A fair media - let no threat get in the way
“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it,” said John Pilger.
Article courtesy of The Stringer - http://thestringer.com.au/
Seasoned journalist Kate McClymont delivered a speech, now widely referred to as the ‘Where angels fear to tread’ speech, at the Australian Press Freedom Dinner in early May. The event was hosted by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance and the Walkley Foundation for Journalism.
Ms McClymont said she had recently received an email from a Lorraine Osborn asking in effect who will shine the light on serious corruption if the press will not.
The email referred to NSW’s Eddie Obeid and asked, “People like us would like to know what people like you have been doing over the last decade while Eddie Obeid has been perverting the Labor Party.”
“Were you just standing by until ICAC cleared the ground for you?” wrote Lorraine.
Ms McClymont said during her speech, “For democracy to function it is essential that we have a free and fearless press.”
“Ban Ki-Moon, Secretaray-General of the United Nations, recently spoke of the problem of freedom of expression in the face of treats to journalists.”
Mr Ban Ki-Moon said, “Because they help ensure transparency and accountability in public affairs, journalists are frequent targets of violence. We must show resolve in the face of such insecurity and injustices.” He spoke in honour of the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day – May 3, 2013.
Ms McClymont noted that the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is ‘Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.”
“Thankfully, journalists in Australia have not been killed on home soil while reporting. But that’s not to say many of our number are not subject to intimidation, surveillance and threats. Four shots were fired into Hedley Thomas’ Brisbane house in 2002.”
“Tonight, I want to talk about those behind-the-scenes threats and how difficult the ‘fearless’ aspect of journalism can be.”
“It is our job to bring to light the things that those in power don’t want the public to see. This means there are an array of very powerful people who will do almost anything to shut you up.”
Ms McClymont pointed out that it is not the job of journalists to either ingratiate themselves or circumvent acrimony if the job of journalists is to be fearless.
“Only last week, author Bob Ellis wrote, ‘Kate McClymont ruined my life and I do not like her. She is going after Craig Thomson lately, and she had better watch it,” said Ms McClymont.
“Jockey Jim Cassidy once spat on my back… ‘You fucking bitch, you’ve ruined my life.’”
“Tom Domican, who over the years has been charged with one murder, one attempted murder and five conspiracies to murder and acquitted of the lot – once had a message delivered to me. If I was a man he would have broken my jaw by now, Domican said.”
Ms McClymont spoke of her colleague Linton Besser.
“What has happened to Linton recently is both disgraceful and really frightening.”
“For years Linton has been writing about the Kazal brothers. There are eight of them all up. Although they claim they are just an average family that has fallen victim to an evil press, this is a very connected set of siblings. They have ties to ruling families in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, along with a friendship with the son of the late Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.”
“Back here in Australia, the Kazals have sponsored a string of Federal and State politicians to visit the United Arab Emirates. They have also hosted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and then his Deputy Julia Gillard at their restaurants.”
“The Kazals have also extracted favourable deals from Government authorities for their nightclub and restaurants at the Rocks near Sydney’s Circular Quay.”
“Meanwhile, in the Federal Parliament they have been accused of money laundering, branch stacking and receiving favours from the Labor Party.”
“In September 2010 the front page of The Herald ran a story by Linton under the headline, ‘Secret favours greased Rocks deal’ and ‘Harbour official took developers’ junkets.”
“The Kazals came after Linton in a big way. They sued him personally, they sued the Herald, they sued Ray Hadley from 2GB who had interviewed Linton over the story.”
“Eventually, the Kazals walked away from the lawsuits with nothing. But while the Kazals were pursuing Linton through the Courts, as a result of Linton’s revelations, the Independent Commission Against Corruption were pursuing the Kazals. At the end of the inquiry, the ICAC found that Charif Kazal had engaged in corrupt conduct. Charif Kazal took action in the Supreme Court to have this corrupt conduct funding overturned. He lost.”
Ms McClymont said that despite all this grief for Linton he recently wrote a story about the Kazals and of what happened to the former business partner Rodric David. The story was published on March 16.”
“For starters, Rodric David was thrown into prison in Abu Dhabi. When he returned to Australia, David said he was followed by an unidentified man. The same man turned up outside the David’s children’s school. It turned out that man was a private investigator employed by the Kazals,” said Ms McClymont.
“It was a frightening tale and the end result was that Rodric David and his family moved overseas.”
“On the morning that Linton Besser’s story appeared Ms McClymont said “Linton was told that some of the Kazals were in the Herald’s foyer.”
“Linton arranged to meet them to listen to their concerns. At 2pm Linton met Adam and Oscar Kazal. The brothers were accompanied by their ‘muscle’, who tried to film Linton during this meeting. “
“The Kazals told Linton that they knew all about him, they knew he had a young family and it might be advisable if Linton did not write about them anymore.”
“The Kazals were doing to Linton exactly what they had done to Rodric David in Linton’s story. As Linton was telling the police about the Kazals, he got a message to contact his wife urgently. While Linton was speaking to the police in Pyrmont, Adam Kazal was buzzing the door at Linton’s residence, where his wife was home with their two young children.”
“When the police confronted Adam Kazal outside Linton’s house, he claimed to be there on the off chance of catching Linton at home so he could speak to him.”
“No journalist wants to put themselves or their family at risk. But if press freedom is going to flourish, journalists often have to make the difficult decision that puts the interests of the public’s right to know before their own personal safety.”
Linton Besser’s story is one of many – one of many stories here in Australia, of the intimidation often surrounding journalists. For every story of corruption and criminality pursued and broken by the Linton Bessers there are scores that go untold, unheard and are not pursued – and this is because of much more sophisticated contrivances by those who are prepared to cheat, lie and deceive. There are Eddie Obeids all over the country, and they work closely with the mostly influential Australians and with the highest offices in the nation. Cultures of favour dispensation support them and allow them to get away with corruption and criminality, often blatantly masked. They bank on the premise that our capacity to discover the truth is outstripped by their ability to manifest deceit. To assist them in this is their further misuse of ill-gotten accumulated wealth. They use some of their gains to afford the misuse and abuse of the power of the law of itself, so as to improperly and maliciously come down hard on those without the significant wealth to afford what those who practice the law can offer them.
The free press and whistle-blower laws in this country are not what they should be, they are very weak and prone to such high risk exposure of individuals and journalist that the law itself tests the resilience of whistle-blowers and investigative journalists.
Defamation actions are often the tools of those who are prepared to lie, cheat and to deceive for their quid, and who with their ill-gotten gains of significant wealth can therefore afford to spend some of it to hide the rest from scrutiny.
Ms McClymont spoke of her time as a fresh-faced researcher starting in 1987 on the ABC’s Four Corners. She came on board when journalist Chris Master’s story, ‘The Moonlight State’ was about to go to air.
“For weeks Chris, along with producer Shaun Hoyt and researcher Deb Whitmont had been working on this amazing expose of police corruption in Queensland. The office was full of talk of police turning a blind eye to illegal gambling and prostitution, and of money passing in brown paper bags.”
“Phil Dickie from the ‘The Courier-Mail’ had also uncovered a great deal about this high-level corruption. ‘The Moonlight State’ was investigative journalism at its finest.”
“The timing of the program was exquisite. Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen was away when ‘The Moonlight State’ aired and before Sir Joh could kill it dead, his Deputy had announced an inquiry. Within a fortnight the terms of reference for what became knowns as the Fitzgerald Inquiry had been drawn up.”
The Fitzgerald Inquiry went on for two years.
“Three former National Party Ministers went to jail, as did the Police Commissioner Terry Lewis,” said Ms McClymont.”
“It also spelled the end of the road for Sir Joh.”
“But behind the scenes Masters was paying a huge personal price for his work. For 12 years he battled defamation actions brought by Vince Bellino, whose family was mentioned in the program in connection with the drug trade.”
“Over those long years, 14 judges dealt with Bellino’s case and it went to the High Court twice. Bellino lost at every turn, except when the High Court ordered a re-trial, which once again Bellino lost. In 1999, 12 years after the program went to air, Bellino’s second visit to the High Court was this time unsuccessful.”
“It was a hollow victory. The experience left Masters not only shattered and disillusioned but convinced that good journalism was the real loser in this case. ‘Journalists and broadcasters are just not going to do stories when defamation proceedings become as arduous and lengthy as this one was. It is what I call death by a thousand courts,’ said Masters.”
“The nation’s wealthy and powerful have often used legal threats to stop journalists’ inquiries or at least to put the frighteners on them.”
“With the media industry in such dire financial straits this legal threat can prove too much for all but the largest of media organisations.”
“For smaller companies, freelancers and bloggers, freedom of the press is a wonderful concept but the prospect of personally funding a court action against the coffers of a business tycoon is not realistic.”
There is a reason that some of the wealthiest litigate again and again, and this is because of the effect it will have on all media organisations. They became wary of taking someone who habitually litigates. Unfortunately, the bottom dollar matters.”
Ms McClymont in her speech pointed out that it may affect “your own coverage of a story and you start to second guess yourself.”
“This is a great story but if I write it, will it look like I am pursuing a vendetta?”
Back to Eddie Obeid:
“In August 2006, The Daily Telegraph reported this, ‘An article in The Sydney Morning Herald, implying that former Government Minister Eddie Obeid as corrupt, was a ‘scurrilous piece of tittle tattle’, the Supreme Court heard yesterday,” said Ms McClymont.
“’It was an absolutely disgraceful and dishonest piece of journalist, one of the worst of the many in The Herald’ said Bruce McClintock, SC, acting for Mr Obeid, said.”
“What McClintock was referring to was a 2002 story Anne Davies and I had written suggesting that Eddie Obeid had sought a $1 million payment to the ALP in return for solving the Bulldogs’ problems with their Oasis development.”
Obeid won $162,000 in damages from Fairfax and court costs.
“I cannot even begin to explain how devastating it was. You lose confidence in yourself and you swear you will never write a difficult story ever again.”
But good journalists, like any good people, pick themselves up again.
“On one occasion I rang Eddie Obeid to put a question to him. This was his response. ‘I tell you what, you put one word out of place and I will take you on again. You are a lowlife. I will go for you, for the jugular.’”
In NSW Parliament, Eddie Obeid said, “McClymont has been mixing with scum for so long that she no longer knows who is good and who is bad, what is real and what is made up. She has become the journalistic equivalent of a gun moll with glittering associations with the not so well-to-do.”
“How many more times must my sons and I take action in the Courts to redress the damage this journalist has inflicted?” Obeid said while using parliamentary privilege.
Last year, Ms McClymont tried to interview Mr Obeid over the matters relating to the now infamous coal exploration licences and the alleged meetings with former NSW Mining Minister Ian Macdonald.
Ms McClymont fired off the question to Mr Obeid, “At any time have you or any of your family members had any interest – either directly or held beneficially on your behalf – in Cascade Coal, Voope, Desert Sands Holdings, Loyal Coal or White Energy?”
Lo and behold, or rather naturally so, Mr Obeid’s legal representatives were instructed to respond. According to Ms McClymont a letter “was penned” by one of the partners of Colin Biggers & Paisley, “the very same law firm that was later revealed at the ICAC to have been involved in setting up the necessary legal structures for the Obeid family to disguise their gains by subverting a government tender.”
The letter included, ‘Ms McClymont and the Herald have conducted a long-running vendetta against Mr Obeid and members of the Obeid family. We have been instructed to take appropriate steps to bring those matters to a head and to prevent future harassment of Mr Obeid and the Obeid family by The Herald and its reporters.”
Unlike many others Mr Obeid has been exposed and is paying the price for his indiscretions.
“People often ask me whether I get frightened or if I get threats. The answer to both of those is yes. No one likes to be threatened or to find out that they have been placed under surveillance. But we are the public’s eyes and ears, we are their conscience. If we don’t shine a light on serious corruption, who will?”
“For society to enjoy the benefits of a free press, then its journalists must have the courage and honesty not to look the other way,” said Ms McClymont.
It is also important that legislation is finely balanced to protect the rights of a free press and of the journalists who uphold the tenets that deliver a free press and the public interest.
“All of you here tonight, who regard yourselves as serious journalists, the best way to ensure we have genuine freedom of the press in this country is for you to remember you are the custodians of a great legacy. You have a responsibility to look behind the spin, the press releases and the deals, so that Lorraine Osborn and other members of the public can have faith that we did not look the other way.”
Australia’s media is not targeted in the ways media is targeted or controlled in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan or as was in Greece. In Sri Lanka, unidentified gunmen shoot – injuring or killing – journalists and editors-in-chief.
Sri Lanka had been considered one of the most perilous places for journalists during the last decade and many still argue it remains so. Most of the stories pursued by Sri Lankan investigative journalists who had been shot or murdered were stories of corruption, money laundering, illegal transactions, links between Government tendered approvals and ministerial shields of corrupt behaviours by various businesses and organisations throughout Sri Lanka. From 2006 to 2009 at least 14 journalists were killed according to Amnesty International.
In January 2009, Sri Lanka’s former editor-in-chief of the The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga was shot dead. He had been critical of the Government’s military operation against Tamil rebels. In an essay, Mr Wickrematunga had written only weeks before his death he wrote, “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”
Sadly, Sri Lanka is not alone in this, journalists, have been killed and continue to be killed across many countries in our world. Furthermore, it would be disingenuous to argue that there is a single nation in which journalists and editors-in-chief are not intimidated or harassed in one form or another by those seeking to censor, mute, dilute or skew their journalism and hence to deny the public interest.
In Greece Hot Doc editor Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested in October 2012 on the instructions of the Greek Government because he called for a public investigation into the inaction of the Government to follow through with a large-scale tax evasion scandal by 2,059 of Greece’s wealthiest individuals. But instead of shutting up Vaxevanis, public outrage was sparked by among a people who have had shovelled down their throats the world’s most extreme austerity measures. Half the Greek population now lives in poverty.
Press freedoms around the world are being challenged in the financially difficult times now and ahead while many are still milking outrageous financial benefits at every twist and turn and while the majority delve into financial turbulence more scandals will arise, more hidden truths will be laid bare. But it will come down to two factors, whether there is a capacity for journalists and editors-in-chief to pursue the truth and whether they will be allowed to go after the truth unfettered – more than likely encumbrances and shields will be laid in their path. In many countries this may mean ultimately persecution, prison and death, in Australia it may mean ostracisation, defamation writs, financial ruin, persecution and who knows what next if the journalist or editor-in-chief are not prepared to kowtow to these.
There are 196 nations that make up our world and Reporters Without Borders each year assesses 179 of them in terms of a Press Freedom Index. It may surprise some to find out that Australia did not rank in the top ten. It does not surprise me. This year Australia was ranked 26th.
Australian media is forever under siege but increasingly more so. The media is under siege by turbulent economic winds, from those who have a disproportionate capacity (extreme wealth) to manifest deceit and hence outstrip or even thwart the discovery of the truth, by weak protective media and shield laws, by built-in and built-up relationships between the public relations megaliths and the press mediums and by their subsequent concomitant cultures of favour dispensation, and by nepotistic practices masked by these cultures, and aided and abetted by the artful circumvention of ‘good governance protocols.’ Australian media is now under constant attack of from newjacking because of these relationships, from private enterprise and by various excessive self interest groups, for example the extractive industries resources sector, the banking sector, the commercial housing and real estate sectors, various market industry economies that in reality churn out advertising as news, and finally sadly by extraordinarily wealth individuals to full of themselves.
A fair media should be everyone’s objective but without adequate media fair play media laws and substantive protections for investigative journalists, a fair media is a hard ask – difficult. But we cannot give up the ghost. It is my belief that in life it is important what we do with the time we are given. Despite the overwhelming stories of what is not good in our world, be it corruption or genocide, I believe there is enough good out there to keep us fighting for it. Our best defence in all of this is courage.
- Gerry Georgatos declares impartiality conflicts of interest as an investigative journalist, and as a long-time anti-corruption campaigner.