Tim Blair


New Criterion



Friday, June 20, 2003
JAYSON BLAIR, high-flying news-maker of the New York Times, has come back to earth, in Sydney, and behind the desk of the editor of the Henny Penny Herald.

How do we know?

Consider first the evidence of Henny's promotional campaign for Andrew Wilkie, the ex-Army man of less-than-stellar achievement who droppped in to the Office of National Assessments long enough to find an opportunity to follow his true career goal - punditry. He resigned from ONA claiming that the Australian Government had grossly exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction , and that he wasn't going to put up with it any more. And off he goes to leap on every soap-box available in the pre-war shout-fest.

The evidence of Wilkie's character as a political commentator rather than an expert witness can be found throughout his contributions. He tells the Herald ("outside the [committee] hearing", for reasons I'll explain further down) that the US has interests in Iraq including "gaining access to Iraq's oil reserves". Does Wilkie, or the Herald, expect us to believe that conclusion is based on classified intelligence to which Wilkie had privileged access? He asserts that John Howard was motivated by "a rare opportunity ... to be a player" in world politics. Do we believe that Wilkie is John Howard's confidant? Or has ASIO bugged Howard's bathroom and been feeding the transcripts to Wilkie?

Wilkie's usefulness to the anti-Yanks is based on the presumption that he had enough access to classified information while at ONA to speak on behalf of all the voiceless spooks. And the intelligence to be able to do so. And the integrity to try to do so.

So, on Monday Henny shows us that news value counts for nothing when there's a political campaign to pursue, and gives Wilkie a front-page send-off to London.

How does it pan out when Wilkie is invited into the mother of Parliaments to advise the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs?

Auntie's on-line news report says:

Despite suggestions by committee members that Mr Wilkie spoke alone on this out of his former Australian or British colleagues, Mr Wilkie insists there are serving officers in both countries who agree with him.

The morning bulletins on Radio National put it differently. They had Wilkie conceding, in response to questions from MPs, that his view was a minority view, but insisting that he was not "a voice in the wilderness". This is a very different story. It spikes the tyres of the Wilkie campaign.

How did Wilkie respond? He accused the Australian Government of conspiring with British MPs to set him up with difficult questions. They had a "long letter" from the Australian Government he said. Has he seen a copy? He didn't say. Uncle suspects that Andrew hasn't yet learned that Parliamentary committee staffs routinely provide their committee members with scripted questions, and saw conspiracy where none existed.

Isn't the question from the UK committee just what any competent journalist would have asked him?

So Andrew Wilkie is not the voice of conscience-stricken spookdom. He is, after all, an eccentric, limelight-seeking minor official whose time in the spotlight is being artificially prolonged by a newspaper campaign.

How did Henny Herald handle this? In a word, dishonestly.

While Wilkie's departure from Sydney rated page one, his evidence in London was dropped to page four. And left off the website entirely. Perhaps from bad conscience.

Because what Henny did this morning was lie to its readers. It reported Wilkie as having given evidence when in fact it was reporting only Wilkie's untested assertions available to them, and the rest of us, before the Select Committee sat. Unfortunately, the British Parliament is inconsiderate enough to meet overnight, Sydney time, even when it doesn't help Henny's campaigning.

According to the Herald report, written before the event, Wilkie "has told a British Parliamentary enquiry" about Australian Government exaggerations. And so on, all in the past tense.

It pretends the Herald correspondent was there to hear Wilkie's evidence being presented. Perhaps he or she was there, but not before the report was written.

Does this kind of media invention matter? Certainly. The clear implication of Henny's deception is that the Wilkie evidence went unchallenged before the UK Parliamentarians. And, clearly, it did not.

This matters when we consider how limited some of Wilkie's claims - if not his indignation - really are. One person's exaggeration is the next person's prudence.

This is the kind of creative journalism for which Jayson Blair was, after several years of doing it, dismissed.

Another case of media malpractice to be ignored by Other People's Media Watch, presented by David Marr, "on leave from the Sydney Morning Herald".