Journalism has its rules, its 'ethics' - or at least, I thought it did

Robert Ovadia

OPINION

The news business teaches you, rather solemnly, how fleeting life can be.

I often say to colleagues and friends, “Nobody wakes up and says to themselves, ‘Today’s a good day to die'.”

On Wednesday, Tania Klemke was killed by her own dog - a normal morning followed by instant bedlam, followed by death, followed by trauma. The consequences and sudden emotional impact on her family and friends were severe. Canberra’s media descended on the home - a sad but necessary story to tell.

A man turned up at the house - possibly a friend, possibly family, no doubt upset. Quickly, it was discovered he’s the victim’s brother. In my experience, such a circumstance would see camera operators and photographers standing at a respectful distance taking pictures as journalists make gentle approaches to the person, asking if they would be up to talking. In Canberra, where the journalistic universe marches to the beat of every keystroke recording Hansard, the pack swarmed around the man.

“What happened?”

His sister had just been killed by her own dog and he was being jammed like a pollie who’d misused parliamentary entitlements, peppered with questions all the way to the refuge of his car.

Tania Klemke died at her home in Canberra after her dog attacked her. Source: 7 News

“What was your sister's name?”

“What was she like?”

The man had no choice but to get used to his sister being referred to in the past tense. It was a sickening disconnect that even a policeman at the scene could feel, when he stepped in to say what should have happened: “Give them some space guys!”

Dealing with grieving people is never easy but they are always owed respect – a fair bit different to the kind of respect shown in reporting politics.

When police arrived the dog turned on them and was shot dead. Source: 7 News

Journalism has its rules, its “ethics”.

Those rules and ethics would be put on trial again later that evening in Canberra, over the leaking of details of a police raid on the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the Australian Workers Union.

Michaelia Cash was being grilled by a parliamentary committee about a host of topics specific to her role as Employment Minister when, oddly, she was asked by Labor senators (including former union boss Doug Cameron) whether her office had leaked news of the police raids to media.

She denied being the source and suggested nobody from her office was involved.

Just before a break in proceedings, a Buzzfeed article suggested it had confirmed with two journalists leaks had indeed come from Cash’s office.

When the committee resumed Senator Cash advised that her staffer, David De Garis, had only just admitted in the break he was the source. The committee was advised he had resigned on the spot.

The issue has polarised the media: those saying the journalists who revealed their source were right to do so because of the suggestion a minister had misled parliament - and those, including me, who believe there is no circumstance ever that justifies a journalist revealing their source, beyond preventing imminent criminality or protecting people’s safety.

Michaelia Cash has admitted a staff member told media about police raids on the offices of the AWU. Source: AAP

Canberra’s press gallery consists of ruthlessly intelligent, switched on, dedicated and tough journalists who brilliantly hold our country’s leaders to account – and some who clearly think it’s okay to give up a source.

You can spin it or excuse it whichever way you like, but step outside of the Parliament House bubble and have a look. That’s what happened.

At the same time, the fact that surrendering sources can prevail as a reasonable thought in Canberra utterly horrifies me, as it does reporters with whom I have spoken away from the insulated bubble.

The point of protecting sources at all costs is to preserve trust in the entire profession. Whistleblowers and “leakers” for the common good can only feel safe if journalists have enough character to also preserve the confidentiality of leakers who only do so in their own political self-interest. Whistleblowers deserve to know journalists will not make a judgement call on whether they deserve confidentiality or not. It must be sacrosanct. What has happened in the past couple of days has undermined that process terribly.

The job is to report on the game – not become a player.

I know the argument here is that this was an extraordinary incident, with the suggestion of a government minister misleading parliament. I think we need to examine that chronology here. Michaelia Cash was being grilled by ALP figures before news broke the leak had come from her office. Who is it that told these ALP figures? Journalists had clearly tipped off other journalists and clearly the politicians themselves about the source of their information well before the issue of “misleading parliament” even existed.

That is the most grotesque dereliction of duty I can imagine in this job, exceeded only by deliberately broadcasting or publishing falsehoods.

Michaelia Cash denied being the source and suggested nobody from her office was involved. Source: AAP

I might add, somewhat flippantly but accurately I believe, that beyond the 2600 postcode people tend not to get into a myopic lather about ministers misleading parliament. I can hear the vaudevillian gasps of colleagues now reading that sentence, but I believe it to be true. Australians assume a politician is massaging truths any time their mouths open, regardless of whether they are inside or outside the chamber. This does not excuse such a transgression. We ought to hold our politicians to the highest scrutiny and should Michaelia Cash be found to have acted inappropriately, she ought to face the consequences. Protecting journalistic sources is a separate issue.

Perhaps the most stark example of how politicians work with journalists - and the relative morality of some people’s ethics - can be offered with the following insight. It was another dog attack in 2013 at Deniliquin, a small town in country New South Wales. Two-year-old Deeon Higgins had been savaged by a family pet. He died still in the animal’s jaws, his grandmother needing to be taken to hospital suffering exhaustion and shock, having fought for 15 minutes to save her grandson.

Another world away on Capital Hill, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd 2.0 had called an election only the day before. It was Day 1 of the campaign. Staffers from Mr Rudd’s office called various media outlets, suggesting it might be a good idea to ask the Prime Minister about the dog attack at a media conference later that day.

Journalists dutifully obliged.

Kevin Rudd described the little boy’s death as “heartbreaking”.

“For the parents, this is just horror. Absolute horror.”

The comments were widely reported.

There was nothing about dog laws, nothing about how he could use his political influence to make the world a better place - just Kevin, the warm and cuddly prime minister with a heart of gold - and the complicit media allowing his office to exploit a young boy’s death for a politically advantageous soundbite.

The process was vile.

I did not use Mr Rudd’s comments in my story that night, not wanting to take part in that process. It was an easy decision for me to make, sticking to my ethics, since I don’t work at Parliament House. Sometimes, I’ve found, journalistic ethics in our nation's capital are as flexible as the needs and wants of the day.

Newsbreak - October 27