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It seems that some in the Labor Party are talking to the ABC.. But I have my sources too!


“It is understood Mr Shorten made it clear to Senator Conroy the military commander deserves respect, but did not demand he apologise.

The ABC has been told this has surprised and disappointed several Labor MPs, with one saying the party should not defend the indefensible.”

ABC, February 26th 2014.

Well, here we go again!

I acknowledge that there are times when it’s legitimate to report what anonymous sources are saying. When the source is a whistleblower who is risking their job or their life to put the information on the public record, then there’s a reason for keeping their identity hidden. To report anything an unnamed member of Parliament said is not news, it’s gossip. Was it on the record? Why no names? Was it off the record? Why publish?

One could argue that the Labor MPs could be risking their job, I suppose. But one could also argue that by criticising Shorten to the media that they’re also risking their jobs, unless they’re planning to quit next election or in a very safe seat.

The thing about a statement like that is that it’s impossible to verify and therefore very easy to just make up. I’m not suggesting that the ABC did this. I’m just suggesting that when a news organisation publicises comments from unnamed MPs we have no way of judging their veracity. To move from the actual Shorten/Conroy situation to a few recent potential stories:

Imagine if a news outlet had published any of the following:

“Liberal sources say that Tony Abbott was happy when Toyota announced its closure.”

“Politicians on Nauru have confirmed that they’ve removed the Chief Justice in order to make sending asylum seekers back where they came from easier.”

“News Limited reporters admit to hacking in Australia but confident nobody would dare do anything about it.”

“Close friend of senior Liberal confirms that his wife was distressed to find after DNA tests that her children did, in fact, belong to her husband.”

“LNP sources confirm that Campbell Newman is, in fact, a robot”

In all of the above cases, the stories would be challenged. People would want to know who was making such an allegation. I suspect that no respectable news organisation would publish any of them unless there was some proof offered, or unless the source was prepared to go public.

But for some reason, “Labor sources” – even though anonymous – have been worthy of quoting for the past couple of years. Are Labor politicians the only ones who talk to the media? Apart from Sharman Stone who made public statements, is there nobody on the Coalition’s side of politics who quietly tells journalists over a drink that they think that Scott Morrison is a potential liability or that Tony Abbott has made a complete hash of Fiona Nash. (Now, there’s a sub-editor’s dream headline!)

Of course, the point is there doesn’t need to be. I can say that a source told me that Malcolm Turnbull is really unhappy with Abbott on a number of issues and is planning to count the numbers when the Liberals fall below 40% on their primary in their internal polling. Yes, in the context of everything else I’ve said so far, I don’t expect you to believe that anyone was prepared to say that to me. But you’ve no way of checking. However, the story becomes a lot less interesting if you discover that the person I’m quoting is my hairdresser and not a member of the Parliamentary Liberal Party. (Of course, if there’s a story in a couple of months where Turnbull resigns from Cabinet over this or that, citing priniciple, then my hairdresser becomes a much more interesting source!)

The reason that the journalist has a right to protect his or her source for the story is that this enables people to speak more freely and to help the media discover the truth. If an opinion or a reaction is quoted, then that opinion or reaction is only of real interest where we know who that person is. There’s no real story in writing that sources within the Labor Party were outraged at – for example – Joel Fitzgibbon being left out of the Shadow Cabinet, if the only source of that is Joel Fitzgibbon. Similarly, quoting an unnamed Liberal Minister who says that he feels they got it wrong by installing Tony Abbott and blocking the ETS takes on a new meaning if you discover the source is Malcolm Turnbull.

Somebody’s opinion may add to our understanding of the “News”, but not unless we know the motives and the qualifications of that person. “Several Labor MPs” has no more real meaning than “someone I know whose friend works in Canberra”. Notwithstanding the fact that the friend may be an impeccable source, it just doesn’t sound like the sort of thing one should repeat with authority.

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