Guardian Aus compromises its integrity

Guardian logo

Comment & compilation by Barry Tucker                    5 June, 2013

The Guardian Aus has compromised its credibility twice in the first few days of its appearance.

Its latest gaffe is to buckle under to bullying by the Liberal National Party’s Deputy Leader and foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop.

In the latest development on this fiasco, published in The Guardian today, Trade Minister Craig Emerson has asked the Speaker, Anna Burke, to refer Bishop to the parliamentary privileges committee for allegedly misleading the House. (When I followed up with Mr Emerson on 21 September, 2013, he said he couldn’t recall referring Ms Bishop. He said he did criticise Bishop over her remarks, but thought if she had been referred the Speaker would have disallowed it.)

In Question Time on Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Bishop “has embarrassed the Coalition, embarrassed the Opposition and embarrassed the nation”.

The Prime Minister was referring to Bishop’s attempt to back away from what she was reported as saying in the Guardian earlier that day, and for referring to contradictory remarks by the Indonesian Ambassador as: “I would expect the Ambassador to say those things publicly.”

Such a suggestion is grossly insulting to any Ambassador and has the potential to create difficulties for the government, for the Opposition and again for the Opposition if it forms government after the 14 September election.

In the House yesterday, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor accused Bishop of an “unprecedented attack” on the Indonesian Ambassador.

The points I have made above suggest to me that the Guardian made an error of judgment in bowing to pressure to change the headline on the story and to insert a paragraph to accommodate Bishop’s claim that she had insisted repeatedly to the Guardian interviewer that no formal agreement had been reached with the Indonesian government.

Another reason for saying the Guardian has compromised itself early in the game is its running of a pathetic story that was virtually a copy of a transcript of a phone hook-up with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and 8,000 voters in a government-held seat. The “story” wouldn’t even qualify as stenography and overlooked four or five good leads to real stories — why I will never understand.


Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema

‘… I think there is no such collaboration will happen …’

The “original” story with an additional paragraph.

Indonesia Ambassador and Coalition at odds
on turning back boats policy.

ABC PM’s Ashley Hall reported on the Ambassador’s remarks in the 6pm program on Friday, 31 May, and introduced an interview of Bishop by Alexandra Kirk.

In that radio interview Bishop says:

“I agree with the Ambassador’s observation that Indonesia is also under pressure from a resurgent people-smuggling trade and this has occurred largely because the Labor government in Australia has weakened the laws to make Australia a target destination.”

Now, I take issue with that remark. The size of the problem has increased because “… the Labor government in Australia has weakened the laws to make Australia a target destination”. In other words, the Labor government has deliberately weakened the laws so that refugees will want to come here.

That is sheer nonsense. Australia is scooping refugees off the seas and detaining them either on the mainland or in steamy tropical locales in stinking hot tents and often without adequate medical and other facilities. Hardly an inducement to pay $10,000 (the often quoted figure) to get on a dicey fishing boat and risk your life on a hazardous and sometimes fatal sea voyage. On the mainland, while free to roam, other refugees are struggling with housing, paying for food and are not allowed to take up paid work.

This is an example of where Bishop’s spoken words get beyond her capacity to form logical, sensible and well thought out statements. See what The Australian’s Greg Sheridan has to say about this aspect of Bishop’s conduct below.

Deputy Opposition Leader and trade spokesperson, Julie Bishop

Deputy Opposition Leader and trade spokesperson, Julie Bishop

Kirk’s interview with Bishop was done after the Indonesian Ambassador made his statement, earlier in the day.

The Ambassador, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, made the remarks during an address to the University of Canberra National Security Institute. His comments were reported by The Telegraph in its NEWS on-line edition, in a non-bylined story issued by AAP.

No boat turnbacks, Indonesia says

Following the Ambassador’s comments last Friday, Lenore Taylor contacted Bishop to ask whether the Ambassador’s comments changed the views she had expressed in the interview. Bishop responded that they did not. “I would expect the Ambassador to say those things publicly,” she said.

After the Guardian story was published on Monday morning Bishop contacted the Guardian to complain about the story’s headline and to point out she had repeatedly stated to the interviewer that no agreement had been reached with Indonesia.

This led to the front page headline being altered and another paragraph being inserted into the story.

The original headline: “Indonesia have agreed to co-operate in turning back boats, insists Coalition

was changed to read: “Indonesia ‘would co-operate’ with Coalition on boats

and this paragraph was added to the story:

Bishop emphasised it was not possible to reach any agreement with a foreign government from opposition and no formal agreement with Indonesia had been reached.

Probably due to the row that broke out in Parliament during Question Time, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner published a “clarification”.

What is not clarified — and should be — is why Taylor’s story, written days before, was held off for the second Monday edition. Did she know the Ambassador would be addressing the university on Friday, 31 May?

SBS Television World News at 4.45pm on Monday reported on the kerfuffle during Question Time in the House earlier that day. Here’s part of that story:

But during question time on Monday, the Prime Minister said Ms Bishop had not treated the Indonesians with respect and now was backing away in a “shambolic” manner.

“The Deputy Leader has embarrassed the Coalition, embarrassed the Opposition and embarrassed the nation,” she told the House of Representatives.

Labor would never try to “verbal” Indonesian authorities during discussions about border security, but instead tried to work cooperatively, she said.

Ms Bishop later sought leave to claim she was misrepresented, adding the publication had since retracted its headline and amended the article.

“At no time did I say in an interview … that the Coalition had either negotiated or reached an agreement with Indonesia,” she said.

“Indeed I said repeatedly in that interview that the Coalition in Opposition cannot reach agreements with foreign governments.”

In an article published on 14 February, 2011, The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote:

“Bishop has been the worst Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson in the 30-odd years that I have watched this position closely.

“You couldn’t even begin to list the astonishing blunders she has made in the portfolio.”

Sheridan’s article concluded:

“Bishop was a dreadful failure as Treasury spokeswoman and is now a dreadful failure in foreign affairs. That sentence, that judgment, is entirely my own, though it is indeed widely shared.”

I can’t find the original page 1 headline on the Guardian’s Monday edition story. But on-line media website mUmBRELLA has referred to it:

The initial story which ran yesterday morning was headlined: ”Indonesia have agreed to co-operate in turning back boats, insists Coalition” and was quickly labelled a “beat up” by Bishop.

(A minor point, but “have” in that headline should be “has”. I’m finding common errors in the Guardian’s sub-editing.)

Could the Guardian have withstood the blast from Bishop’s office and waited for a writ to be issued, or referral to the Australian Press Council? No. The Guardian has not joined the press council.

In its story, mUmBRELLA reports that the Guardian is open to joining the press council, but not before the Australian edition is “more established”.

The mUmBRELLA story, by Nic Christensen, published on Tuesday, 4 June, reported Viner as saying:

“The Guardian has a strong focus on open, independent journalism and a long tradition of effective self-regulation.”

Last year amid the national debate around media regulation many of Australia’s leading news websites joined the self regulatory body. 

Taylor got a chance to re-state her story on Tuesday, 4 June, after the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Immigration Minister, Brendan O’Connor, criticised Bishop’s statements and her public rebuttal of the Indonesian Ambassador.

Also on Tuesday, the Guardian published an AAP story in which federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott named the Indonesian officials with whom he, Deputy Leader Bishop and Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison had discussed the refugee situation. There had been “a lot” of discussions with senior Indonesian government members, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, and the Ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, Abbott was reported as saying.

Abbott is also insisting that an agreement on returning boats to Indonesia can be reached if his Coalition forms government, based on the fact that the boats have Indonesian crews and departed from Indonesian ports. That belief is also at odds with Indonesian minister’s statements that the refugees should be returned to their home countries, not to Indonesia.

Abbott has made no specific mention of the fate of the passengers on those boats. I wish one of the clever people in the Canberra Press Gallery would ask him a question about that.

Julie Bishop must explain or apologise
for Indonesia comments, says Labor

On ABC RN this morning (5 June), Trade Minister Craig Emerson repeated his claim that in her interview with the Guardian Bishop was trying to form the impression that an agreement had been reached with Indonesia on turning back boats.

The series of events led me into error in a Tweet. Initially, I did not know the Taylor/Bishop interview had been conducted 13 days earlier (on 20 May) and I was not aware of the changed headlines and inserted paragraph until I read Viner’s “clarification”.


The Tweet above refers to the paragraph that was inserted AFTER the original story was published.

Update, June 8.

Liberal backbencher Steve Ciobo (Moncrieff, Qld) added to the controversy on the ABC Lateline program Friday Forum on 7 June when explaining why he though a LNP government would be able to turn back the boats:

“Well, it would be extraordinary that an Indonesian flagged vessel is not allowed to dock in Indonesia. That would be an extraordinary change of events.”

You can watch the iView replay, or read the transcript.