The first casualty is well and truly upon us

Propaganda wars a no-man's land for investigative reporters
Richard Ackland

With the dogs of war yowling you can be pretty confident that the first casualty is well and truly upon us. Truth has been going out the window in war coverage ever since these affairs began to be reported, and it's no different this time. So be prepared for plenty of misinformation and poorly sourced speculation.

Australian journalist Phillip Knightley wrote a famous book on the subject, The First Casualty: A history of war correspondents and propaganda (revised edition Prion 2000). Knightley, who went to England in the 1950s, fled the London bureau of Ezra Norton's Mirror and "wriggled" his way on to The Sunday Times, where as an investigative reporter he played a central role in some of the greatest stories of the era - the double-dealing surrounding the drug thalidomide and its British distributor Distillers, the machinations of the Profumo sex scandal and lengthy interviews with Kim Philby in Moscow.

Twice he was named journalist of the year in the British Press Awards. His many books have been courageous and absorbing. If any journalist is worthy of an Australia Day gong, it should be someone of the calibre of Knightley.

He's now into his 70s, sharper than ever, and spends a couple of months a year in Sydney. He is to deliver a lecture next month under the auspices of the Evatt Foundation and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance with the morbid title, "The death of investigative journalism and who killed it?" The murderer will be unmasked by Knightley in his address on February 15.

There could be fewer more pressing questions at a time when the important function of journalism is being corralled, manipulated and bullied by powerful interests like never before. And that is apart from the craft's tendency to undermine itself by concentrating on the vapid.

Since there is such a happy climate of ready support for the "freedoms" and protections of the US, maybe we should gird ourselves for the infiltration into our way of life of some of that country's less attractive innovations. I am sure Knightley will refer in his address to the relatively recent invention of lawyer-led attack dogs which present quite a challenge to the nosy reporter.

For instance, if a reporter is researching some aspect of the activities of a large public corporation with a view to exposing an impropriety or a fraud on its customers or shareholders, then quite a few disincentives can unfold. The moment the corporation is approached for a response or gets wind that something unsavoury may emerge in the media, a team of lawyers and flack merchants is on the case. Indeed, media lawyers advertise these services in the US.

The message is: don't wait and then sue, just stop it dead before it's published. The CEO of the media company is urged by a mixture of charm and threats to order the journalist to desist. Members of the publisher's board are put in headlocks and arms are twisted. If that doesn't do the trick, then prominent advertisers are urged to withdraw support, the capital markets are prevailed upon to sell the media company's stock.

If at first these tactics are not sufficient to head off the investigation, lawyers start probing the private lives of the nosy reporters with a view to acquiring ammunition to undermine their credibility. Very few journalists lead unblemished lives so inevitably some sort of leverage will turn up.

Life can be made very awkward for publishers bent on investigating the truth. This is a reality for investigative reporters in the US today. Maybe that is one reason this branch of journalism has withered. Another explanation is that it is a time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive way to fill up newspapers or TV programs, which can just as easily survive on a diet of gossip about the rich and famous or, dare I mention it, by columnists with rancid old opinions.

It emerged at a recent gathering of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that the New Yorker magazine had told Seymour Hersh that it loved his investigation of one of the big US oil companies, but please don't rush to send us another one. Hersh was advised to disperse his assets so he could not personally be punished for his efforts.

It's not just the weight of big corporations with which these serious journalists have to contend. Governments, too, can be pretty brutal.

This newspaper recently reported the fate of the Indian investigative website, tehelka.com, which not only exposed many of the cricket-fixing scams, but also corruption within the Indian Defence Ministry. Within days of the defence minister being fingered, the journalists at tehelka.com and their financial backers were raided by the tax authorities. One financier was jailed without charge. The company faces a legal bill of more than $1 million and is financially ruined. It's only the rare bird which is prepared to pay that sort of price for the truth.


Richard Ackland is a former presenter of ABC TV's Media Watch and a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, where this article was first published on 31 January 2003. Reproduced with the kind permission of the author.


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