May 27

Press Council ruling : Campaign against the Governor-General

As we noted in this column on 15 January, 2007 the following letter appeared in the Sunday Telegraph of 7 January, 2007, under the headings: “G-G kept out of it,” and “Glenn Milne has asserted that the Governor-General has been dragged into another controversy (ST, 26/11).”
"How is it that, despite emphatic denials by the Governor-General and the Premier of South Australia, your paper continues to publish scurrilous, baseless allegations which, of your own making, can only be construed as seeking to embroil the office of the Governor-General in controversy? The Governor-General has never heard of Milne’s suggestion. He has never raised the matter with the South Australian Premier, as Mr. Rann [the Premier] has confirmed. Nor would he do so, as the matter of a South Australian vice-regal appointment is one for the Premier and the Queen.”
The letter was signed “Malcolm Hazell, Official secretary to the Governor-General.”
As we said in our column, Mr. Hazell is a highly respected public servant, and not given to exaggeration. We said that the Governor-General had served his country, both in the military and in vice-regal roles with great distinction. It seemed that the Sunday Telegraph was then involved in a curious campaign to promote Mr. Malcolm Turnbull, as well as one against the Governor-General. The journalist conducting the latter, Mr.Glenn Milne, had been involved in some controversy, a matter noted here on 2 December, 2006. This was during the Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism, where a “tired and emotional” Mr Milne rushed up onto the stage to push gossip journalist Mr. Stephen Mayne off the platform. Mr. Mayne had been chosen by the Walkley Award organisers to present a prize related to quality journalism.
The Sunday Telegraph is of course entitled to engage in any campaigns it wishes. But in doing so, it is not entitled, and certainly not under the codes of ethics to which it subscribes, to publish scurrilous, and baseless allegations. Now the Australian Press Council has upheld in part a complaint from Malcolm Hazell, against the Sunday Telegraph. The Council said: “Mr. Hazell’s complaint related to two articles by Glenn Milne. Both discussed the role of the Governor-General and quoted a number of unnamed sources. The first, on 19 November 2006, reported the Governor-General had become a victim of a "vicious whispering campaign" that attacked his performance in the office. The second, a week later, claimed the South Australian Premier’s office had been warned the Governor-General was planning to lobby on behalf of a colleague to have him appointed Governor of South Australia. In particular Mr Hazell was concerned that the second article, dated 26 November, headed G-G embroiled in new controversy, contained allegations specifically denied by the Governor-General and by the South Australian Premier, and that these denials were not reflected in the headline or early paragraphs. Mr Hazell said that the headline also linked the article to the earlier report of controversies involving the Governor-General, without noting that the earlier report was based on a "vicious whispering campaign". The Sunday Telegraph stood by both stories, noting that they were adequately sourced and related to matters of public interest. The office of Governor-General was quoted in both articles, commenting on the matters raised. The Council is of the view that the articles dealt with a number of matters of public interest. The newspaper is confident that the information received from its sources is accurate and it gave the Governor-General’s office an opportunity to comment on all matters raised. However, the headline and balance of the second article, without the context of the "whispering campaign" and in the light of the denials from the Premier and the Governor-General’s office, were unfair to the Governor-General. To this extent the complaint is upheld.”
Readers may not be aware of the fact that the Press Council does not, and indeed cannot look behind a claim by a journalist that he is relying on a confidential source. This is understandable- the Press Council has long argued that journalists should be protected from being required to reveal such sources. While a shield law to protect journalists in such circumstances is desirable, obviously it should not extend to unworthy journalists who distort or even invent sources, particularly for the purpose of relaying gossip.



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