’s dollars have already been spent. But have there been other costs?

What has been the cost of the Howard Government’s disruption programme in Indonesia – not just the financial cost?

I said recently in Parliament and I have no reason to change my view:

The issue of sabotage of people smugglers’ vessels has been canvassed by the AFP informant Kevin Enniss. I ask these questions: was Enniss involved in the sabotage of vessels? Were others involved in the sabotage of vessels? Do Australian ministers, officials or agencies have knowledge of such activities? And what about the vessel now known as SIEV-X, part of the people-smuggling operation of the notorious people smuggler Abu Quassey? That vessel set sail on 18 October 2001 and sank on 19 October 2001, drowning 353 people, including 142 women and 146 children. Were disruption activities directed against Abu Quassey? Did these involve SIEV-X?

I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters.

Ladies and Gentleman, I hope you agree that although this issue may not be popular and although these matters may not win many votes, a serious Opposition cannot resile from pursuing them and holding the Howard Government and its Ministers accountable for their decisions and their actions.

Journalism discussed

Since the David Kelly scandal revolves around confidentiality of sources, here’s an edited transcript of an interview post-graduate law student Georgia Price did with me on the topic on May 16 this year. Media accountability gets a going over too.


Georgia: Have you ever given promises of confidentiality to sources before?

Margo: Yes.

Georgia: Do you adopt any particular methodologies in your work practices, in the notes that you take or anything like that, so that your sources can’t be discovered by anyone? Perhaps even to the stage where if there was any kind of court order to look at your notes that it would be impossible to trace them back to the source?

Margo: In matters of particular sensitivity where the leak could be considered a breach of the Crimes Act I have shredded cabinet submissions, so that if the police ask I just haven’t got it.

Georgia: Has pressure ever been applied to you by anyone to reveal a confidential source?

Margo: There was one case years ago when I got a cabinet submission. Crean was the Minister. It was, I think, a cabinet submission on something to do with training type stuff. It was one of those leaks that once it was made public they had to change their policy. They called in the Federal Police and I had to go and do an interview with the Federal Police, but I wouldn’t say they put pressure on me. They said ‘Where did you get that from’ and I said ‘I’m not telling you’, and they’d gone to the department and they’d worked out all these people in the department who had past connections to me, some of them whom I’d completely forgotten, and the police said to me ‘Do you know this person’ (I refused to comment.)

Georgia: Ok. Have you ever disclosed the identity of a confidential source?

Margo: To whom?

Georgia: To anyone in a professional capacity, I suppose. Anyone who asks for it –

Margo: Yes, I have.

Georgia: Yes, ok, and what were your considerations in disclosing the source.

Margo: I can’t remember any particular examples, but once or twice I have disclosed the identity of the source to my editor on the basis that I was trying to … it’s in cases where you’re writing something that’s a shock. For example if I wanted to write ‘The numbers are there for Mark Latham to challenge for the leadership’, Noone would think that. And I would disclose in the context of: “This story is cast-iron, the source will not be able to be revealed, so I’ll have to write “it is understood” or just write it as fact and I want the story on page one.’

Georgia: Right.

Margo: So it’s a reassurance for the editor that the story is well based.

Georgia: And did any consequences flow from you disclosing the source to your editor? Did anything ever happen?

Margo: No, it was disclosed on a confidential basis.

Georgia: Right, so it never went outside the publication, in other words.

Margo: No.

Georgia: Ok. Moving onto issues of journalistic ethics. Are you a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance?

Margo: Yes.

Georgia: Do you know about the protection of sources clause in the Code of Ethics of the Australian Journalists’ Association?

Margo: Not really, I know there is one. I just have my own. It’s just something you say to sources. I mean often you don’t even say that you won’t reveal your source to your source.

Georgia: Right.

Margo: It sort of depends on the relationship.

Georgia: So it’s not like they would make a formal-type request

Margo: Well, it’s understood. So in one sense it’s a matter of personal honour to fulfil a promise and in the broader professional sense it’s a cornerstone of the profession’s ability to achieve the results we’re there for which is to uncover the truth.

Georgia: Right.

Margo: God knows, there’s enough against us. You know, like we’re now against the machine, the establishment, the establishment’s machine, you know, the constant flow of journalists who, unforgivably in my view, go off to the other side and get paid double the money to snow you. We have many many impediments to doing a reasonable job and this is one of the few things we’ve got going for us. If you’re in a job where you are concerned with public policy or matters of public interest, it’s one of the things we’ve got going for us: the well-understood notion that we will not reveal our confidential sources to the extent of going to jail if that’s necessary.

Georgia: Right.

Margo: There is a downside to all this which worries me. Which is that – well an extreme case of it is – I don’t know if you read about this New York Times person –

Georgia: Yes, Jayson Blair.

Margo: That that can be used by unscrupulous or unprofessional journalists to cover for the fact that they might have gone further than what their source said or that they are running a line for sources. And, you know, in political journalism and police journalism in particular you can become captured by your sources, either deliberately or otherwise, so that you do lose an accountability mechanism by this obligation. This does worry me but I really can’t see any way out of it.

Georgia: What about rather than just perhaps misquoting a source or using information irresponsibly, what about the complete fabrication of sources? And then trying to pass that information off as anonymous? Have you ever known anything like that to happen?

Margo: Not personally, but it’s certainly something that could happen and that has been shown has happened, the use of made-up quotes.

Georgia: Yes, it’s actually something that the courts allude to quite a lot in the contempt of court cases that journalists are involved in: that they’re not really willing to extend the law any further than what it is at the moment because there are fears about the fabrication of sources.

Margo: Well, there are accountability issues.

Georgia: Ok. Do you think that there are sufficient disciplinary processes in place at the moment for journalists who, for example, breach their Code of Ethics in those kinds of situations like fabrication of sources or any other ethical breach?

Margo: Well, I mean, there is effectively no external accountability. I’ve written about this extensively. I’m actually an advocate of regulation.

Georgia: Are you?

Margo: Yes. Which is a very minority position.

Georgia: I’m actually, in the conclusion I’m coming to, I’m starting to lean a little bit more towards that.

Margo: I gave a speech (see Ethics overboard: How to promote integrity in the moment of choice) to an interesting group in NSW called the ‘Corruption Prevention Network’. It’s a group of public servants, basically auditors, across departments who do this informal networking thing basically because ethics is an issue at a stage where tokenistic measures are required to be taken. So you have an ethics officer in a department or corporation or something, but no one will take a scrap of notice of them so they form these networks to try and give each other moral support for an impossible duty.

I did the keynote for them last year and floated a proposal for better ethical accountability across the professions and included journalism in that. Now, I know journalism is not a profession – God knows what it is but it’s not a profession. However, just for the sake of this I included it as a profession. The approach I advocated (it’s just an idea, it’s nothing I’ve gone into great detail with, just meant to open the discussion) is that I do feel that self-regulation, of itself, is unworkable. And I think that’s been shown in the accountancy professions and the legal profession, surveying and journalism.

It is a recipe for cover-ups, looking after mates and putting things in the bottom drawer. So I thought it would be a good idea if the government had framework legislation which different professions would register under. There could be a body that’s elected, or community reps or whatever; there would be powers, disciplinary powers, but what you’re doing is setting up a framework. There would be no other government involvement, so that the membership of the board running it would be worked out by the profession – elected or appointed community reps. Their procedures would be their own etc etc but they would have power to enforce compliance. It would be, I think, particularly suited to journalism where the real problem conceptually is government regulation of the press, which is always a no-no because of what that means in democratic terms.

One of the key indicators of a society that is transforming from democracy to fascism or dictatorship is government control of the press. The exception in Australia was the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal which was established under the philosophy that a TV licence is a privilege. To earn continued use of that privilege you had to prove every three years that you were fit and proper and ethics came into it. I was a big supporter of that, mainly because it helped to get Alan Bond. But it also put Alan Jones and some of the more irresponsible people on the block and required them and their employers to justify some of their more extreme actions. But we all know what happened to that – Labor abolished that form of accountability and you’ll never get that back.

Georgia: So, did you envisage, for this body that you talk of which has certain powers, did you envisage compulsory membership to some kind of professional organisation for journalists? Such that the powers of such a body might extend to suspension, or fines in that particular

Margo: In theory I would, but that would never, ever happen. There’s particular difficulty with journalism in that it isn’t a profession. There is no problem making it compulsory for architects, accountants, lawyers, engineers and so on, because to call themselves that they have to have done specific courses and graduated in those courses and do all this training business. There’s no problem with every lawyer belonging to the Law Society. You’ve got to be admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of that jurisdiction to do so.

But with journalism, I mean I’m not trained! I was a lawyer. I had a career crisis early (luckily). When I was 27 I wrote to the Courier Mail and said ‘Can I be a cadet?’ and they wrote back and said yes. And I started work on Monday. So there’s nothing specific at all, anyone can do it, and of course the other thing is that some of the most powerful people in the media are proud to say they’re not journalists. John Laws, Alan Jones, and I don’t think any of the shock jocks are journalists apart from the guy at 3AW, Neil Mitchell. So, I mean, what do you do with this?

Georgia: Yes, you can’t just not allow them to broadcast.

Margo: Oh you can’t do that.

Georgia: That’s right.

Margo: So I take the approach that the former president of our union took, a guy called Tom Burton who is now managing editor of the Herald. When he was president his vision was to professionalise journalism through voluntary means, to transform the Alliance as far as it related to journalists into more of a professional association. So that to say that you’re a member of that is to say that there are certain guarantees you can make as a journalist, and that’s something I’m trying to follow through with on the Webdiary.

I’ve written a chapter for a book that’s coming out on media ethics edited by Catharine Lumby and I’ve done a chapter on online ethics. It was, you know, quite difficult trying to work out what Webdiary’s ethics were and how they differed from the ethics of hard copy journalism. And I’ve found that they’re different – totally different! You know, you have to adapt them. But as part of that process I thought I’ll put that chapter up and I’ll put up the Alliance Code of Ethics and the means for complaint; and the Herald’s Code of Ethics, and the means of reader’s complaint under that. Of course there are none – we still can’t work out how to enforce it because it’s such a minefield.

So I’ve just come up with my own method which is that if you think Webdiary has breached the Herald’s Code of Ethics then you can complain to my boss, the editor of the Herald online and send a copy to me and we will print your complaint and our reply online. So the idea is to say well, you know, ethics are my responsibility. Then I drafted a Webdiary Code of Ethics, which was what my duties were, and then what contributor’s duties are.

The interesting thing about interactivity is that contributors have no ethical duties in theory, but I have certain expectations and so should other readers, really. So, for example, ‘Please don’t plagiarise and if you do and I find out I will expose you on Webdiary and here are the reasons you shouldn’t plagiarise and it’s very easy not to.’ For example, if you really like an article, send me the link! And if you really like someone’s ideas, tell me that you like this idea and why.

As soon as I put up that chapter I’m going to put all this up and the risk of course is that you’ll get these mad bloody Palestinians or Israelis picking you up on every f#!king thing. So I’ve reserved the right to rule out frivolous complaints, but on the basis that I will run them and then say this is frivolous and I’m not going to say anymore. But they still get their say , and hopefully I’ll have a different link on the right-hand column where these complaints and answers can be stored so that people who come to Webdiary in the future and are interested in the approach it takes ethically can look at all the previous things that have been spoken about. Hopefully the archive builds precedents.

And the other thing I’m going to say is that Webdiary’s Code of Ethics is a draft Code and please have input into that. Now, most readers aren’t really interested in it at all. But I’m hoping to encourage that interest.

Georgia: Yes, rather than the interest of fanatical people who would seek out that of response.

Margo: It’s a bit hard for me, because I’m some kind of lightening rod for the right and some sort of symbol for the left so I’m bound to get some pretty rough things. But I stick to the view that I am very loathe to see ethics in a black letter law sense. I think that’s one of the really damaging things about black letter, because it means that it’s just an open invitation for lawyers and others to say, ‘What’s the way around that?”. Whereas I see ethics as statements of broad principles which underpin the professional’s role in society and they are therefore, (1) ideals to strive for, which by definition one will never meet completely, and (2) principles to apply in particular cases which can be very difficult to resolve.

So part of my idea for this sort of self-regulation body with a legislative framework is that the particular profession involved or members of it are encouraged to seek advisory opinions when they get a little knot in their stomach BEFORE before they act. And for those advisory opinions to be pro forma so that they don’t disclose the identity of people who seek advisory opinions, but to have a constant flow of – well one member had this issue and this is what we thought, and encourage discussion.

And then if there is a breach, unless it’s terrible thing like a basic conflict of interest where you’re ripping of people, then the first offence or whatever is a reprimand with reasons given. So what you’re trying to do there is create an atmosphere where ethics are routinely, as a matter of mainstream discourse for the profession, discussed and debated. Not something that, you know, you find out about later or you think, oh dear, I’ve f#!ked up that one or something hits you like a ton of bricks.

Ethics have been delegitimised, and I blame economic rationalism, but I blame economic rationalism for everything concerned with the collapse of values in society. Ethics are an impediment to making money, that’s what they are! And not only aren’t ethics valued in our current value system, but it is a rod on your back if you’ve got them! You’ll make much less money if you’ve got ethics.

Georgia: So just an obstacle –

Margo: Yeah! And people who’ve got ethics are stupid, or troublemakers, and bosses are terribly uncomfortable with ethical people in their organisation because it’s such a confrontation. You know, maybe you should think about that – ‘Oh god, help me! No thank you.’

Georgia: So maybe we need to be thinking about ethics more, as you said, before breaches occur. To bring them back as part of the everyday activities of – not only journalists but we could talk about any profession – and open discussion, rather than just examining when someone might have done something really bad. Try and bring them back into everyday work and life and try and anticipate ethical problems in the workplace as society develops and as we have these things, like online web diaries or online journalism.

Margo: It’s a way of distinguishing Webdiary from your regular web log. You know, I am under constraints that webloggers aren’t. And you know, ideally, I’d like to see in time web loggers who wish to be able to say that they comply an ethical code to get together and form an association and come up with their own ethical code. Which, naturally, I think creates confidence in readers. With Webdiary, people who read it know that if I make a mistake it will be corrected as soon as it comes to my attention, it’s as simple as that.

Georgia: I just wanted to quickly ask you a couple of questions about the law as it stands at the moment on protection of sources. NSW is the only jurisdiction at the moment that has a statutory privilege, so to speak, whereby journalists might be allowed to refuse to reveal their sources in court. The judge has to weigh up any possible harm flowing from disclosure of the source with the obvious public interest in having all information available to a court to properly administer justice.

Margo: Oh bullshit. The courts treat journalism with contempt. Basically all they care about is protecting corporate interests as far as I’m concerned. I have nothing but contempt for the courts in this regard. In particular defamation. And they can get f#!ked. No, honestly, they can get f!#ked, as far as I’m concerned.

Georgia: Yes, defamation is the usual arena in which this issue comes up because if someone is trying to sue someone and they don’t know who defames them –

Margo: What are the systems in place to stop the public knowing the truth? There’s the Crimes Act, there’s the threat of corporate retaliation, there are threats to free speech in this society fostered by the f!#king courts.

You see it in local government all the time, where some poor bastard says “I’d like to protest about this development application”. The next thing they know they get a writ in the mail from the bloody developer and they have to leave town because they’re poor and the developer’s rich. The judges can clean up they’re own act as far as I’m concerned before I’m going to hand over a decision about the correctness of my decision to them. I’m very happy to defy them, very happy. That was a wonderful breakthrough, Theophanus (the case where the High Court implied a right to free speech in the Constitution). And they’ve been retreating from it ever since, as you know.

Georgia: In 1994 there was a Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which into the Rights and Obligations of the Media and one of the terms of reference for the inquiry was this idea of legislating in some way to provide a legal privilege for journalists against disclosing sources. The recommendations were never implemented. They promised a second report which was never released. The Senate Standing Committee basically said that when the change of government came in, it wasn’t an important enough issue to have any further work done on it.

Margo: I’m just so hardline on this. The idea of the government granting me a privilege, well I’m sorry, it’s already my privilege. This is terrible, I just get angrier and angrier. Yet I’m also very concerned about the accountability of journalists, as I’ve already explained.

I have talked about it quite a lot over the years, the need for accountability, and the reason is that I am very uncomfortable about the media, which is powerful there’s no doubt about it, holding politicians and public figures to account, sometimes in the most unfair and distorted ways, while having no accountability ourselves. I’m completely disgusted by the hypocrisy of it. Sickened. And I want accountability, but the journalist is not the person to target for accountability.

We work, you know, in a very corrupt system of media concentration and the collapse of the separation between editorial and advertising and the enormous pressures on us that result. The Code of Ethics of our union, and – if it’s done properly, as it has been in the Herald with the internal Herald Code, it’s actually a source of power for journalists to fight for ethical considerations, to fight the bosses – and to win. It’s a little bit of power that we have.

You know, the public can blame the journalists all they like but we are operating in a particular system here and I suppose that’s the reason that I get so bile driven at this idea of the courts granting us privileges. We’ve got very little to protect us as individual journalists trying to be ethical, and you know, they’re just not going to take it away. And this is where we come up trumps, that it is very difficult to send journalists to jail. You know, there aren’t many people that will stand up and say ‘Well I’m going to break the law then, judge!’

Georgia: There aren’t all that many cases, in fact, where journalists have gone to jail, only a handful. One of the things I’m interested in is, does that mean a) that these issues aren’t getting all the way to court all that frequently or b) that journalists are, somewhere along the line, just disclosing their sources. And it’s very hard to know because the cases where journalists may, indeed, disclose their sources aren’t reported.

Margo: What about that big case a few years ago involving the Herald where the plaintiff asked for an order and got one, or nearly one, for the journalist to reveal his source so that they could sue the source for defamation?

Why would they want that? Why wouldn’t they want to sue the newspaper for defamation? It’s because it’s not for defamation. It’s to create fear and loathing among people they want to exert power over. And this is the safety valve of journalism and the free press – there is always a chance for the whistleblower to get somewhere.

In these particular cases I do see the courts as tools of the establishment. I’m a lawyer and a great believer in the rule of law – I’d fight to the death for the rule of law on things like ASIO, I believe in a Bill of Rights, love the courts, all the rest of it, but they do rush towards allowing themselves to be abused when it comes to journalists.

The Courts hate journalists! And we hate them! And we’ve both got very good reason for it. They don’t respect us. And you know, if they don’t respect us, I’m not going to respect them when it comes to my professional role. They’ve got no right not to respect us. We are just as important. I believe in the fourth estate. The three great estates – there is a fourth and it is us and we do deserve respect. And when they start respecting us well they might get a nod as well when it comes to this area. It is war and it always has been, hasn’t it?

Georgia: Well –

Margo: You know ‘You guys don’t make enough checks’ and you know, even in Theophanus, you haven’t “taken all reasonable steps to check’, or ‘You should have looked at that and developed that line’. I mean, spend a day in my shoes. Try and get passed first base.

Georgia: That is another thing I’m looking at in my paper is this real hostility that seems to be there between journalists and the court at so many different levels.

Margo: They’ve got no idea! Their initial position is establishment. And I don’t really understand why they take that attitude – they think we’re all irresponsible twerps and all the rest of it. Yet I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that we aren’t accountable to them. How else can it be?

Georgia: That’s right, I mean, they have their authority and they hate people who stand up to that authority in any way, as journalists often have in the past, so –

Margo: Yes and in the Court’s favour is, what principles do we have for fairness? I mean, look at Rupert Murdoch! He ran a worldwide propaganda campaign for George Bush. How is he accountable for that? Not at all! I’ve heard how those poor journalists at the Tele, during the war, would have these funny little victories and they’d go out and drink all night and they’d say ‘I got that photo in and snuck that caption in’. It’s complicated.

But if there wasn’t a power struggle you’d be worried. If the media was beyond the law you’d be worried and if the law controlled the media you’d be worried.

Georgia: That’s right. But at the same time, the law does obviously impose a lot of restrictions on the media

Margo: Huge restrictions!

Georgia: And there should always be a level of restriction –

Margo: They pay very little regard to free speech, you know? That Pauline Pantsdown judgment, I was there for that because I was following Hanson in the ’98 campaign. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, that Justice De Jersey, who I knew as a barrister. Tony Fitzgerald wrote a fantastic paper on that judgment which he delivered to the Communications Law Centre later that year. It was the most brilliant legal paper on how f!#ked that judgment was. Then the High Court didn’t grant leave to appeal. Really!? So much for their commitment to free speech.

The very idea that Pauline Hanson, of all people, who had made so many lives hell – and I defended her right to free speech no matter bloody racist it was because she’s got a right to free speech – sues someone for satirising her! The song “I don’t like it’ was pretty harmless satire, I thought. It was funny, I danced to it.

Again that Queensland judgement gets back to the conservative establishment. I’ve been a refugee from Queensland for so long, and I thought when I went back to Brisbane, ‘Brisbane’s looking pretty cosmopolitan.’ Then you turn up in court and just go ‘What the f!#k is this!?’ You know? I don’t know if I’ve been very helpful, I didn’t think I’d get so stroppy.

Georgia: That’s alright, that’s good!

Margo: Because I’m sympathetic to accountability. But I just don’t trust the judges at all. They have nothing but contempt for our role. So, you know, I have nothing but contempt for their stance on this.

Georgia: Ok, well thank you.

Margo: Look, you know there’s a lot of irresponsible journalists. There are a lot of irresponsible lawyers, but the role, if you focus on the role then you focus on enhancing the viability and ethics of that role, not destroying the foundations of it. That’s the way I look at it. Better a corrupt and corruptible free press than a controlled press.

It depends on whether you’re optimistic about the human condition or not. I mean, while ever there’s free speech there’s always a chance for progress. Without free speech there’s no chance. There’s no chance for justice, there’s no chance for liberty. Free speech is a very important thing.

And the courts – that was the most wonderful judgment I’ve ever read, that Theophanus judgment. I remember Attorney-General Daryl Williams did a press conference when that case was up for reconsideration by the High Court in the Longe case. I asked him ‘How are you going to argue Lange given your belief in free speech?’ And he comes up with some crap about making it an exception to qualified privilege or something like that. So I said, ‘Your government does not have a commitment to free speech?’

Georgia: And what did he say?

Margo: Oh, he said ‘qualified privilege, blah blah, you don’t understand’ and I said ‘I understand very well, Daryl, I understand very well what you’re doing.’ And he just ran out. We haven’t spoken for ages.

I thought Theophanus was an absolute breakthrough to the cover that public figures have exploited for much too long in this country. And as the quid pro quo for that journalists, particularly political journalists,have got to accept that they’re public figures, too.

I’m appalled by the number of journalists who sue for defamation. It should never ever happen. To me that’s a betrayal of the profession. Richard Carlton sued, Steve Price sued, it’s a complete betrayal. We keep having it both ways. No! Not on! If we give it out we’ve gotta cop it. That’s the problem in the profession – that we won’t cop it.

The Press Council has private hearings – why? We run into court and argue about suppression orders and say everything’s gotta be public except when it comes to us. All the time! Wrong. Double standards. I’m constantly trying to think through how we can be accountable without government control. That’s the trick.

So I thought of the idea of incorporating it in a profession-wide thing, because you know, all the professions are corrupt ethically. Take HIH. I mean, a partner in Minters. Blake Dawson! Preferential payments! You know, Arthur Anderson! You know, the top names! The top partners in the top names! Everyone’s compromised here. So I thought, put journalism within that broad professional context and maybe that’s sort of a way through.

Webdiary ethics

I want you to trust Webdiary. Trust is the ideal at the core of all professional ethics codes, which are guidelines for conduct which aim to achieve that ideal. I’m a journalist bound by two codes of ethics drafted to apply to traditional journalism. I’ve adapted the code to meet the responsibilities of running Webdiary, and set out guidelines for your contributions. These guidelines are always open for discussion and debate on Webdiary and can be clarified and added to as issues arise.

My obligations

1. I will strive to comply with the Media Alliance and Sydney Morning Herald codes of ethics, which will be in a prominent position on this site at all times.

2. In particular, I will correct errors of fact on Webdiary as soon as possible after they are brought to my attention and will disclose and explain any inadvertent breach of my ethical duties on Webdiary at the first available opportunity.

3. I will respond on Webdiary to all non-frivolous queries or complaints about my compliance with the codes and give a copy of queries or complaints to the online editor.

4. I will not belittle or show disrespect for any reader’s contributions I publish, or to any person who emails me.

5. I will do my utmost to ensure that Webdiary is a space to which all readers, whatever their views or style, feel safe to contribute. If you are offended by something in Webdiary, feel free to respond. I won’t publish any material which incites hatred.

6. I will let you know when archives have been changed except when changes do not alter their substance, for example corrections to spelling or grammar. I will amend archived Webdiary entries to include corrections of fact and advise you accordingly.

7. I won’t publish all publishable emails, but I will read every one unless there’s too many to reasonably do so in the time available. If I haven’t been able to read all emails, I’ll let you know on Webdiary.

8. My decisions on publication will be made in good faith, without bias towards those I agree with or am sympathetic towards.

9. I reserve the right to edit contributions.

10. I will publish most contributions made in good faith which are critical of Webdiary’s content or direction, or of me.

My expectations of you

As a journalist I’m bound by ethical codes; as a contributor you’re not. Still, there’s a few guidelines I’d like you to follow. David Davis, who’s read and contributed to Webdiary from its beginning and helped draft these guidelines, explains why. “Webdiary encourages free and open debate. The guidelines for contributors are not designed to curtail this, but to remind you that just as you live in a community in the real world, the same is true in the online world. Being part of a community carries many rights, but there are responsibilities. Rather than eroding the rights, these responsibilities actually protect them.”

1. If you don’t want to use your real name, use a nom de plume and briefly explain, for publication, why you don’t want to use your real name. Please send me your real name on a confidential basis if you choose to use a nom de plume. I will not publish attacks on other contributors unless your real name is used.  

2. Disclose affiliations which you think could reasonably be perceived to affect what you write. For example, if you are writing about politics, disclose your membership of a political party.

3. Don’t plagiarise, that is don’t use the ideas of others without telling us where they came from, and don’t copy the writings of others and pass them off as your own. There’s no need. Put quotes around the words of other people, and tell us who they are and where you got them from. If you’ve used online sources for your contributions, include the links so others can follow them up.

4. Be truthful. Don’t invent ‘facts’. If you’re caught out, expect to be corrected in Webdiary.

5. Robust debate is great, but don’t indulge in personal attacks on other contributors.

6. Write in the first person. Remember, we’re having a conversation here.


I am bound by the code of ethics of the Media Alliance union, of which I am a member. The Alliance code follows. To complain about a breach of the code, contact the Media Alliance.

I am also bound by the Sydney Morning Herald code of ethics, published separately on Webdiary. To comment, question or complain about Webdiary’s ethics, email the editor of Stephen Hutcheon at and/or me at I intend to set up an archive of reader emails and our responses, as well as responding to complaints directly.


Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. MEAA members engaged in journalism commit themselves to

* Honesty

* Fairness

* Independence

* Respect for the rights of others

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

3. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the sources motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.

4. Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.

5. Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.

6. Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.

7. Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.

8. 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 persons vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.

9. Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.

10. Do not plagiarise.

11. Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

12. Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

Guidance Clause

Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.

For a comprehensive discussion of Webdiary ethics, see Webdiary’s ethics

Webdiary’s ethics

With all the spin spinning around on Iraq I thought now would be a good time to publish a piece I wrote earlier this year on Webdiary’s ethics. It’s a chapter of a book called Remote Control about where ethics are at in the modern media, to be published by Cambridge University Press in October. It’s also a potted history of Webdiary which may be of interest to new readers.

While writing the chapter, I also wrote a Webdiary ethics statement, which appears at the top of the right hand column under the Webdiary Charter. My union’s code of ethics is also published there, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s code of ethics is published under Webdiary’s ethics statement. If you have a comment, question or complaint about Webdiary’s ethics, please email me and/or the Herald’s online editor Stephen Hutcheon at

The Herald’s ethics code is the strictest and most demanding of any commercial media ethical code and is taken very seriously by our editors. It gives journalists the power to insist on ethical rules being followed and our editors the power to stop advertising considerations polluting our editorial judgement. The Age has a similar code.

Despite the rare rigour of our code there is nothing in the government’s cross media legislation to protect the ethical integrity of the Herald if it is taken over after the legislation passes the Senate. If the government really cared about media accountability and media integrity – and thus the public’s interest in a free, responsible media – the least it could do is protect the Herald code in the event of a takeover. It’s done no such thing. The government is governing for big media businesses, not the readers, listeners and viewers it supposedly represents.

Webdiary ethics

by Margo Kingston

It was meant to be a weekly online column on federal politics, a mere change in the forum for my work. It was my price for agreeing to do another stint as the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief of staff at our Canberra bureau in 2000, so I didn’t lose my public voice while doing a behind-the scenes organisational job. A year later it was my full-time job, yet until I agreed to do this chapter, I hadn’t systematically considered the ethics of it all, or how my ethical duties as a journalist were adapting to the net experience.

After Herald editor Paul McGeough gave me the column, online editor Tom Burton suggested something more fluid. He pointed me to a couple of journalist’s weblogs in the United States where specialist reporters jotted down developments in their area, inside stories, and comment. The advantage for me was that I had no deadlines, so could write something now and then when I had time. I had a quick look, got scared, and decided to start with a blank page and see what happened.

When the technical people sent their design for the Webdiary page, I was horrified that they’d included my email address. I’d got a silent home number after receiving hate snail mail and abusive phone calls while covering the Wik legislation and Pauline Hanson’s 1998 federal election campaign, and the last thing I wanted was to invite an onslaught. Get used to it, Tom said. Interactivity is the future.

The first entry began: “Welcome to my Canberra diary. I’m allowed to say what I think whenever I like, and lucky you can interact if you like. The downside for this indulgence is that all the words stay forever so I can be judged for my sins.” (Welcome to my diary…and now for the GST)

It’s ironic, thinking back, that I was so loathe to encourage reader feedback. My experience covering Pauline Hanson had convinced me that was something very wrong with the relationship between journalists and the public they supposedly served. When would the media address our endemic disconnect with the people? And how could we do it?

Webdiary was my answer. Far from an onslaught of hate mail, interesting emails, on the topic I’d written about, other topics and the idea of interaction between journalist and reader, started rolling in. Most were so good I made the decision that would transform the page, to publish them as a matter of course.

A big plus for readers was that they could talk one on one with a journalist. Being able to drop the formality of letters to the editor style and say “I think you’re wrong, and here’s some questions for YOU’ proved deliciously tempting for many. For me, admitting in writing that ‘Yes, I hadn’t thought of that’, or ‘You’re right’ or ‘Here’s where you’re wrong’ began an exciting, unpredictable public conversation with readers.

Pretty soon I had more emails than I could publish, and it dawned on me that I had absolute power over the space. What appeared did not depend on a decision of the editor/deputy editors/assistant editors based on the mix of news, the space available, and the competition on the day. It depended on what I decided. I had no excuses if something went wrong. I set the tone.

The decision to publish reader’s contributions also transformed my ethical considerations. Writing an online column is the same obligations, different delivery mechanism. When you let readers join the show and help direct it, accountability is no longer a sham, but a reality. Online ethical codes drafted for hard copy journalism must adapt and stretch to fit a medium less planned, more open, faster, and much more in-the-moment.

At first I had a full-time, demanding job, and Webdiary got tossed off in spare moments. My response to the trust my bosses had put in me was instinctive – not based on reading The Media Alliance’s code of ethics, to which I am bound.

It’s funny, but often you don’t know what you’ve got until someone else describes it. Two years after Webdiary began, Lateline program presenter Tony Jones said of Webdiary:

“Kingston’s net site is irreverent, straight-shooting and interactive. The readers get to answer back, often at length and apparently uncensored. You could describe it as participatory journalism with an attitude.”(Lateline)

While writing this chapter, I asked long-time Webdiary contributor John Wojdylo for his thoughts on Webdiary and its ethics:

“The running conversation that arises between readers is richer in form than at any of the Internet forums I have seen, with the exception of a handful of Usenet newsgroups. The exciting thing about the format is that Webdiary has the potential to be part of the pulse of contemporary life, influencing and being influenced by it. The moderator controls what is published in Webdiary, and it comes out under her name; therefore, “Webdiary ethics” means “the moderator’s professional ethics”. The moderator selects the contributions to appear and often makes minor alterations to them.”

“Whichever decision the Webdiary moderator makes, the result is aggressive: it isn’t possible to satisfy everybody, because some demands are contradictory … Knowing how to use power responsibly is the essence of ethics – in Webdiary, or anywhere else.” (On Webdiary ethics)

Doesn’t the word “power” leap from that description! My first bout of introspection about my responsibilities was in 2001:

“I spoke to a Rotary lunch on Wednesday on the topic “Playing politics in post-egalitarian Australia” which made me think about what this page has turned out to be, and what’s the philosophy that’s come to underpin it.

1. After following Pauline Hanson around in 1998, I realised that I didn’t know much at all, had been lazy in accepting the truths of the experts without thinking about it, and was generally out of touch. I was also convinced that conversation across viewpoints was vital to national coherence and the search for a new consensus.

2. I had three main assets:

(1) I have access to information and an opportunity to scrutinise people of power because of my job and the paper I work for;

(2) I am independent. The only constraint I have is in speaking completely openly about the company I work for, although over the years I’ve come pretty close. That means I can be trusted – not to be objective, but to be honest.

(3) After going through the agony of using the “I” word in my Pauline Hanson book, I have thrown off the shackles of the myth of objectivity, which is really an excuse to hide the truth from readers, not expose it. It also falsely sets the journalist up as observer/judge, not participant.

(4) Once you get over that one, you stop being defensive about criticism and realise that publication of criticism is a sign of confidence, and its censorship proof of insecurity. It also means that since everyone’s sitting at the same table, genuine engagement is natural. “

As it’s turned out, the page has become an open ended-conversation with me as facilitator, as well as general rave merchant. What’s the point of that? A big thing in its favour is that no-one believes anyone HAS the answers/the complete picture, anymore. We are in a transition of thinking, ideologically and philosophically, about our society and its values. To scream at and deride those who have different starting points castrates the debate, not enlivens it. It’s also depressing.

What I love about this page is that intelligent people from many starting points are interested in other thoughts. It’s exhilarating. It cleans out cobwebs and lifts feelings of disempowerment or hopelessness. It’s also a pretty big challenge to the mainstream, in that it’s privileging ideas over who has them, and intellectual debate over rhetoric and conflict-thrill.” (Disclosure and you)

The first thing I decided was that the space would be safe for readers – that they would trust it, and that I would trust them. It quickly became clear that most readers were inclined to my world view, so the space would quickly become predictable, boring, and of no use if people of a different mind felt there was no place in Webdiary for their voices to be safely heard. So I didn’t ridicule or deride contributions, and published most emails critical of me, my style, and my substance.

Invariably, when people of one view begin to dominate, other readers rebalance them. The Tampa issue triggered a torrent of emails from readers appalled at what was happening and desperate to get their response on the record. After a few days supporters of government policy and people unsure of what to think began to email me, both balancing the page and beginning weeks of detailed, passionate engagement. This year, emails antagonistic to the American position on war with Iraq dominated published emails in the lead up to George Bush’s address to the nation. Almost at the precise moment I began to feel uncomfortable that anti-Americanism was overwhelming the page, several readers wrote pieces “in defence of America” and the American people.

This has not stopped several readers bitterly complaining that the Webdiary lacks balance. I publish complaints, and make the point that Webdiary’s content is self selecting by writer/readers. Webdiary reflects the contributions of readers, and it’s not my job, unlike in op-ed pages, to impose a top down balance. Publishing and responding to criticism invariably triggers contrarian pieces from readers, rebalancing debate as if by magic!

Being so open to criticism means I’ve been forced to get a much thicker skin. Journalists are under constant pressure to write what the powerful want written, and not delve into what they don’t. Threats are commonplace. We are unpopular. I’ve found, however, that developing an honest, open, transparent relationship with readers eventually built my confidence, not destroyed it. I began to trust THEM! Giving virtually automatic rights of reply to readers who disagree with me, and to published reader’s contributions, not only enriches my thinking but gives real meaning and muscle to the code of ethics.

When I asked long-time Webdiarist Polly Bush for a comment on what Webdiary’s ethics were, she wrote: “The problem is when you dip your toe into the water on the complex topic of ethics (and Webdiary for that matter) you end up with more questions than answers. I was thinking about this relationship between reader/contributor, yourself and the only word that kept coming up was ‘trust’ – but is trust ethics?”

Yep. That’s what it is. And yet, ethics codes have done little or nothing to improve the relationship between journalist and reader. Many readers have given up on journalism, and journalists, because they feel powerless. Many don’t even know there’s a code of ethics, or if they do, feel powerless to enforce it. How many papers publish their ethical codes, or that of the alliance, in their papers? How many television and radio proprietors let their listeners and viewers know about it?

Most media groups are extremely loathe to print corrections. They’re by nature defensive, partly because they don’t want to undermine confidence in them, partly because there’s effectively no accountability for their breach, and partly because they fear getting bogged down with complaints from relentlessly partisan players. Who do you complain to? What’s the process for resolution? Suggest setting up and publicising a process for accountability, and everyone runs a mile. Apart from defamation law, we’re not used to accountability, and we don’t like it.

As ethical questions have been raised and debated on Webdiary, I’ve realised that ethics – when laid on the table for open discussion between writer and reader – can be a tool of empowerment, not constraint, and a confidence builder, not destroyer.

What I hadn’t done before writing this chapter was to make my ethical obligations clear. So I’ve decided to publish the Media Alliance code and the Herald’s code in a prominent permanent position of Webdiary’s home page, along with the procedure to complain to the Alliance. If readers want to complain to my paper, I’ve asked that they email me and my online editor. What I envisage is that I publish complaints on the Webdiary with my initial response, and ask for reader comment, which I will publish and reply to on Webdiary, as could my editor. I hope this will cement confidence in my good faith, and the sense that ethical matters need not be matters for confrontation, but for conversation and resolution.

This procedure will add depth to the occasional navel-gazing debate in Webdiary, invariably triggered by a provocative email that makes me think about where Webdiary’s going. In 2001 I wrote the Webdiary Charter, published on the right-hand column of Webdiary as a permanent reference point for readers, in response to this email from Paul McLaren:

“Please excuse my ignorance, but I am perplexed by the object of your section of the Sydney Morning Herald. Could you please tell me why I should contribute? It seems very interesting but a little pointless unless, like I suspect, I am missing something.” (What’s the point?)

The ethics of Webdiary evolve in consultation with readers as issues arises, and ethics discussions are not confined to interpreting the principles set out in the code. Readers have insisted that it’s much wider – they’re interested in how the media, and journalists, work, and are prepared to challenge the basis of our right to be critical of public figures, and insisted that journalists are public figures needing scrutiny. Trust breeds demands for greater accountability.

At the end of 2000, I wrote a series of columns berating Peter Reith over the Telecard scandal. In response reader Jack Robertson wrote a passionate piece calling me, and my profession, to account for OUR double standards. (Questions to you journos) He demanded to know what WE were paid, details of relationships between journalists and political players and details of when our owners had heavied us. (To my regret I disclosed my pay, a disclosure now used by right wing webloggers as a weapon of attack.)

The process of answering Jack’s questions, or explaining why I wouldn’t, opened to floodgates to a torrent of emails critical of the media, and extended Webdiary’s focus from politics to the media.

My editors over the years had always pooh-poohed my suggestion for a media section or page as boring for readers, who’d see it as navel gazing. They were wrong. I appointed Jack Webdiary’s “Meeja Watch” commentator, and he and others now regularly critique media coverage of issues and prominent media figures. Jack took the debate further with 52 ideas for healthier Australian news media, encouraging readers to think constructively about change.

Through Webdiary, readers have forced me to think harder about, and justify, my ethical stances and those of the profession. The controversy over the Laurie Oakes disclosure of the affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth inspired debate of the highest quality on the appropriate line between public and private lives, when I was overrun with reader emails disputing my support for Laurie in a Lateline debate (Your say on the Cheryl Affair). By the end of it, Webdiarists had influenced my view and forced from me a detailed statement of my position. (An affair to remember)

This is ethics in action. Ethics are ideals, not black letter law. They rely on the judgement of journalists trying to apply the principles in good faith, readers trusting them to do so, and regular dialogue between the two when real-life examples crop up.

Nom de plumes.

The issue of anonymity raises the most difficult issue for online journalism. The Media Alliance code of ethics states: “3. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the sources motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”

In newspapers, writers must identify themselves. Anonymous contributions are not considered appropriate. Yet journalists quote anonymous sources all the time, too often becoming tools for their sources to influence debate behind the scenes. We make judgments all the time about which source to trust, when and how, and know that we’re usually being used. This is a closed world to the reader.

Online, you can’t usually check whether writers are real or writing under false names and anonymous comment is common place. The issue flared up when contributor Tim Dunlop challenged my decision to allow readers to write reports on marginal seats under nom de plumes. After “Stephen Henderson”, a member of the Democrats, wrote a report on the seat of Paramatta, Tim saw red:

“I think the practice of people writing under false names on your website is appalling. From what I’ve read, they say nothing that is particularly ‘radical’ or anything that would threaten their jobs and yet they feel the need to hide behind a phoney identity. It sucks, and I don’t think you should encourage it. It shows contempt for your readers. And surely such sanctioned dishonesty is not good for journalism in general.” (Last dispatch from Canberra)

The resulting debate was fast and furious, but I stood my ground. “I want real people to have a voice. Many can’t because of the stupid censorship that suffocates them, where people can’t be themselves by speaking as a private citizen because of the crappy constraints of their public or private sector jobs. I know it’s hard, and I could be caught out, but this marginal seats idea is about perspective and opinion. I want interesting readers to be able to say interesting things to interested readers. No-one’s who’s offered to write for me on marginal seats has offered to write under their real name yet. How about it?”

I didn’t change my mind, but I came up with a policy. I asked readers to tell me if they were writing under a nom de plume, and to give reasons why, which I publish at the beginning of each nom de plume piece. I can’t enforce the rule, but many contributors comply.

There is a critical exception. I would never publish personal slurs under a nom de plume, as a matter of basic fairness. I strongly disagree with the modus operandi of crikey in this regard, and believe that whatever its considerable merits, it cannot lay claim to be a site complying with the code of ethics.

Of course, Webdiary does not seek to break news. If I get a story, I write it for the paper, and I give readers’ news tips to the Herald news desk. Crikey, which has as a central aim breaking news, is different. But in my view a journalists website cannot ethically publish serious allegations or personal attacks under cover of anonymity. A policy of fulsome corrections is not a good enough. The code also bars publication under the rule that allegations should be verified before publication. In a Lateline debate on media ethics, Tony Jones asked: “Isn’t this, though, one of the things the Internet is famous for – no censorship, no boundaries?” I replied: “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t disapprove of some of the things on Crikey as a journalist.”

Offensive material

The Media Alliance code of ethics states: 2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics,including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.

I’m more relaxed about this requirement on the net, as are my readers, partly because it is a deliberate choice to log on.

Racism is the red-button issue in contemporary Australia. Australians tend to live in enclaves of the like-minded these days, creating a terrible barrier to understanding and national unity. I once agonised over whether to publish a contribution from a racist One Nation supporter, and did so, without complaint from readers, some of whom responded respectfully to the contributor.

My use of “Yanks” recently triggered a barrage of criticism from readers suggesting the word was a term of abuse. When I dropped it to avoid causing needless, although unintended offence, other readers protested that the term was neutral. I took up “Yanks” again after an American general used it while praising Australians for pre-deploying troops to Iraq. That settled it, I said, and noone disagreed.

In 2002, Media Watch asked me whether I’d known that a link to a page of Henry Lawson poems directed readers to a racist site. I hadn’t. I wrote in Webdiary:

“The implication, I assume, is that if I had done so I would have been knowingly promoting a racist site, something which right-minded people would not do. I thought hard about the question, and finally decided I would have done the same thing.

“He’s the first great poet of Australian identity, Lawson, and he was also deeply racist, antagonistic in the cruellest sense to both the Aboriginal peoples and Chinese migrants. This was a mainstream view then, and since Tampa you’d have to say it hasn’t left the mainstream yet. But does that take away from Lawson’s importance, or artistry, or capacity to move us?

“So I told Media Watch I would have still provided the link, and raised the fors and againsts of a nationalistic response to the bombing,with the poetry and political views of Lawson as a case in point.”

“I pointed out to Media Watch that during the terrorism laws debate I’d published a press statement from the far-right National Civic Council, which worked hard to stop the laws, claiming they paralleled Hitler’s actions in the prelude to World War 11. Is that promoting racism? No – it’s acknowledging that groups of opposing persuasions can come together on certain issues. And it’s inviting readers to consider what those groups have in common, and why.

“And that’s what the Webdiary space is partly about – providing a safe space for people with articulate, coherent views from all sectors of Australian opinion to discuss issues of importance. I run One Nation nationalist Greg Weilo quite regularly, for example, and his contributions often provoke interesting debate. I’ve got no problem with my readers finding a racist site through Webdiary. My views on racism are crystal clear, so I assume there could be no question mark over my motivations. What do you think?” (Webdiary Watch) Readers agreed.

Conflicts of interest

In 2001 Don Arthur, a regular contributor on welfare policy, raised the matter of reader conflicts of interest.

“I was thinking over what you were saying on Late Night Live about (Webdiary) attracting people who are not part of peak groups. Here’s something people ought to know about me. I can afford to study full time because I’ve got a scholarship – it’s called an Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry). My industry partner is Anglicare (WA). I’m not exactly sure how the money thing works but Anglicare puts up some of the funds and is involved in setting the research topic. I have three supervisors, two from Edith Cowan and one from the industry partner. Sorry I didn’t say this earlier.”

I replied:

“I can’t see anything remiss in not disclosing this, unless you mentioned Anglicare in a piece, or were writing on religious charity or the like. But Don’s disclosure does raise the question of independence on this page…Don, I can’t check out every contributor and investigate hidden agendas. Basically this page is a trust exercise. I run most of what’s sent in, with my judgement being pretty simple – is it interesting, is it repeating previous contributions, is it accessible? So it doesn’t matter who’s name is on it, in that sense, which is – apart from trying to free people from the constraints their work places put on their freedom of speech – why nom de plumes are cool with me. But I do ask that if it would be reasonable to perceive a bias, or conflict of interest, in what you write, that you disclose this. Like the marginal seats reports – if you’re a party member, just say so. Also, if you’ve got expertise in an area you’re writing on, I’m sure readers would appreciate that information too.” (Disclosure and you). Since then, many readers have disclosed their affiliations.

Plagiarism and corrections

There’s been one instance of plagiarism that I know of, notified by a reader. I published his email and gave readers the low down on the issue.

Many readers have pointed out inaccuracies in my work, and others, and I correct them as soon as possible. Since the explosion of weblogging in early 2002, there’s many more critical eyes on Webdiary, and many webloggers take delight in pointing out errors. This adds another layer of accountability to the site.

Many newspapers are loathe to correct errors, many journalists fear admitting them, and – in my experience – corrections are drafted so carefully to minimise embarrassment that they’re wrong anyway. With all control in my hands, I have no excuse for failure to correct or insufficiently, and any fear of correcting is far outweighed by the fear of losing credibility with the reader who points out the error.

So is all this openness and honesty in the public interest? Last year NSW Premier Bob Carr accused me at a press conference of blaming the Bali dead for their for own deaths in a column in Webdiary. I was horrified, fearing my reputation had been destroyed by a powerful man’s lies. Rather than rush into print defending myself, I published the relevant extracts from the press conference, a transcript of Carr’s subsequent radio interview on the matter, and the column I thought he could have based his false allegation on. (Bob Carr and me)

The next day, we ran a “Your Say” forum on the front page of the Herald online on Carr’s anti-terrorism laws, the subject of the press conference. Several readers demanded a forum on the Carr-Kingston dust-up, got it, and hopped right into it after reading the material. The verdict, in Your Say and from Webdiary emails, was overwhelmingly in my favour – with some admitting to surprising themselves by defending a journalist!

Anger as an energy

Dr Kelly’s suicide has pressed red buttons for many readers. Here are two red hot responses from Luke Stegemann and Jack Robertson. I disagree with their calls to be angry, partly because when I get angry I lose effectiveness and tend to self-immolate, and partly because those pro-Howard talk back callers are already so angry we’d end up with violence, which is the worst way to solve anything. I prefer the energy of optimism, of working with other people, and of dispassionate strategising. Then again, this is a new way of looking at things for me, and I don’t know if it works.

Luke Stegemann in Osaka, Japan

Jack Robertson has hit the nail on the head in many important respects in When spin starts to kill it’s time to kill spin. Not only journalists, but all Australians who care about the direction in which our country has veered recently need to stand up to cant and linguistic nothingness, the vapid speech and lies of politicians and spin doctors who twist and manipulate language to make black seem white, the innocent seem guilty, the poor seem selfish and the greedy seem generous.

Jack says it is disheartening to say the least how seldom – if ever – these spokespersons are held accountable for their devious and downright dishonest use of language. It’s time more and more of us said, in what he points out is the true Aussie sprit, “That’s bullshit, mate!”

It’s also time to realise that anger has a purpose and a goal, and is not to be held at arms length as something pathological and threatening.

John Howard and his crew make much of the great Australian traditions of mateship and the fair go. That this government lays claim to represent such abstractions is by itself reason enough to make many Australians’ blood boil with anger.

But what of another Australian characteristic to which Jack refers, our ability to see through hypocrisy and pretence and to call bullshit bullshit in real time as a matter of instinct? This ability is central to our much-commented tall poppy syndrome. Australians have always called a spade a spade in our dry, laconic way. It’s perhaps one of our most endearing traits as a nation.

Or it was. Times have changed and we have been increasingly educated into a denial and suppression of truth-telling. Truth-telling – revealing the Emperor has no clothes – now implies committing the relatively recent cardinal Australian sin of possibly offending others. Truth-telling or reclaiming against lies and injustice often involves conflict and anger. In our education system at all ages, in the workplace, on radio and television, through the plethora of self-help books, management training seminars and workplace workshops, we are taught NOT to argue. We are educated, increasingly, to be passive, and hence it comes as no surprise how little public ire the WMD lies have raised amongst the Australian public.

Look no further than today’s Newspoll results – two in every three Australians believe Prime Minister John Howard misled them over participation in the US-led war in Iraq but support for his leadership remains as strong as ever.

We have been pacified by notions of “anger management”, “mediation”, “impulse control” and “conflict resolution”, to name but a few. Children are taught it is rude to shout. Adults try at all costs to avoid argument. We are supposed to smile in the company of those we despise while we resolve workplace conflicts with counsellors.

The right to be angry, enraged and furious has been rationalised away as asocial, pathological behaviour. One must be calm: one must not, under any circumstances, offend or disrupt. Our discontent is suppressed within us by the notion that we must not shout, must not be rude, must not embarrass or disrupt by raw emotion, by the notion that we must always seek peaceful compromises.

We are constantly taught that anger and rage are negative, self-defeating, and ultimately, unproductive (the latter absolute heresy in a neo-capitalist world). Protest organisers go out of their way to assure one and all that any protest will be “peaceful”. Why?

The dignity of the Australian people has been deeply offended and compromised consistently by the Howard government. Voices that rise up publicly in anger are treated as voices of irrational, antisocial madness (witness Downer’s description of the ‘feral left’). Witness the outrage and scorn heaped upon Mark Latham when he had the courage to call a spade a spade re the Howard governments subservience to the Bush administration and the subsequent disgraceful interference by the US ambassador.

As John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. once famously sang, Anger is an energy. Anger is dissent. Anger is loudly proclaiming “NO!” Whether in the schoolyard, the home, the office or the street, anger is a way of saying that we will not accept a given situation, that we see through and wish to denounce incompetence, hypocrisy, lies, cowardice, racism and a host of other hallmarks of contemporary Australian society.

Given anger is at its core a form of dissent that cannot be removed from us, is it any wonder that so much effort has been made to neutralise its potency? Anger and rage have been consistently pathologised over the last few decades, viewed more and more as a sign of illness, of wrong, of irrationality, of violence.

Any guesses who are the ultimate winners when from childhood we are taught not to get angry but to seek peaceful resolution, counselling, mediation, therapy and so on? What type of workforce, what sort of mind-numbed populace does this ideology of passivity create? Just look around Australia to find the answer.

Australia? We are a nation which has voted John Howard into office no less than three times, and may well do so a fourth, in spite of the lies, the scandals and the tearing apart of social and community networks, in spite of the impoverishment of public debate, the withering of diversity, the attacks on public health and education. Something must be very wrong deep inside.

It’s time to stop believing in the bullshit, whether it be political spin or the notion that harmony must be preserved at all costs. It’s time to get angry, and use that anger as an energy. If the left (Howard’s opponents) are to be designated as feral why are we not deploying language in the same way, publicly designating the right (the Howard government and its supporters) as blood-sucking, voracious, criminal, myopic and irredeemably racist?

Your anger may shock some of your fellow Australians, your family or workmates, lulled as they are into a world of tame, self-censoring consensus where anything goes so long as no-one is offended or upset. So be it. Your anger might shock them out of their real-estate, lifestyle and sporting torpor.

The times call for, as Jack puts it, contemptuous rudeness and fruity aggro for the slumber to be broken and for the immorality and cowardice to be exposed. If we advocate and practice rudeness and cause offence, is that not simply replying in kind to what weve been asked to swallow for years now?

In popular discourse, anger, rage and passion are immediately disregarded as emotional responses to any given problem or injustice, as if the presence of emotion somehow precluded insight or veracity, which at the same time are apparently guaranteed by cool, dispassionate analysis. This is the appalling myth of objectivity used constantly by politicians of all persuasions, bosses, managers, teachers, parents, counsellors, therapists. This, my friends, is bullshit.

In our brave new world of schoolyard harmony, efficient workplace relations, and endlessly productive outcomes, in this brave new castrated world, the only place for anger, we are told, is when it is directed against the ill-disciplined, irrational, unproductive, quasi-sinful self. To be furious is to lose self-control, and to lose self-control is to sin. There is no place for anger and rage to be directed against others, or against institutions, forms of injustice, public lying and scandal. When we protest, we must do so where we are told, and like school children, we must promise to be on our best behaviour. The angry student is misguided and rushed before panels of counsellors and guidance officers, the angry worker is a troublemaker and marked down for removal upon the completion of a probably casual contract, the angry citizen is part of a feral left.

And yet, our final irony and misery: the shock-jock when angry is right and good, representing the silent majority. Apparently.

Let’s hope enough Australians reclaim the right to be angry, the right to offend and the right to be rude, to denounce bullshit where it stands, for the state of the country urgently needs that wonderful trait which is deeply embedded in the Australian character to emerge once again.


Fisking John

by Jack Robertson

Speaking of WMD Spin, let’s do a little brief deconstruction ourselves. Here’s one cute Prime Ministerial soundbite, hot off the Spin Central presses today:

“We entered the war in Iraq based upon the failure of the Iraqi government of the time to comply with United Nations’ resolutions, we had intelligence assessments of WMD capability and we reacted appropriately.”

It’s been a while since I’ve hung out with the warbloggers, but let’s see if I can remember how to Fisk such waffle. (Margo: Fisking is blogger talk for taking apart someone’s work line by line. I had a go at fisking Howard’s press club question and answer session just before the war in Deconstructing JW Howard.)

1. “We entered the war in Iraq…”

Passive, weak and slippery verb (a real give-away). We didn’t ‘enter the war in Iraq’, Prime Minister. We helped start the bloody thing. We were one of only three countries in the entire United Nations of nations to do so meaningfully. No Australian government has ever done this before – helped start a war. Yours did. Our country won’t ever be quite the same again. No matter what your ‘profound conviction’ might be. Australians don’t start wars, John. Thanks to your government’s strategic stupidity, it’s what Australians now do. You might not think so. Most Australians might not think so. The majority of the world’s countries do. They are more right than we are.

2. “based upon the failure of the Iraqi government of the time to comply with UN resolutions…”

This statement is Classic Spin, which really means lies. The Prime Minister is merely ‘fuzzing-up’ the ‘reason’ for invading Iraq – from the very precise (read: dramatic, scary, public opinion-winning) reasons that were quoted daily, to an over-arching ‘sound-good, feel-good’ cure-all which in reality can never be tested or disproved. The Coalition of the Willing specifically claimed at various times (and among much else), that

a) Saddam Hussein was both able and willing to deploy WMD against his neighbours within 45 minutes;

b) had sought to obtain uranium from Nigeria;

c) had direct and dangerous enabling links with al-Qaeda;

d) possessed unmanned drones capable of delivering WMD beyond its borders;

e) had obtained aluminium tubes intended for use in its nuclear weapons programs, and

on, an on, and on.

These are hard, specific claims which, correspondingly, can be proven wrong or right – and all have been proven wrong. Nothing has so far turned up that ‘proves’ Saddam had ‘failed to comply’ with UN resolutions. In the absence of UN sanction for this invasion this is in any case an absurd accusation, since without the UN’s own imprimatur that very ‘reason’ to invade becomes a bitterly-dishonest forgery. The Coalition invading Saddam’s Iraq for his ‘failing to comply with UN resolutions’ – even as the UN refuses to support the action – is like thumping a kid because he ‘looked at your mate funny’, even though your mate is himself urging you to calm down and not hit him.

‘Failure to comply’ is an arbitrary, malleable, meaningless standard when you alone are the sole arbiter. ‘Failure to comply’? What is ‘compliance’ in measurable terms, John?

How can we ever prove or disprove ‘compliance’ now? This is uber-Spin; Alice-in-Wonderland stuff par excellence: Saddam Hussein will have ‘complied’ with UN resolutions when, and only when, the Coalition says he has. A self-defined, UN-excluding, self-serving linguistic roundabout. Spin. Spin. Spin – any faster, John, and your government will whirl right up its own ‘profound convictions and fundamentals’.

Also Spin here is that nifty ‘Iraqi government of the time’ bit – it’s pure (instinctive) Howard verbiage, designed to add an artificially sombre and measured tone to his reference to Saddam’s regime, and to inject a subtle reminder that ‘the world has changed’, that ‘we’ve moved on’, that of course everything (including the ’emerging’ facts) is now ‘different’, and thus, you surely can’t expect the government’s position not to change subtly, too?

As transparent as a sheet of glass. The Emperor has no linguistic clothes.

3. “we had intelligence assessments of WMD capability…”

Big deal. I’ve got my own intelligence assessments of WMD capability, too. So has every other man and his dog on the planet, now. My brother, who’s just spent several savage months in Iraq, could tell you a thing or two about ‘intelligence assessments of WMD capability’ too, John, but I bet you wouldn’t like what he’d have to say, mate. (And you wouldn’t be able to destroy him as an anti-American Lefty loon, a cowardly appeaser, or un-Australian, either; he was nicked by shrapnel once and got a richochet under the chin for your troubles, John. Didn’t find any WMD, though – maybe he was too busy reading Greg Sheridan’s riveting prose).

So – now that we’re all on a ‘WMD intelligence assessment’ level playing field – namely, none of us really have a bloody clue what was what – do tell us about these ‘intelligence assessments’ of yours, John. What did they all specifically say? Which ones (‘sexed-up’?) did you choose to accept with glee, and which ones (sexed-down? boring? too long and measured and grounded in grown-up, detailed, expert opinion?) did you choose to ignore completely? And why, and how did you make those subjective judgements, and where is the hard vindication that your choices and judgements were better than mine, or Bob Hawke’s, or Ray Funnell’s, or Scott Ritter’s, or Robin Cook’s, or Peter Gration’s, or Andrew Wilkie’s, or the late Dr David Kelly’s?

And if you can’t give us that now or soon, with Coalition soldiers increasingly being picked off in the ugly mess you’ve dumped them in, doesn’t that mean your government and your intelligence advisers are incompetent, weak on security, cavalier with our soldiers’ lives, and – above all else – not not not to be trusted on future ‘intelligence assessments’ of when and where they should be sent, in this ‘war on terror’ we are fighting?

Prime Minister – do you (and George W. Bush and Tony Blair) know what the bloody hell you are doing in this war? Or is it time for a change of government? Australian conservative leaderships, as history reminds us, have a proven knack for getting Australia into the kinds of strategic military messes that require fresh, sceptical and lateral-thinking governments to extract us from.

Are you weak on security, Mr Howard? Is George W. Bush? Because it seems pretty weak to me to commit the grand bulk of your fine fighting forces to occupying a country half-way around the world where there was no real threat to begin with, either to you or your allies.

Where was (and is) the true Middle Eastern threat to America, England and Australia? And, for that matter, to Israel? Iraq? Or was and is it from Hamas, from al-Qaeda, from Jemah Islamiah, from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, North Pakistan, the remote Afghanistan deserts? Because it’s pretty clear that none of these groups or places had, in relative terms, very much to do with Saddam Hussein’s WMD or his version of Iraq – however awful either was. Or at least, not until we waded in there with our guns blazing, anyway. Now, of course, the world has changed again; an increasing number of Iraqis hate our guts just as much as the next self-respecting anti-Western fanatic.

So why, for our own sakes, don’t Bush, Blair and you at least admit the awful truth: that of all the countries in the Middle East to invade and occupy – creating chaos, misery, resentment and increased anti-Westernism – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was, in hard-nosed military-strategic terms, the very stupidest, most self-defeating choice. While 200, 000+ American soldiers have their hands full with newly anti-American zealots in Iraq, established anti-American zealots worldwide are cheering with glee and busying themselves with their next box-cutter or Bali plans.

So tell us a few details about these ‘Iraq threat intelligence assessments’, Prime Minister. What we want to know is why you sent our soldiers to disarm Iraq’s WMD threat by brute force if, as it looks increasingly likely, there wasn’t much of a WMD threat after all. British and US soldiers are still dying every other day. Meanwhile, we don’t even know where Saddam is, let alone what Osama bin Laden and his friends – our true arch-enemies – are currently up to. I just hope that the Coalition’s ‘intelligence assessments’ of that are a touch more reliable.

4. “…and we reacted appropriately.”

‘Appropriately’ – the most pointless word in the English language. Appropriately to what? Appropriate to John W. Howard is what, because as today’s frightening polls show, the bulk of the population in this country is utterly committed to you, John, and nothing else. A majority of Australians still cling desperately to your contrived ‘politics of conviction’ Presidential persona, Prime Minister, even in the stark face of their own dawning realisation that you lied through your teeth on WMD.

So many voters have invested so much in you personally that they have now apparently embraced an almost visceral refusal to allow the scales to fall from their own eyes. Refugees, WMD, ASIO, ANZAC deployments, Reconciliation, the Republic – swathes of ordinary Australians are screwing their eyes and minds shut against ugly facts, against their own common-sense instinct and decency, simply – disastrously – trusting in the convictions of the self-ordained Battler’s Best Mate. Welcome to Louis the Fourteenth territory, Prime Minister: L’etat, c’est Moi! Where ‘appropriate’ means whatever the hell you think is ‘appropriate’. Fine. Let me ask you about the modern Spin Doctor’s ‘Word of Mass Delusion’ I:

Is it ‘appropriate’ that Australia has ‘moved on’ from Iraq even as many Australians are still over there in-country, hunkered down in their flak jackets outside Baghdad airport or patrolling the streets with their anxious Yank and Brit comrades, wondering when a grenade is going to blow up in their face, or an anonymous bullet enter the back of their head?

Is it ‘appropriate’ that David Kelly – Iraq WMD expert – killed himself in isolated despair while gutless politicians just like you keep running like buggery and persist in avoiding the deeper truths about Iraqi WMD that he was trying to make public?

Is it ‘appropriate’ that American soldiers are being daily killed by an increasingly hostile and resentful Iraqi population that just doesn’t really want them to be there any more, and almost certainly never will again?

Is it ‘appropriate’ that George W. Bush recently excluded many of those same soldiers – low-paid political cannon fodder – from the swathe of tax cuts he bestowed upon his most supportive constituency – the rich, many of whom helped sweep him into office, and thus helped drive that an already-dangerously threatened America into an unnecessary and probably-unwinnable war? I

Is it ‘appropriate’ that your own Liberal Party backbench continues to raise not a squeak of dissent about this staggering strategic fiasco? Is it ‘appropriate’ in a modern liberal democracy like Australia – Peter Costello and Phillip Ruddock and Robert Hill and anyone in Cabinet or the back seats – that so many voting Australians continue to ‘support’ your Prime Minister, even while simultaneously agreeing that he lied to them to gain their support for sending our sons and daughters away to kill other human beings?

This, to me, at last, is lunacy territory, and with Australian soldiers again outbound on an unpredictable international intervention, it’s time for the broader parliamentary Liberal Party to wake up, re-assert some Westminster collective balance, and force our Prime Minister to stop spinning his self-serving and now dangerous webs of deceit. Or have they, too, now got too much vested interest in continuing to place their deaf, dumb and blind trust in our nation’s Spin Doctor-in-Chief?

Dizzy with spin

G’Day. Today your say and recommended reading on the dangers of spin and how to counter it.

In response to Jack Robertson’s When spin starts to kill it’s time to kill spin, Webdiarist John Boase recommends a new British journalism website which aims to draw readers into the struggle:

“Your readers might be interested in new web site, which is up in rudimentary form though still under construction. It looks promising.”

The aims: is a not for profit organisation for those who believe that our society is being swamped by propaganda, half truth and untruth. It offers a space to dialogue on these issues. It will investigate techniques of spin and methods of sieving spin and if these methods are deficient, and why.

It aims to provide a focal point for the anti-spin movement in this country, to encourage dialogue between the media-empowered and the rest by understanding the difficulties of both sides, to seek small continuous incremental improvements, often discreetly, and without seeking credit. Occasionally high profile public campaigns may be necessary but this should be as a last resort.

Webdiarist and blogger Jozef Imrich recommends Feeling Misquoted? Weblogs, Transcripts Let the Reader Decide, an Online Journalism Review article about how readers, through the net, can keep journos and public figures honest.

Daniel Moye in Roseville, Sydney, describing himself as “a conservative dizzy from spin”, was concerned at the revelation that someone in Howard’s office had spread rumours about Andrew Wilkie’s personal life after his resignation. Daniel wrote:

Andrew Wilkie’s experience is an important comment on the functioning of Western Democracies. Spin Doctors and firewalls around Ministerial responsibility are a corrosive disease on the democratic fabric. It is not only in the most prominent political battlegrounds of the coalition of the willing but throughout democracies at all levels of government that these tactics of political opportunism and survival are undermining the foundations of our democracies.

For many conservative Australians the disturbing aspect of Spin Doctors and firewalls is that many good policies are being undermined by the unnecessary spin used to implement and defend them. Whether policies stand or fall appears to be more reliant on the success or not of the spin than the merits of the policy. Firewalls play a similar role as they abrogate the responsibility of the Minister for the decisions the government makes.

The sovereign power of the people conferred upon politicians require that they be held responsible and accountable for their actions. Jack Robertson described several solutions to enhance the transparency surrounding the Ministers of our government and all have varying degrees of merit. All should be included in an attack on this unelected coterie of advisers, but more importantly Ministers should be held directly accountable for the actions of their advisers.

I do not claim to be all- knowing on this subject, and would be interested to know the answers to the following questions:

Isn’t the higher echelon of the public service supposed to offer advice on the positive and negative implication of policies? If so, then surely the coterie of advisers are only used in a party political sense.

Have Australian politicians always used publicly funded advisers who are not members of the public bureaucracy?

Has there been a significant change in the powers of parliamentary committees to investigate Ministerial conduct? Have they been officially or unofficially detoothed?

I ask these questions because if the parliament is not a proxy for the people then we are not living in a democracy. The ballot box is NOT the ONLY vehicle for the public holding politicians accountable – in fact one of the parliament’s major functions is to represent the public interest between election periods. Politicians have failed to see the trees for the forest – their political opponents represent the collective will of a large proportion of any given electorate and Parliamentary committees have a right to hold Ministers accountable on an ongoing basis.

Whether or not you believe that the War on Iraq was justified, transparency and accountability in our democracy appears to be at a low ebb. John Howard, Bob Carr and all democratic leaders should be held accountable for their actions and the actions of their spin doctors.

Dan, you’re such a romantic! For the truth about our utterly compromised public service and our politicians’ completely unaccountable political advisers, see former public servant John Nethercote’s analysis of the children overboard inquiry at What servants are for. John wrote:

“For the public service, the affair demonstrates its fragility in the face of both ministers and, more perniciously, ministerial staffers. In the absence of adequate means to bring ex-ministers and ministerial staff to account, it demonstrates the vulnerability of the modern public service.”

Colin McKerlie has some more ideas on how us journos can do a better job. When I get a chance I’ll write a piece about the constraints we’re under, real and perceived. I think both Jack’s and Colin’s ideas are naive, but that’s why they’re good – they force us journos, if we’re willing, to describe the realities to readers, and even to push the boundaries we’ve come to accept we can’t cross.

Colin McKerlie

Jack Robertson’s ideas are fine, but they are based on an absolutely fatuous premise, that the media is on our side. What unmitigated crap. Murdoch journalists would not work for Murdoch if they had a shred of commitment to the public interest. If this was not proven beyond doubt by the Murdoch press coverage of the illegal invasion of Iraq, then nothing ever could be.

The idea of targeting spin doctors is fine, but they are not the problem. As Jack makes clear, all the spin doctoring in the world will have no effect on the quality of journalism if the journalists do their job. The fact that journalists publish material which comes from a single source, even the government, is typical of their shoddy standards.

When Paul Kelly reported the children overboard allegations, I wrote to him and asked him if he had an independent source on board the navy ship that picked up those refugees, because unless he did, then he could have no justifiable basis for publishing the story. I got no reply of course, but the point must be made that the government is no longer a reliable single source.

Journalists can overcome all the evils of spin doctoring just by doing their job. For broadcast journalists, this involves asking questions and getting answers, both talents which Australian broadcast journalists universally failed to demonstrate in the months before Australia went into an illegal invasion of Iraq, when our political leaders refused to tell us their plans.

Here are a few ideas for how broadcast journalists, especially those journalists who have a duty to be on our side – those on the public payroll at the ABC and SBS – can not only improve their performance, but also demonstrate to their ultimate employers that they are doing their job and are prepared to display what Robertson calls ‘fruity aggro’.

1. Show the public you can get answers to the questions you have prepared

Most current affairs programs now have websites on which they publish the transcripts of the interviews conducted with politicians. They should also publish the list of prepared questions the interviewer has taken into these interviews, so the public can see for themselves if the interviewer had the skill and determination to get answers or was fobbed off.

2. Abandon time limits for important political interviews

Politicians are trained at great expense in the techniques needed to avoid answering questions in real time interviews. One of the fundamental tactics is to know how long the interview is going to run and then talk over the interviewer long enough to avoid being put on the spot with a difficult question. If an interview is important, let it run until its done.

3. Tell the audience who you intend to interview and ask for questions

Journalists display breathtaking arrogance in their refusal to allow their audience any chance to participate in the process of questioning our elected representatives. Every night we see journalists failing to ask the important questions or failing to get them answered. Current affairs programs should tell us in advance who they are going to interview and call for ideas.

4. Interviewers and executive producers have to display some guts

What was clear during all the interviews of John Howard conducted by the ABC before the invasion of Iraq was that every interviewer was just too scared to even attempt to use any of the tactics for the elimination of bullshit suggested by Jack Robertson. We need journalists and producers who display the courage of their convictions and a commitment to truth.

5. Compel politicians to face the questions of ordinary people

Tony Blair’s appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight program was the only time anyone displayed the intelligence and courage necessary to get answers out of him during the lead up to Iraq. The reason was that the audience were ordinary people who wanted the truth and weren'[t scared of him. If the journalists can’t get the truth give ordinary people a turn.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and you cant improve the quality of the public broadcasters journalists without pointing out their deficiencies. If you are not prepared to publish criticism of the people who let John Howard lie to the Australian people for six months, then please say so openly in your column. People need truth more than hope, Margo.


Web diarist Michael Strutt emailed a piece on Richard Butler’s history, in reply to his tribute to Dr Kelly which I published in Taking a stand. I don’t know the detail of Butler’s record as head of UNSCOM, but Richard gave a great little speech on the topic ‘Freedom from information’ at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. My notes are at home, but his advice on how to read the news and what questions to ask while reading it was brilliant. Former insiders who let us in on insiders games are a great asset to activists. Richard is doing a wonderful job speaking out on where this country is heading.

Richard Butler holds his title of ‘King of political spin’

by Michael Strutt

I am unsure as to whether I should see Richard Butler’s recent eulogy of David Kelly as another attempt by a pathological ‘diplomat’ to cynically spin current affairs for his own benefit or an example of unprecedented ironic self deprecation.

The sequence of events culminating in Dr Kelly’s suicide was already the most disgusting example of self serving government and media spin doctoring I have seen for some time. But to Butler it seemed to be little more than another opportunity to engage in historical revisionism of his leadership of UNSCOM.

During 1998 the efforts of UNSCOM were put under great pressure in Iraq, leading at the end of that year to Saddam Hussein shutting down our operation and throwing us out of the country.

No Richard, Saddam did not ‘throw you out of the country’. You withdrew the UNSCOM inspectors yourself upon receiving information that the US airforce was about to commence its December 1998 ‘Desert Fox’ bombings of Baghdad.

It was in this tense period that UNSCOM, and especially advisers like David Kelly who had been supplied by key Western states, came to be accused by Iraq and its supporters on the Security Council of serving the interests of their sending government rather than the UN.

This attempt to portray a recently deceased scientist as the main objection Iraqi authorities had to UNSCOM is so cynical it’s stomach turning.

UNSCOM came under fire for many reasons, but the most virulent and justified criticism was over its lack of independence and integrity due to Butler’s preparedness to make it subservient to US and Israeli intelligence agencies. It was Butler himself, not Kelly, who was criticised for using US/Israeli intelligence assets to gather information on Iraqi WMDs, in a manner that ensured that UNSCOM became an arm of those agencies. It was Butler himself who briefed the US Senate on what he had found in Iraq. And it was information supplied by Butler that was used by those setting the targets for the ‘Desert Fox’ air assault.

Perhaps the saddest irony is that Margo, apparently unwittingly, allowed a piece purporting to condemn the moral morass that spindoctors have made of the media to be used by one of the worst perpetrators to push his own self-serving agenda.

Its the short memory of the media and the preparedness of journos to overlook the lies of those they perceive as ideological allies that have allowed the likes of Butler to reduce the UK, US and Australian press to the corrupt appendage of authority they have become.


Webdiarist Marilyn Shepherd recommends ‘Standing firm’ in The Guardian on the journalistic implications of Dr Kelly’s suicide, which I publish below. I reckon the relentless Blair pressure is about ensuring the BBC becomes more defensive and less courageous in its future reporting. Richard Alston has had enormous success with this tactic, with the ABC now a mere blancmange when it comes to news and current affairs reporting. A couple of pockets of courageous, honest journalism remain, particularly Four Corners and Lateline.

To end this entry, I’ve republished today’s Australian Financial Review news story on how the Democrats look like splitting over the cross media legislation when it returns to the Senate in early October. Imagine how the BBC would cope without any independent media seeking to expose the truth behind Blair’s spin machine? That’s what the poor old ABC will face if Howard’s anti-democratic media ‘reforms’ get through. And that’s exactly what he wants (see Governing for the big two: Can people power stop them?).

Clivia Frieden in Dee Why, Sydney, wrote today:

In recent days, I have been getting more and more angry about more and more issues: education, health care, war, Tampa etc, etc. But at least I have been able to get angry about these issues because I have been able to read about them.

If the proposed changes to media ownership laws go ahead, none of us may be informed enough to generate any anger about such issues. It seems, though, that we here in Australia are not the only worried ones – at least some people in the US are worried, too, if ‘Murdoch’s Extended Reach’ in The Nation is anything to go by. An extract:

“Murdoch is on the cusp of fulfilling a longstanding ambition that will finally give him a global network of powerful orbiting, interactive, direct broadcast satellites. Imagine a torrential downpour of dozens of Fox News Channels targeting major US cities; a super-broadband site continuously promoting the viewpoints of the Weekly Standard; and the ability to focus similar political messages simultaneously in Asia, Europe and North and South America.”

There are a few good American websites on the Bush attempt to deliver more power to Murdoch. See mediareformdemocraticmedia and saveourmedia. An Australian website on Howard’s continuing attempt to deliver more power to Murdoch by abolishing cross media restrictions is under construction.


Standing firm

The Guardian, Monday July 21, 2003

The David Kelly tragedy has thrust the BBC into the limelight as has seldom happened before. Emily Bell examines the corporations’s role in the story and how it has conducted itself in the face of enormous pressure.

Yesterday morning the BBC finished what it had started. Following a final conference call between the director-general Greg Dyke, his director of news Richard Sambrook and head of corporate affairs Sally Osman, the corporation put out a statement confirming that microbiologist David Kelly was the source for defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan’s by now infamous story broken on the Today Programme on May 29.

The BBC does not relish its role at the heart of this story. It does not want to be the organisation which brings down a government, it has had its journalistic practices endlessly scrutinised and criticised, often by a national press whose own hygiene standards are far lower than those of the corporation.

It is an open secret that long before Gilligan dropped his timebomb of a government dossier made more sexy (like many of the confusing details of this story the words “sexed up” never appeared in his original disclosure), the BBC had been under relentless pressure from Downing Street’s communications directorate over its coverage of the Iraq conflict. Privately, Sambrook and his deputy Mark Damazer had seen a daily stream of pressure and complaint about the BBC’s reporting, orchestrated by Alastair Campbell, who later described the corporation as having an “anti-war agenda”.

Any correspondent who files reports for the BBC which are off-message knows what to expect; either an abusive tirade from Campbell in person or a multipaged letter complaining to their boss of their lack of journalistic rigour, or sometimes both. Editors, journalists, Sambrook and Damazer, know that it is part of the price for attempting to conduct independent journalism. When a recent academic study showed that the BBC had in fact given more airtime to government sources in the Iraqi conflict than any other news outlet it showed up the untenable nature of Campbell’s central complaint.

It will be impossible for the BBC not to ask itself questions about its own role in the death of Dr Kelly. Should it have acted differently in relation to Gilligan’s original story? Should it have given Dr Kelly more guidance or support in terms of his role in the story once he had been outed as the “mole”? Should the BBC be running uncorroborated single-source stories at all?

Even as Sambrook was negotiating the terms of yesterday’s statement with Dr Kelly’s family, elsewhere the destructively macho spin stand-off continued unabated.

One cabinet minister was allegedly suggesting to Sunday papers that Dr Kelly’s name had reached the public domain through a leak from the BBC’s chairman, Gavyn Davies. Something which the press already knew to be untrue, as Dr Kelly’s name slipped all too easily out of the Ministry of Defence – the very government department which employed him. It was confirmed by Campbell’s office which said they were “99% certain” Dr Kelly was the BBC’s “mole”.

Former minister and communications expert Peter Mandelson was busily penning an extraordinary piece for the Observer claiming that it was the BBC’s obsession with Alastair Campbell which had caused the tragedy. More spin which prompted an unnamed minister to also remark to the Observer: “Will we never learn?”.

The journalistic questions raised by Dr Kelly’s death are as profound as the political questions. Internally the BBC did not, as the government suggested, ever waver from backing its journalist or its story. BBC news executives might have been unhappy with Gilligan in respect of an article written for the Mail on Sunday, where he arguably dropped too many details about the source of his story. This resulted in an overdue ban on BBC correspondents penning columns for the national press.

Outside this particular point, the BBC’s procedures could have been improved with hindsight, but there are few journalistic organisations which could honestly say they would have been better or even different in the same circumstances. It was impossible for the BBC to disclose its source – the free flow of information rests on the principle that sources can talk to the press with a guarantee of anonymity. The promised public inquiry may reveal more about whether Dr Kelly did unilaterally come forward or whether there was pressure from the MoD which the BBC could have alleviated. Was saying anything at all about sources in effect saying too much? This is a very difficult point for a public-service broadcaster which is expected to show greater accountability than the commercial press.

Some might raise the question whether the nature of the original Gilligan story – which was disclosed in a “two-way” discussion on Today rather than in an edited package – was tightly edited enough. Although the two-way gives the impression of casual discourse, on stories such as this it is highly unlikely that the disclosure would not have been choreographed, possibly even scripted and that the story would not have been known to the editor. The two-way is often used as a device – ironically – to add impact to a story.

The government would like to see the BBC adhere to its own suggested guidelines of sourcing stories in triplicate, although this is an “ideal” rather than a rigid rule. But to shackle the BBC in the pursuit of original journalism would be entirely wrong – so long as the editorial processes bear scrutiny.

The BBC has not as a result of its bruising encounter changed any journalistic practices or issued new guidelines to producers or editors. As it said in its statement yesterday it will co-operate fully with the public inquiry – though it will not be drawn yet into whether it should abide by the terms of the public inquiry.

As for Gilligan’s story, the detail of his discussion with Dr Kelly was known only to the two of them. Whether or not it included any discussion of Campbell may never be fully established, and nor will the issue of whether Campbell deserves the apology he so doggedly and tragically pursued.

The BBC has stood behind its story and behind its journalist in a way which is entirely consistent with the operation of a free and independent media. Whether it stood by Dr Kelly in a way that would have alleviated his personal torture we may find through the public inquiry. Andrew Gilligan, who has suffered every journalist’s worst nightmare, will be suffering further agonies, as will the civil servants at the MoD and Downing Street. Alastair Campbell, it is widely assumed, will stay only until the outcome of the public inquiry, if that.

The BBC’s public stoicism is however bound to mask a subtle, even unconscious shift in its own journalistic psyche – and how that will impact on its future coverage may take years to work through. Meanwhile Dr Kelly and his family are the only part of the story for whom the spin, the bullying and the subterfuge can never be undone.


Democrats open media law talks

by Toni O’Loughlin

The Australian Financial Review, 22/07/2003

Tensions within the Australian Democrats over media ownership laws and the full privatisation of Telstra have intensified, raising speculation that the federal government may succeed in passing two of its most contentious bills through the Senate.

Senior Democrat sources claim the party’s media policy, along with several other policies including health, is under review.

The news comes as Democrats Senator Andrew Murray has warned his colleagues that he is considering voting for the full privatisation of Telstra, which is being opposed by Labor and the minor parties.

It is believed the Democrats’ media spokesman, Senator John Cherry, has been informally canvassing party members in an attempt to relax the party’s tough stance against the government’s media legislation, which is expected to be re-introduced to the parliament later this year.

“It was hard for the Democrats to negotiate with the government last time because the party was bound by the platform,” a senior party source said.

Senator Cherry has been canvassing “ordinary members who have an interest in [media policy] as well as state and national policy co-ordinators” to try and shift policy, the source said.

Democrats leader Senator Andrew Bartlett, who played down the review, said “it would be silly not to be talking to people”.

“I would be very surprised if he’s not, particularly as it seems to be a live issue,” he said.

However, Senator Cherry denied he had been reviewing the party’s policy.

“I’ve had no meetings with anybody on media policy,” Senator Cherry said.

Both senators said the government would have to give substantial ground if it wanted to negotiate with the Democrats, who will continue to insist that the big media players, notably Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch, should be stopped from growing any bigger.

Meanwhile, a report that Senator Murray was considering breaking with the party’s policy and backing the full privatisation of Telstra after the next election has reignited speculation that he might defect and join his former Democrat colleague Meg Lees in her new Progressive Alliance Party.

Spin undermining good policy

Andrew Wilkie’s experience is an important comment on the functioning of Western Democracies. Spin Doctors and firewalls around Ministerial responsibility are a corrosive disease on the democratic fabric. It is not only in the most prominent political battlegrounds of the coalition of the willing but throughout democracies at all levels of government that these tactics of political opportunism and survival are undermining the foundations of our democracies.

For many conservative Australians the disturbing aspect of Spin Doctors and firewalls is that many good policies are being undermined by the unnecessary spin used to implement and defend them. Whether policies stand or fall appears to be more reliant on the success or not of the spin than the merits of the policy. Firewalls play a similar role as they abrogate the responsibility of the Minister for the decisions the government makes.

The sovereign power of the people conferred upon politicians require that they be held responsible and accountable for their actions. Jack Robertson described several solutions to enhance the transparency surrounding the Ministers of our government and all have varying degrees of merit. All should be included in an attack on this unelected coterie of advisers, but more importantly Ministers should be held directly accountable for the actions of their advisers.

I do not claim to be all- knowing on this subject, and would be interested to know the answers to the following questions:

Isn’t the higher echelon of the public service supposed to offer advice on the positive and negative implication of policies? If so, then surely the coterie of advisers are only used in a party political sense.

Have Australian politicians always used publicly funded advisers who are not members of the public bureaucracy?

Has there been a significant change in the powers of parliamentary committees to investigate Ministerial conduct? Have they been officially or unofficially detoothed?

I ask these questions because if the parliament is not a proxy for the people then we are not living in a democracy. The ballot box is NOT the ONLY vehicle for the public holding politicians accountable – in fact one of the parliament’s major functions is to represent the public interest between election periods. Politicians have failed to see the trees for the forest – their political opponents represent the collective will of a large proportion of any given electorate and Parliamentary committees have a right to hold Ministers accountable on an ongoing basis.

Whether or not you believe that the War on Iraq was justified, transparency and accountability in our democracy appears to be at a low ebb. John Howard, Bob Carr and all democratic leaders should be held accountable for their actions and the actions of their spin doctors.

Margo: Dan, you’re such a romantic! For the truth about our utterly compromised public service and our politicians’ completely unaccountable political advisers, see former public servant John Nethercote’s analysis of the children overboard inquiry at What servants are for. John wrote:

“For the public service, the affair demonstrates its fragility in the face of both ministers and, more perniciously, ministerial staffers. In the absence of adequate means to bring ex-ministers and ministerial staff to account, it demonstrates the vulnerability of the modern public service.”