The story that never was
On Saturday 21 October, no doubt keen for a fresh angle on the “Reith affair”, the Melbourne Age ran a dubious story as its front page lead. It was based on a piece of news that, if true, had the potential to further erode the position of Mr Reith (if further erosion was indeed possible) and embarrass another Howard Minister at the same time.
The story, under the byline of Louise Dodson, the newspaper’s chief political correspondent, and Kerry Taylor, concerned “frank remarks” purportedly made by Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott at a function he attended in Sydney on October 19.
According to the Age, Mr Abbott told guests at an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce forum that “the [Reith] affair had damaged the government and that the damage would stick”.
The story contained quotes directly attributed to the minister. Mr Abbott was reported to have said: “Peter Reith has ruled himself out of ever leading the party.” The paper claimed Mr Abbott, a former journalist, prefaced his remarks with, “God, I hope there are no journalists here.”
Interesting comments, if the Minister had actually made them. But the journalists who wrote the story could not know for sure if he had. They did not attend the function at which, supposedly, the remarks were made. Five paragraphs into the piece they revealed that the story was based purely on hearsay. “The Age has been given a detailed account of his remarks,” the story said.
Who provided the information? When asked later, Ms Dodson said: “They don’t want to be named unfortunately.”
The President of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, David Solomon, was prepared to be named. He sent a letter, dated October 22 – the day after the story appeared – by fax to the Chief of Staff at The Age. An edited version of the letter was published on October 24.
In his letter, Mr Solomon referred to “grave inaccuracies concerning the reported statements of Mr Abbott”. He expressed dismay that “a private discussion at one of its functions has been so inaccurately disclosed.” He also denied that the remarks attributed to Mr Abbott had been made.
“At no stage during question time or any other time did Mr Abbott make any of the following statements:
* ‘that the affair had damaged the government and that the damage would stick’
* ‘Mr Reith has ruled himself out of ever leading the party’
* ‘G-d, I hope there are no journalists here’,”
When contacted, Mr Solomon also confirmed that the quotes did not even convey the substance of what the Minister had said.
Louise Dodson later said she was standing by the report given to her by the unnamed sources whom she described as “reliable”.
“I’ve had several people who were at the meeting who took notes who said that the quotes were exactly right,” Ms Dodson said.
But David Solomon said it was not that kind of gathering. “It was just a cocktail function,” he said. “It wasn’t a briefing or anything. People had had drinks and some hors-d’oeuvre and then everyone was invited to come into the boardroom and sit down. Nobody was taking notes.”
Mr Solomon said Mr Abbott had given a wide-ranging address to the gathering, focusing on the Olympic Games and how Australia should capitalise on the event. He was asked a question about the Reith affair in a short question-and-answer session following his talk.
Ms Dodson tried to check the story she was given with Mr Abbott the next day. “I tried several times. You know, put in several calls,” she said.
However, according to Tony Abbott he did not become aware of the journalist’s attempts to contact him until late on the Friday night. He said: “When I got out of the Paralympics at 10.30 on Friday night I checked my message bank and there were two calls from Louise Dodson saying please ring me. She didn’t provide any further information. I’d gone into the Paralympics and turned my phone off at about five o’clock, so presumably it was sometime after five o’clock that she’d tried to make contact with me.”
Mr Abbott said The Age got the story wrong. “I was completely verballed by The Age’s story. I never said the things that The Age reported me saying.”
According to Tony Abbott, the newspaper should not have run the story “without either (a) getting someone to go on the record; (b) checking with credible third parties such as the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; or (c) going to me and asking me. And they did none of those three things.”
The issue is important because the nature of the statements attributed to Mr Abbott had the potential to raise questions about his political judgement.
The journalist-source relationship and the question of confidentiality are enduring subjects of conjecture and debate. But surely, in instances where it is possible to do so, and this was certainly one of them, information obtained from sources who demand their names be withheld should be verified before it is allowed into print, let alone splashed across the front page.