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?


Press Council upholds two complaints re AWU affair

By Barry Tucker                    20 September, 2013

The Press Council has upheld two complaints by Melbourne law firm Slater & Gordon relating to stories about the so-called AWU affair.

The complaints relate to articles written by Fairfax Media’s Editor-at-Large Mark Baker. The stories appeared in Fairfax Media’s The Age,The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times on 13 October, 2012.

The council’s ruling refers to the “publication” and does not name the journalist. In part, the ruling said:

“The Council has concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure fairness in the report in relation to whether the firm held a file on incorporation of the association. Even if the story is interpreted as having done no more than report allegations, rather than endorse them, their gravity was such that the firm should have been given a reasonable opportunity to respond prior to publication. The legal correspondence relied on by the publication did not provide sufficiently strong grounds for its failure to do so. The Council has also concluded that failure to seek comment for fear of triggering an injunction may be justifiable in some circumstances but in this instance the risk of an injunction did not relate to the statements in question and they could readily have been checked with the firm. Accordingly, the complaint about the report is upheld on these grounds.”

Complaints about three other statements in the articles were not upheld by the council.

News media that signs up to and submits to the council’s adjudications are required to publish the council’s rulings. The ruling was reported in Fairfax Media newspapers, the Michael Smith blog, the online magazines Independent Australia, and elsewhere.

The article is behind the pay wall, but you can sign up for a free one-month subscription. Mr Baker replied to the report with a statement that Independent Australia describes as “bizarre”.

You can read the Independent Australia story here and Mr Baker’s statement to here.

Read the Press Council’s ruling in full here.

Other Press Council rulings can be found here.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker

Mark Baker’s profile, from The Age online: Mark Baker is a former Managing Editor (National) of Fairfax Metro Media, Senior Editor of The Age and Editor of The Canberra Times. He spent more than 13 years as a staff correspondent in Asia, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a former Political Editor and Canberra Bureau Chief of The Age.

A few hours after posting the above story, Michael Smith advised me that the Press Council had issued a further Notice relating to some of the reporting of its findings. The council took exception to a statement that the journalist in questions [sic] had “fabricated evidence”, as claimed on one website.

You can read the Press Council’s further Notice, or Update, here.

On his website, Michael Smith commented on Mark Baker and Slater & Gordon under the headline: “Mark Baker — verballed by people who do what they falsely accuse Mark of doing”.

His brief story included a reproduction of the council’s further Notice and a link to the original. Some comments appear below the story.

26 September. reports that Mark Baker is not happy with the Press Council ruling, which he says is “flawed and illogical”. Mr Baker underscores his anger by saying “The council would be greatly improved if they banned people with a preference for cardigans and twin-sets from membership.”

Read all about it. You might have to subscribe to a free monthly subscription to It’s worth it.

Pressure builds against news media bias

Comment By Barry Tucker                    28 August, 2013

Official action to correct unbalanced and biased political reporting in Australian news media has begun. It may be too little, too late to save the federal Labor government, with an election 10 days away.

The move gained weight when Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd protested against the front pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph that have appeared since the election campaign began.

Tele front page, day 1.

Tele front page, day 1.

The Daily Telegraph and Murdoch’s Brisbane paper, The Courier-Mail, have since ridiculed Labor MPs, once depicting them as Hogan’s Heroes characters, some wearing Nazi uniforms.


Col Allan, mastermind of tabloid covers. NY Times pic

Col Allan, mastermind of tabloid covers.
NY Times pic

On day 1 of the campaign, PM Rudd claimed Murdoch had told his journalists “to go hard on Rudd and don’t back off“. Here’s an ABC radio follow-up. The original story is hard to find in the mainstream Press, but follow-ups are plentiful — telling in itself. Back in May, Murdoch tweeted that “polls show nothing can save this miserable government. People decided and tuned out months ago”. The Liberal National Party Opposition has stated that the government’s claims of news media bias are false.


In an interview in The Australian (Murdoch’s flagship national broadsheet), the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said Mr Rudd got the media coverage he deserved.

On August 12, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Communications*, Anthony Albanese, said News Corp journalists had told him they were “embarrassed” by the effects of the reporting and front pages since the election campaign began. (*Communications includes broadband, ABC and media generally).

Visiting British MP Tom Watson (@Tom_Watson) told Fairfax’s The Australian Financial Review Murdoch’s tabloids had become propaganda sheets that abuse their monopoly position.

Mr Watson has appeared on numerous radio and tv programs during his visit (he sat on the UK parliamentary committee that investigated allegations of phone hacking by Murdoch and other UK journalists). He is here to observe the conduct of the Murdoch news media during the election campaign, not to conduct an exposé of Murdoch newspapers as it was originally reported.

Early on Tuesday (August 27), PM Rudd said all Australians should view Monday night’s episode of the ABC’s Media Watch, which provided evidence of biased political coverage by News Corp. Graphs used in that program demonstrated the extent of the negative coverage of the government and the favourable coverage of the Opposition. The Daily Telegraph and Ms Gemma Jones, a Telegraph reporter named in the Media Watch program, have stated they will complain to the ABC and the Australian Communications and Media Authority over the episode.

On Tuesday, the Australian Press Council’s chairman Julian Disney wrote to all major newspapers’ editors, pointing out that guidelines require their papers to distinguish between news and opinion. AAP produced a report on the APC chairman’s lettter, reproduced in Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald. Read the Reuters version of the story.

Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer, convenor of the Palmer United Party (PUP), with candidates standing in every federal seat, has been critical of Murdoch, of news media coverage and the political Duopoly — the dominance of two major and opposing political parties. Mr Palmer has said the news media is operating to maintain this dominance at the expense of minor parties. He recently clashed with controversial ABC radio presenter Jon Faine over allegations of sexual misconduct against two PUP candidates.

Mr Palmer hung up on Mr Faine — terminating a brief and shouty interview. Before hanging up, Mr Palmer suggested the presentation of unproven allegations was typical of the unethical practices of some news media.

Mr Faine has been “spoken to” by ABC management over a interview in which he aggressively sought proof of journalists’ allegations of professional misconduct by former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her time as a lawyer with the Australian Workers Union (AWU). The allegations have not been presented before a court and remain unproven.

It is increasingly clear that the connection between the news media and opinion polls needs to be broken. ABC management must be free of political allegiances. Journalists have guidelines designed to assure impartiality and they are easy to work with. The Labor government’s attempt to introduce changes to the structure of the APC were amateurish and inadequate and would have done nothing to improve the situation, beyond limiting the amalgamation of news media ownership. Ultimately, the journalists themselves have the power to continue or to end the present unsatisfactory and unfair situation which is clearly not in the best interests of Australia’s democracy.