Citizens asked to help investigative journalists

Comment, compilation by

Barry Tucker                    10 October, 2013 (updated 11 Oct)

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and The Guardian are attempting to recruit members of the public in an investigative reporting role.

Newspapers have been asking for news tips, photographs and Letters to the Editor on matters of public interest for many years now — but the SMH initiative is entirely new.

The subject under scrutiny is the expense claims of federal politicians — a story that broke in the MSM more than a week ago (it has been in Social Media for a year or more).

Yesterday, the SMH asked readers to “Help Fairfax Media investigate politicians’ expenses“.

The online Guardian did the same, posting a searchable database in its Datablog section.

The SMH story, reproduced on the newspaper’s online edition, provided links to official .pdf documents that contain details of politicians’ expense claims. Readers were told they could locate an individual politician, see a list of their expense claims and report by an email link provided if they thought something breached the rules.

There’s good and bad in the idea. The chance for concerned citizens to participate further in the politics of their country and the vigilance of their news media is good. But the opportunity also presents some danger, especially in regard to careless or inaccurate reporting by, hopefully, well-meaning amateurs. The rules involving politicians’ expense claims are detailed, complicated and variable. Of course, the journalists involved will double-check any details before publishing them.

The article advises that further investigation is required to match an expense claim with the politician’s actual activities on that day. An example is given of a visit by then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to the New South Wales Central Coast town of Port Macquarie on 5 November, 2011.

Mr Abbott said the trip, which involved air travel via Brisbane, many hundreds of kilometres north of Port Macquarie, was for an Iron Man event, “official business” and other community events in the marginal electorate.

This is how the Port Macquarie News followed up yesterday, reporting from its files and some local phone calls. Notice that the online news outlet cannot verify some of Mr Abbott’s claims with certainty.

As noted above, social media has been running comment on politicians expenses, especially those of Mr Abbott, for at least a year. Impetus was provided by Margo Kingston’s revelations of Mr Abbott’s claims for expenses associated with promoting his book Battle Lines. See the No Fibs website for further details.

Some of the Twitter reactions to the SMH article:


Graphic composites like the one below also appear frequently on Twitter and Facebook:

Abbott expenses

More information about Tony Abbott’s expenses appears on the PhoneyTonyAbbott website.

Today’s (10 October, 2013) includes the latest iSentia Index, which shows that politicians’ expense rorting is the big topic of discussion. You might have to register for a free trial subscription to read the iSentia story.

Tony Abbott today (10 October) said he would not be seeking any change to the rules concerning politicians’ expenses. He said Ministers must be free to travel and should not be confined to their offices. Choose from a selection of stories on Abbott’s opinion in this Google search result.

Update, 23 October, 2013

The actions of the SMH and the Guardian have been supported in an article in The Conversation today.

Future news
The story, by Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology, is titled ‘Democratising’ journalism: should we have more of it in Australia?