May 25, 2012

Chris Mitchell

Margaret Simons and the Australian

By Robert Manne
Margaret Simons and the Australian

If you are not a reader of the Australian, you will find the story I am about to tell difficult to believe.

On October 26 last year a member of the secretariat of the Finkelstein media inquiry, Brian Kelleher, phoned and then emailed Margaret Simons with a simple request. The media inquiry was looking for an expert to conduct “a literature review in relation to responsibility of the media” and also possibly to help with “research into operation of press councils”. Although Simons had not yet taken up her post as director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism, she named three possible researchers, all with some association with the Centre. Others were approached for advice as well. The secretariat followed up on one of her suggestions, the media ethicist, Dr Denis Muller. Muller was contracted to conduct research for the inquiry. He did so however as a private consultant not as an associate of the Centre. The sum total of Simons’ involvement in the appointment was thus the suggestion of the names of three possible researchers.

Subsequently, Simons, one of the country’s best known and most respected media commentators, wrote a submission to the Finkelstein inquiry and gave evidence before it. When the Finkelstein report was published, she discussed its findings, respectfully but not uncritically. In writing her submission for the Finkelstein inquiry, in giving evidence before it, in discussing its recommendations – Simons did not mention any conflict of interest. The reason was straightforward. There was none.

At the conclusion of the Finkelstein inquiry, one of the journalists at the Australian, Christian Kerr, lodged some Freedom of Information requests with regard to the inquiry. The inquiry was required by law to ask Simons if she had any objection to their passing on the brief and innocuous email exchange between herself and Brian Kelleher. Apart from the removal of some minor extraneous personal matter, Simons readily agreed.

On Thursday May 17, the Australian ran an “exclusive” front page story: ‘Academic failed to disclose inquiry role’. It was written by Christian Kerr. Its central claim was stated in its first paragraph. “Journalism academic brokered key advice for the government’s independent media inquiry but did not disclose the fact when she gave evidence to its public hearings or in its commentary on its findings.” The claim was risible. Simons had recommended Denis Muller to the inquiry. This was transformed in Kerr’s account as brokering key advice. Simons had “brokered” nothing. She had suggested three names of which one was followed up. Whatever “advice” Muller had offered to the inquiry, whether it was or was not a “key” to anything in the inquiry’s findings, had absolutely nothing to do with her. Kerr’s language was revealing. Simons rightly dismissed the case put to her by Kerr as a “non story”. Kerr translated this into the familiar, slyly accusatory, house-style of the Australian. She had “batted away concerns”.  Kerr rendered the brief email exchange between Simons and Kelleher as rather exciting and sinister by describing it as “the FOI trail”. In case his readers had not got the point, in his article Kerr repeated his “non-disclosure / conflict of interest” accusation on four separate occasions. Kerr sought the views of his boss, Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the Australian, on the Margaret Simons affair. “It is extraordinary’, Mitchell pointed out, “that someone who lectures in journalism could play a role in assisting the supposedly independent inquiry in finding key staff, and not disclose that involvement when they gave evidence before it.”

The Australian was not yet done. On the following day, May 18, the paper published another front page story, this time written by Nick Leys: “Academic ‘failed her standards’”. As this story was 1330 words it was completed on a later page. Leys piece had a different angle. “By not disclosing her dealings with the Finkelstein inquiry”, Simons had failed “to meet her own high standards”. Leys reported the views of a string of media commentators, professional ethicists or journalism academics, even one who lectured sessionally at the University of Melbourne. With the exception of the seasoned Jonathan Holmes, most appeared to agree that something, almost invariably in their view minor, was amiss. As none of those interviewed had any independent understanding of the innocuousness of the exchange between Simons and Kelleher, all were presumably commenting on the Australian’s bizarre presentation of the facts.

Leys’ piece was accompanied by a commentary from the Winthrop Professor of Journalism at the University of Western Australia, the Australian’s  Peter van Onselen. Van Onselen thought it “beyond self-evident” that Simons had sinned. Having failed to display the “contrition” required, she had descended into a mental condition he described as “stubbornness on steroids”. This was a condition that “I for one would like to think academics can rise above”. Simons’ failure to disclose her role in the inquiry was due either to conscious “deceit” or “sloppiness”. Denis Muller had by now pithily expressed his view on the Centre’s website of what the paper was doing. “If the Australian was a flesh and blood person, you’d think it was off its medication.” The high-minded van Onselen was once more appalled: This was “a surprisingly politically incorrect turn of phrase for an ethicist.”

The second day of the Australian’s coverage of the Simons affair was not complete. In one of its characteristically leaden attempts at humour, ‘Cut and Paste’ joined the fray, reminding its readers for the nth time – for reasons perhaps clear to Nick Cater and Rebecca Weisser but I would imagine to no one else – that Margaret Simons, a gardening enthusiast, had once written a history of compost. ‘Cut and Paste’ was accompanied by an equally characteristically rabid Australian editorial. The paper now knew that the Finkelstein inquiry had been “nobbled from the start”. Not only had Simons supported the inquiry into media standards. “Incredibly”, she had even supported its supposedly anti-free speech recommendations. (Actually, she had not.) Yet, the editorial informed its readers, “It gets worse”. Secretly, she had been “a party to some of its internal arrangements”. (This was, as we have seen, an astonishing distortion.) While universities employed people like Margaret Simons, the Australian held “grave fears about the future of journalism education”. From this looming threat, one of the country’s only remaining protections were the Australian’s own “hard working journalists” recently at work on this vital case.

Even by the weird standards that now prevail at the Australian, it was difficult to believe that still more could be written on the Margaret Simons affair. In fact, the paper was far from done. In the Weekend Australian, Christian Kerr was given another 1500 words to summarise the by now standard case for the prosecution of Margaret Simons. Nothing much of substance was added except for yet another line of abuse from Chris Mitchell, who assessed “the credentials” of the journalist critics of his newspaper like Simons (and also another Finkelstein target of the Australian, Professor Matthew Ricketson) and found them sadly wanting. When they had been employed as journalists at the Australian, their work was “barely” worthy of a “pass mark”. Kerr had also interviewed Gerard Henderson. He was only too pleased to be given the opportunity to resume his dreary, obsessive campaign against Margaret Simons’ work on the Malcolm Fraser auto/biography. For his part, the Australian’s  Chris Kenny, who was provided with space for an article of his own, was no doubt equally pleased to have the chance to resume an even older feud with Simons, over their differing book-length accounts of the “secret women’s business”/ Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair.

By now the Australian had devoted two front page stories, three additional stories or comments, a ‘Cut and Paste’ and an editorial—in total more than 6,000 words—to the Margaret Simons “failure to disclose/ conflict of interest” canard. If a Walkley Award were given to the most egregious non-story of the year, the Australian’s Simons saga would be a short priced favourite and a very worthy winner.

The Australian last week attempted to damage Margaret Simons’ reputation. Those who follow Australian cultural politics closely would have been in no doubt about the motivation for the three day long campaign. Ordinary readers of the Australian, who penetrated the repetitive sludge, must however have been completely puzzled. For them, a clue lay in a couple of passing references in the 6,000 words to disagreements between Simons and the Australian following an August 2009 anti-terrorist police operation. The reason that Simons, who disapproved of the behaviour of the Australian, had been targeted was because of her outspoken and courageous criticism in this case.

The background to the assault of last week needs to be outlined, necessarily very briefly. In mid-2009, the Australian’s Cameron Stewart received a tip-off about an impending anti-terrorist raid. On July 30, he approached the Australian Federal Police warning about the story he was about to publish. A conversation followed between the new Federal Police Commissioner, Tony Negus, and the editor of the Australian, Paul Whittaker. Negus begged Whittaker to delay the story until the raid had taken place. Whittaker eventually agreed, in return for the promise of a detailed briefing. In a subsequent affidavit Negus claimed that during these talks, when he pointed out that lives might be placed at risk, Whittaker had asked, “How many?” Negus subsequently described Whittaker’s behaviour during the negotiations as “reprehensible”.

The raid took place in the early morning hours of August 4 2009. Some hours before it occurred, however, copies of the Australian were on sale in Melbourne. The relatively new Victorian Police Commissioner, Simon Overland, was furious. At an August 5 press conference he criticised the Australian for having placed the lives of his officers at risk. As a consequence of these events, two inquiries were held. When the confidential joint report, highly critical of the behaviour of the Australian, was shown to Chris Mitchell, he threatened dire consequences if it was published. “I assure you the Australian will use every journalistic and legal measure available to pursue what can only be described as an outrageous fabrication…should our concerns not be addressed.” It also seems that Overland was not forgiven his impertinence in casting aspersions on the behaviour of a super-patriotic newspaper at the time of an anti-terrorist raid. In 2010 the Australian posted its best credentialed investigative reporter, Hedley Thomas, to Melbourne from where he wrote a series of dramatic anti-Overland stories. The most important re-heated a claim made a year or so earlier in the Age. To avoid a potential source of embarrassment discovered during the tapping of the telephones of suspect police, Overland had supposedly begun the chain of leaks that led to the abandonment of a murder inquiry. The Australian also sought for many months to prevent the publication of the Negus affidavit.

For almost two years, Margaret Simons was one of the most fearless and best-informed critics of the Australian’s behaviour over the police raid of August 4 and its often bitter aftermath. Simons argued in Crikey that Hedley Thomas had been posted to Melbourne to undermine Simon Overland. She argued that he had done so by using material planted by the anti-reform, anti-Overland and anti-Office for Police Integrity forces inside the Victorian police. Alongside journalists from the Age, she argued that the Negus affidavit be released, as it was eventually in November 2011 after lawyers acting for Crikey and the Age opposed an attempt at a court suppression order. She argued that the Australian’s campaign against Overland was one significant factor in the events leading to his resignation. In her submission and evidence to the Finkelstein inquiry, she produced a detailed summary of her criticism of the behaviour of the Australian in the so-called Ozleaks affair.

I have read almost all Margaret Simons’ writing on this matter. It is well argued, well researched, nuanced, self-critical and well balanced. This of course does not mean, and I believe she would not claim, that all her conclusions are necessarily right.


Media soft-pedals approach to murky world of disclosure

Vendetta journalism? The murky story behind The Oz, the OPI and Overland

News Ltd, AFP join forces to suppress Simon Artz conversation

Simons: on the drip from the OPI? Not likely

When The Oz muscles the AFP, that’s a story

Simons: more questions for The Oz, police on Operation Neath

Hands up who failed stats: Overland resigns

Tangle of media self-interest at the heart of Overland saga

OPI report: secret deals and media manipulation


This leads to last week’s anti-Margaret Simons campaign. There are only two plausible explanations of the behaviour of the Australian. One possibility is that 6,000 words were devoted to this question because Chris Mitchell was genuinely shocked by the fact that Simons had suggested three names of researchers to the Finkelstein inquiry without subsequently disclosing this at the inquiry or afterwards. A second possibility is that he was outraged at her protracted criticism of his newspaper’s behaviour in the anti-terrorist raids and believed he had discovered a way of punishing an offender.

Given the risible nature of the allegations of supposed misdemeanour – which transformed the suggestion of the name of a potential researcher into clandestine involvement in plans for the organisation of the inquiry – and given the well-known form of the editor-in-chief – analysed in detail in Bad News and Out of Control and Payback the previous blog entries of Left, Right, Left – I have little doubt as to which explanation is the more plausible. Readers will no doubt make up their own minds.

It seems to me “beyond self-evident” that the case that has been made against Margaret Simons last week – one of this country’s most respected media critics – was frivolous and empty. This does not mean it should be dismissed as unimportant. The consequence of exercises like this is not only to try to harm its immediate target, on the solid principle that mud does indeed stick. It also helps demonstrate to other potential critics the kind of price they can expect to pay. In general, intimidation works. Of course this is not the first time that Chris Mitchell and his go-to journalists have behaved in the way they did last week. Nor is there reason to suppose it will be the last. In cases like this voices on Simons’ side need to be raised not merely quietly and in private but loudly and in public.

There is also a question to be asked of those who are implicated in all this by the circumstance of their employment. There are many fine journalists who work at the Australian, who are no doubt privately appalled by the antics of their paper. Why do they not raise their voices in protest against what is being done in their name? It is said that the recently appointed head of News Limited, Kim Williams, is an intelligent and a cultivated man. Can he really feel easy with the behaviour of News Limited’s masthead in this country?

I argued in Bad News that it is not new regulatory bodies but forthright internal and external criticism that provides the best means of challenging the bullying behaviour that has come almost to be taken for granted at the Australian. Even after the recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry, that remains my settled view.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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