ONE evening in the late 1980s, working in the Sussex Street, Sydney, offices of Australian Associated Press, I received a call from someone who was aggrieved about their treatment at the hands of Channel Nine’s A Current Affair.
The details escape me now – some sort of alleged tabloid deception – but it sounded like a decent story so I took down some quotes, put a call into Nine’s media department, and filed what I had when no response was forthcoming.
My immediate superiors were aghast.
AAP is now in its death throes and rightly prides itself on being impartial, agenda-free and factual. But I had two pieces of advice from two senior journalists that night: from one: be very, very, very careful. From another, just don’t write stories about subscribers.
Nine, like all the major Australian media organisations, subscribed to AAP. They kept the lights on. Even the most non-partisan media organisation in the country had its blindspot; the organisations that paid the bills.
More than half a decade later, at the height of the Super League War, I ran into a good friend in the bar at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. My buddy had close family ties to New Limited. When I saw his partner, she responded to my greeting with a scowl.
“Still licking Arko’s arse?” she spat, in reference to the ARL chairman Ken Arthurson.
I was working for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time and, in fact, was accused more often of being biased against the ARL. Perhaps it was not her accusation that has caused the conversation to stay with me all these years, as much as the colourful manner in which she delivered it!
But what I said in my own defence that evening has relevance to the paradigm we now face in 2020 NRL coverage, where reporters from News Limited and Fairfax (Nine) are covering events that involve their own employers and those companies’ negotiations with the NRL.
“The ARL tell me what’s going on,” I said, stunned, holding a beer unsteadily. “I am struggling to get a call back from Super League at the moment.”
My mate intervened in the confrontation between myself and his partner, saying he would “have a word” to officials of the breakaway competition …. and sure enough, the lines of communication were reopened and I started to get as much out of their bunker as I did from Philip Street.
When you’re consuming the current overage of the NRL-Fox-Nine imbroglio, it’s tempting to see the two papers and the two television networks as “mouthpieces” of their respective sets of suits upstairs and the NRL as being outgunned in a straightforward PR battle.
It’s not that simple.
As a reporter, one of your key tenets is that a story is a story – regardless of where it comes from. Off the TV, on the record, off the record, from the public … tell people something they don’t know, that’s all. Never knowingly report an untruth but besides that, you’re in the business of information.
If the information comes from upstairs in your own building, it’s still news.
Where the dynamic falls down is that the other side of the argument might clam up. They don’t think they’ll get a fair run in your paper because your paper has skin in the game you’re writing about.
They stop calling, even to defend themselves.
And sometimes ignoring where you work – as you are ethnically required to do – just makes it look to outsiders like you are ONLY thinking about where you work. If you ignore where you work, your integrity requires you to report what information you have to hand, regardless of where it comes from.
In many jobs you might say ‘I’m just not going to do what my boss wants me to because it’s going to make me look bad and harm my future employment prospects’. But a good journalist will never withhold information that is in the public interest – even if it comes from his or her boss and makes him or her look like a lickspittle.
You always have to try to get both sides of the debate but what if only one side is taking your calls?
The Super League War – about which I am currently writing a book – was about pay television. This one’s about streaming. Technology tends to cause these schisms. In 1995 and 1996, the media organisations had to give the game a heap of money to try and change things.
In 2020, because of Covid-19, they feel they can get result by taking money away from the game.
But it’s still all about money, technology and opportunism.
Media giants do use their platforms to further their interests but rather than compromising their journalists’ integrity, proprietors know how to pray upon it.