How do you react to journalists who quote ‘informed sources’ or ‘senior public servants’ or ‘experienced politicians’ but never name them? How much credence do you place on such anonymous sources? How reliable do you believe this ‘reporting’ is? Yet such journalism still exists, even appeals to some readers, if one can judge from their reactions.
In The Australian of 23 September there was a blog by Glenn Milne, Rudd’s control issues that exemplifies this type of journalism. A man on a mission, Milne has been pushing the ‘Rudd is a control freak’ notion for a while now, and like anyone that harbours a pet idea, he’d like to be proved right. So he often returns to that theme. He also finds irresistible the ‘Rudd lacks a narrative’ mantra, so he frequently returns to that. And since he enjoys heaping scorn on the emphasis that Rudd places on process, that took centre stage in this article.
In Rudd’s control issue we have a piece that pushes all these themes. Reporting on a speech by Kim Beasley at a Chatham House rules Australian Defence Industry Network seminar in Canberra three weeks previously, he quotes the recollections of ‘those present’ of what Beasley, among other things, is purported to have said about process: “...the pace of reform under Rudd had been slowed by the constipation of process”. Is this exactly what he said, or a dimming memory of it, or a paraphrasing of what was thought to have been said? Milne conceded that he had not been able to talk with Beasley to confirm these recollections, so we’ll never know.
It seemed not to matter to him that he broke the Chatham House rules of secrecy by quoting ‘those present’, or that he had been unable to confirm what was said. In his piece he went on to recycle comments by Paul Keating that supported his case, to assert that ‘every senior bureaucrat’ knows about “the self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”, (every senior bureaucrat - a bold assertion). He then quoted without qualification the view of anonymous ‘senior public servants’ that as a result there is ‘policy paralysis’. His piece ended with what supposedly was Beasley’s gratuitous advice to Rudd, as if Rudd would take the time to read it.
I marvel that he could expect thinking, rational people to take him seriously?
I note though that many of his respondents did. They were not disturbed by his approach to journalism. Indeed they seemed to welcome the opportunity to lambaste Rudd, his ministers and the Government, and in so doing confirm Milne’s views, thereby stroking his ego.
Which leads to the question: “What was the purpose of the article?” Did Milne believe it would change anything? Did he think his assertions, his conclusions and his advice were sound, that he’d made the right diagnosis and suggested the right treatment? Did he ever consider he might not be right, that he might not understand the way Rudd and his Government work, and that the process-intense approach he pillories might be the one that will give the best result?
Would a serious journalist really believe that this style of journalism could enhance his, or his paper’s reputation? But if the prime aim was to write a provocative piece that evoked emotions and engendered angry and conforming responses, judging from the comments of respondents, the article was a success.
Integrity in journalism is a precious thing. Truth, honesty, accuracy, and quoting reliable, named sources are its lifeblood. Good journalists know this; lesser ones seem not to know, or care.