Judge, There’s a Grub In My Scoop
By Bernard LaganDecember 13, 2012
The irrepressible reporter Steve Lewis has been bounding around the Canberra press gallery for a couple of decades. He’s been with the The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and, these days, is still in the News Ltd stable writing on national politics for a spread of Murdoch’s local papers.
Lewis is no hard-drinking, hell-raising, out-all-night hack. He’s a family guy, an industrious, diligent reporter, a founding member of the Press Gallery’s singing group, the House Howlers. It was Lewis who mostly conceived the Press Gallery’s now fabled Midwinter Ball, which has raised thousands for charities. He’s an enthusiast for the old rule bashed into newspaper cadets (remember them?): get it first and get it right.
Print journalists achieve longevity in Canberra either because their commentary and analysis is good enough to attract a decent following, they’re standout writers, or because they get scoops. Lewis is a scoops man, in the business of getting exclusives where others can’t or won’t look. They may not be all memorable but they’re frequent.
It’s the hardest of all career platforms to maintain within the press gallery; scoops take more shoe leather, cold calling and shoulder-rubbing time than does an incisive piece of commentary or a gilded piece of writing. Fine writers and insightful commentators have the protective bulwark of reputation and following. For scoop-getters, they’re as good as their last; when the scoops stop, so does the career. Lewis was a journalist in need of the next scoop.
And that’s how Steve Lewis came to be the journalist who broke the whole reeking Peter Slipper saga, abetted by the political insiders who wanted Slipper out of the Speaker’s Office and out of Parliament.
Justice Steven Rares showed touching empathy — for a man of the bench — for the lot of a parliamentary scoop-seeker such as Lewis, when he handed down his 200-paragraph judgment on Wednesday that tossed out the sexual harassment allegations against Slipper. They were sensationally reported by Lewis in News Ltd papers.
While His Honour excoriated Slipper’s former staffer James Ashby for conspiring for his own ends to ruin Slipper’s career by getting his allegations that Slipper had sexually harassed him into the media — under the protection of a Court action — the judge looked more favourably upon Lewis’s role in the affair.
Justice Rares finds Lewis enthusiastically followed up the information Ashby gave him but adds that the reporter could not be said to have shared Ashby’s interests to further his own career prospects with Mr. Slipper’s enemies, the Queensland Liberal-National Coalition. Nor could it be said that Lewis was trying to aid the return to national politics of the former Howard government minister Mal Brough, who was eyeing off Slipper’s seat.
Rather, Justice Rares hit the nail squarely, if rather too bluntly for some squeamish Canberra journos, writing: “It is more likely Mr Lewis was focused on obtaining good copy for stories to sell newspapers.”
The judge goes on to acknowledge that the reporter was probably not blind to the motivations of Ashby or Mal Brough (a confidant of Ashby’s) and doubtless wanted to keep encouraging Ashby and Brough to provide new material for more stories.
The judge even ventures that any hack worth his salt would have done what Steve Lewis did: “Once presented with sources such as Mr Ashby and Ms Doane (Ashby’s colleague in Slipper’s office) together with the prospect of a story such as in the originating application, it is difficult to think that any journalist would have acted differently to Mr Lewis in pursuing and publishing that story.”
Indeed, Lewis was able to write a cracker exclusive when he broke the story back in April, opening in the Daily Telegraph with the choice paragraphs:
“SPEAKER Peter Slipper is facing explosive allegations he sexually harassed a young male adviser and misused taxpayer-funded Cabcharge dockets in a major new crisis for the Gillard Government.
“The man who holds the highest parliamentary office in Australia is accused in court documents by James Ashby of making ‘unwelcome sexual advances’ and ‘unwelcome sexual comments’,” Lewis wrote.
So is the judge right? Do Steve Lewis and his employer, News Ltd, emerge with clean hands from this sordid business? Certainly the judge did not believe all that Lewis said about his own gathering of material for his articles. Specifically he rejected Lewis’s explanation for a now well-publicised text message exchange between Lewis and Ashby after the pair met in a Sunshine Coast café to discuss Ashby’s allegations against Slipper.
This was two weeks before Lewis published. Lewis had travelled from Canberra for the meeting:
Lewis: “Ta Abt to hop on plane Will call later We will get him!!”
Mr Ashby: “Great Thanks for coming up”.
Mr Lewis: “I am here to help!!!”
The judge rejected Lewis’s claim that he had been referring to a hire-car driver who had information about Slipper in his ‘we will get him’ text to Ashby. Further, Lewis’s second text implied the reporter was collaborating with Ashby to damage Slipper.
The judge wrote: “I am not satisfied that Mr Lewis was texting Mr Ashby, while he was boarding a plane, about “getting” a driver. It is difficult to see why Mr Lewis would use the words “get him” rather than “find him” if he was talking of locating a driver. Moreover, Mr Lewis’s next comment: “I am here to help!!!”, in response to Mr Ashby’s thanks for his visit, again suggests collaboration with Mr Ashby and Ms Doane in damaging Mr Slipper. I find that on 4 April 2012, Mr Lewis referred to Mr Slipper when he wrote: “We will get him!!”.
If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.
But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.
News Ltd paid Ashby’s hotel accommodation in Sydney while Lewis was researching his story. Again, that’s defensible. Any prudent news organisation might well have done the same.
What we didn’t get from News Ltd and Steve Lewis was anything like the full story. All Lewis reported was that the Speaker was being accused of sexually harassing a staffer.
The bigger story is tightly told in one paragraph — number 138 — in Justice Steven Rares’ judgment: “I am also satisfied that Mr Ashby and Ms Doane by about 29 March 2012 were in a combination with Mr Brough to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict on him. They believed and hoped that Mr Lewis would publish unfavourable stories about Mr Slipper concerning whatever they could help Mr Lewis find in relation to Mr Slipper’s use of his travel entitlements in the areas of Mr Lewis’s curiosity. That is why each of Mr Ashby, Ms Doane and Mr Brough were anxious to provide Mr Lewis with the diary entries he sought. It is not clear whether Mr Brough had passed on to Mr Lewis Mr Ashby’s foreshadowed complaint of sexual harassment in late March 2012. They also believed that Mr Lewis, and the media generally, would report on any legal proceeding against Mr Slipper in which Mr Ashby alleged sexual harassment. At this time, Mr Ashby and Ms Doane saw Mr Brough as their means of obtaining favour from the LNP in seeking new employment. It was obvious that once what Mr Ashby was then planning became public, he and Ms Doane could no longer work as members of Mr Slipper’s personal staff. The relationship of trust and confidence (if it still subsisted) between Mr Slipper and the two staff members would have been destroyed by their acts of calculated disloyalty.”
We can thank Justice Rares for a judgment that took us inside the shrouded political backrooms of in Canberra and Queensland, exposing the real grubby self-interest of those who made the allegations against Peter Slipper.
And we thank Steve Lewis. He didn’t get the real story. But without Lewis it would never have been told.