'Trust me. I'm a reporter': Loose lips, leaks and ethics in the Canberra press gallery

Robert Ovadia

OPINION: It was with a giggle Doug Cameron greeted my phone call.

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

I had asked the ALP Senator for confirmation of the obvious – that it were journalists who had tipped him off to the source of leaks from Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s office that federal police were about to raid the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the Australian Workers Union.

He did not deny it. The Senator did not confirm, but he could not deny. In a breath-taking irony, it is the politician who is respecting confidentiality of his sources as opposed to journalists whose ethical obligation is to do so.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. Source: AAP

Equally, the timeline seems undeniable but has been recklessly ignored this week in a vitriolic debate on whether it’s okay for journalists to make a judgement call on protecting sources. A prevalent argument has been that when a minister misleads parliament, there is an obligation on media to report it, even at the expense of revealing sources.

If only that’s how this saga actually transpired – but the chronology reveals this to be mischievously false and misleading.

So let’s examine the chronology.

Senator Doug Cameron. Source: AAP

Journalists had already started to divulge Ms Cash’s office as having tipped off media to the police raids – BEFORE Senator Cash had started denying it at a senate estimates hearing. No “public interest” reason existed at the time such sources were revealed. It was press gallery gossip.

We know at least two journalists revealed it to Buzzfeed reporter Alice Workman. Ms Cash had not yet even been asked about it. It was simply loose lips and loose ethics from reporters talking to other reporters about their source. Workman would later go on to reveal this in a story that was reasonable and fair. If she could establish political motivation for media being told about a police raid, such a story was in the public interest. As for the journalists who revealed this source to her in the first place – wow – what a profound dereliction of duty.

It gets more interesting from here. Workman had a good scoop. Yet before she published, the source of the leak was already known by Mr Cameron, who started grilling Ms Cash.

Senator Cameron confirms he was aware Ms Cash’s office had leaked news of the raid – how was that possible?

The obvious answer – ignored by many and not denied by Mr Cameron – is that journalists had told him. Press gallery journalists were engineering a political moment, proactively manipulating the process to catch Senator Cash in a gotcha moment. In doing so, they became partisan – they became political players rather than observers. This was another profound dereliction of duty and, worst of all, it was generated by the gratuitous revealing of sources in the first place.

Let me be clear – that Senator Cash might have misled parliament is worthy of its own scrutiny but is an entirely separate issue and subsequent to the fact. Potentially improper action on her part should be ruthlessly examined by the media – but the media should not be orchestrating the moment. This is not our role.

Typically, all arguments since have been hijacked by either side of politics and whipped up into a partisan fight to the death on social media where the facts are conveniently ignored. My opinion here is apolitical – I do not take sides – but frankly I’m horrified respected voices such as Michelle Grattan, Samantha Maiden and Paul Barry not only cannot see how reporters engineered their own story, but also seem to believe a journalist can sit in judgement on whether a source deserves protection.

Ms Cash’s office leaked news of the police raids for political gain. That is unambiguous. I hate to break it to you, but every politician from every party leaks information to media to smear their political rivals. That is not a revelation and any journalist at Parliament House who suggests otherwise (or doesn’t gleefully take part in the process) is a hypocrite.

As a journalist, your job is not to psychoanalyse the intentions of someone feeding you information. Your considerations are this simple – is the information accurate and is the information worthy of reporting in the public interest? Imminent police raids on union offices were accurate. They happened. It was in the public interest to report them.

Senator Cash. Source: AAP

An equally redundant argument is that a staffer from a minister’s office is hardly a “whistleblower” in need of protection. Such a belief undermines the integrity of my entire profession. Whistleblowers can only approach journalists in confidence, knowing the journalist will not make a judgement call on whether they deserve to be protected. It must be rigid, unflinching. Such standards are adhered to by my widely respected colleague in Canberra, Seven’s chief political correspondent Mark Riley, and also by the Nine Network’s equally respected Chris Uhlmann. These are tough, principled and experienced operators who can hardly be described as lackeys for political parties. They accept that trust, in our business, is everything.

Journalists like Margo Kingston, possibly blinded by her own political leanings, describe Riley’s dogma to protect sources as an effort “to get cheap access scoops”. How horrifying she and others apparently do not understand the discipline and integrity it takes to protect sources – no matter what. You don’t take sides.

After such a terrible week in Canberra that has undermined so much trust in a profession of which I’m so proud, if I were a whistleblower I would think twice about approaching a journalist. You don’t know which type you’re going to get.

How truly sad.