Journalistic confidence trivialised at media ball

by on June 23, 2017

WHAT does “off the record” mean? When I taught journalism at the University of Canberra I routinely asked my classes this question when covering the treatment of sources. The answers were varied. The question has arisen again in the light of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s speech at the “off-the-record” press gallery mid-winter’s ball and the enlightening Four Corners program on how Chris Masters got his material on the “Moonlight State” that blew apart the systemic corruption in the Queensland Police three decades ago.

After asking about “off the record”, I then would ask: What does “background” mean? And what does “deep background” mean. Again the answers were varied.

Now, it may well be that among journalists, especially those in the US, these terms of art are well understood, but not so among the public, including students who are yet to be journalists, and among people who become journalists’ sources.

Some think “background” or “deep background” means unpublishable stuff to give context to what is publishable. Some think “off the record” means never to be published, but again divulged to give context.

So the true answer to these questions is that they mean different things to different people. I advised my students simply not to use these terms and that if a source used them, to always clarify what the source meant, by requiring answers to two questions: what can be published and how can it be attributed?

The attribution is important. A Greens Member of Parliament, for example, who wanted to air disquiet about a policy anonymously could be exposed if the remarks were attributed to “a Greens MP” and that MP’s colleagues knew that she was the only Green to have that view.

A coal-industry source, say an employee of a lobbyist with a good conscience, handing over detailed information about adverse health effects of coal could be exposed if the material was attributed to “a coal-industry source”. She could lose her job.

So both the journalist and the source should clarify what “off the record” means.

It is in the public interest that these sources are protected and that journalists never advertently or inadvertently expose them. Without these sources critical information and acts of malfeasance might never be exposed.

The “Moonlight State” is a classic example of how reporting malfeasance to the “proper authorities” rather than leaking to the media is useless. In this case the people at the very top of the “proper authorities” were the malfeasors themselves.

History has abundant examples of wrong-doing being addressed only after media exposure and after “proper authorities” had sat on their hands: child abuse; animal abuse; police, business and political corruption.

Thirty years after the Four Corners’ exposure which led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the jailing of the Queensland Police Commissioner, among others, for corruption, the sources voluntarily told their story. Without those sources and their ability to trust journalist Chris Masters, who knows how long the corruption would have continued?

So, it was a bit concerning that the Press Gallery Ball was the venue for the belittling of the “off the record” system. Someone took a video of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s admittedly very witty and self-deprecating impersonation of President Donald Trump. That video was acquired by journalist Laurie Oakes who was not present at the ball and felt he was not bound by its “off-the-record” status. He is right on that score. He is also right in saying it was absurd that the ball was “off the record”.

Indeed, I would go further and say that any communication with more than two (or at a push three) media outlets cannot be “off the record”. Unless you can track anyone who might breach a confidence, the confidence is meaningless.

The organisers of future Midwinter Balls should remove the “off-the-record” status of the speeches at the event – as is the case in the US. President Obama’s addresses at these event were gems of good humour at the expense of political friends and foes, and were on the record.

Obviously, private conversations at these events would be “off the record”. The social context would tell the journalists and politicians that. A journalist would need to ask at the event or after whether the material could be used and if so how it should be attributed, if at all.

It is not as if this problem came out of the blue. At the 1990 “off the record” Press Gallery ball Paul Keating’s calling himself the Placido Domingo of Australian politics was thought too important not to be made public. Keating also described Prime Minister John Curtin as “a trier”.

One journalist broke the “off-the-record” rule, and the floodgates burst.

“Off-the-record” status is simply inappropriate for large entertainment-style events addressed by a major public figure.

Chatham House rules in a sober environment where journalists discuss issues with political, bureaucratic and business leaders work well. Anything discussed can be published but not attributed. However, confidentiality via “off-the-record” rules is too important to be trivialised at a Midwinters Ball.

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While on the topic of journalism, how do we fund public-interest journalism in the internet age?

Google and Facebook take $3.2 billion in ad revenue while cannibalising Australian journalism for free. Pre-internet, 80 per cent of print revenue came from advertisements and the rest from subscription. Now it is only 50 per cent and falling. How will public-interest journalism be paid for, or will there be less of it?

Politicians do not like the scrutinising media and often attack the publicly funded ABC. So there may be little appetite among politicians for feeding the hand that bites them, but it may be the best, or only, way.

Collaboration between the publicly owned ABC and privately owned Fairfax Media has produced excellent public-interest journalism. Maybe we need a mechanism whereby the public broadcasters pay the print-news portal owner for its journalistic contribution.

Politicians should not just watch the decline of independent text journalism and do nothing.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 24 June 2017.

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