Canberra correspondent John Passant analyses Sharri Markson's recent defence of her Barnaby Joyce "exclusive" and extraordinary attack on Independent Australia.
She has won the prestigious 2018 Kennedy Prize for Journalist of the Year for her "scoop" in exposing Barnaby Joyce, in February this year, as the man who had impregnated his former staffer, Vikki Campion.
The only problem is that Markson was not the first person to reveal this truth.
The problem is that she did not break the story of Barnaby Joyce's affair or [the] pregnancy. Credit for revealing the affair goes to Serkan Ozturk, the editor of True Crime News Weekly on 24 October 2017. News of Joyce's staffer's pregnancy was broken three weeks later in Independent Australia, in a story by Sydney bureau chief Ross Jones on 19 November 2017.
The dates are significant. Joyce had fallen foul of section 44 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. There was a by-election for his seat of New England in early December. The campaigner for traditional marriage stood again and won with a big swing to him, against virtually unknown opponents.
The people of New England did not know about Joyce’s changed circumstances. Despite the best wishes of IA and other small independent outlets we do not possess the voice of an organisation like News Corp. This means that Joyce’s infidelity, Campion’s pregnancy and the fact Joyce was no longer living with his wife and four daughters remained unknown to most voters in his electorate.
It probably would not have made much difference to these voters that their representative was cheating on his wife. Nevertheless, given Joyce's emphasis on the values of traditional marriage, should they not have been made aware of the character of the man before, rather than three months after the vote? In his opposition to same-sex marriage, Joyce had consistently held himself out as a defender of traditional marriage and pushed an image as a pious Catholic and "good family man". This was part of his cultivated political persona and appeal for votes.
So why the discrepancy in dates between when True Crime News Weekly and Independent Australia revealed the reality about Joyce and when Sharri Markson informed readers? Of course, it is possible that before the by-election the mainstream media (MSM) knew nothing at all about Joyce and his affair and subsequent change in living arrangement.
However, Markson knew about it because in October 2017 in the Daily Telegraph she referred to the ‘deeply personal crisis’ Joyce was having and how for months he had been struggling ‘with issues that have affected his marriage of 24 years’.
But the MSM also read publications like IA because we are able to break stories that they, perhaps due to their close relationships with politicians, will not touch for fear their carefully managed drip-feed of information will dry up.
It is also possible the MSM took the stance that publishing information about the personal lives of the Deputy Prime Minister and his partner and unborn child was a breach of privacy. Yet powerful men and women, when they stand for public office, are always in the spotlight and the dividing line between their private lives and their public lives is not clear.
Certainly, affairs, cover-ups and arrangements for Campion to work in another Federal Minister’s office and then for the National Party Whip, all appear to be worthy of public disclosure since they impact on policy and delivery. This is especially the case if the politician has campaigned on Christian values and his own religious conviction during a period of debate about same-sex marriage.
So why didn’t Markson let us know about this before the by-election? She knew about what she calls "the rumours" and I call "the details" of Joyce’s affair before the by-election.
It was a very difficult story to stand up. To in effect prove that someone had an affair and that the paternity is the Deputy Prime Minister. That is a tricky thing to be a hundred per cent certain of when no parties are commenting.
Which is why it took us so long to publish it. We tried months before in October of 2017, just before the New England by-election. So we ended up with a front page story that kind of went half way, that said there was a personal crisis in Barnaby Joyce’s life, that was sending shivers of panic in the Turnbull Government but it was very difficult to stand
Given that the Daily Telegraph sometimes prints rumour as fact and has run stories based on less than 100 per cent certainty, this seems a little strange. As an experienced journalist, Markson would know how to introduce Joyce’s changed circumstances into the story without prejudging or prejudicing his position. For example, a simple statement to the effect that the Daily Telegraph had sought comment from Barnaby Joyce about his new living arrangements and the reasons for them might have helped make the story more concrete and focused.
There is another explanation for the delay.
As Bruce Haigh wrote in IA in August:
It is alleged – and it certainly seems – that the embedded mainstream media held off on the story until the seat, critical to the Government's hold on the lower house of Federal Parliament, had been secured by Joyce.
Markson defended herself in her Mumbrella interview from criticisms that she did not, in fact, break the story but that others like True Crime News Weekly and Independent Australia did, by making sweeping assertions against IA that lack 100 per cent certainty.
The [Daily Telegraph] front page story I referred to earlier was before anyone had any notion of anything, which was in October of last year. But then those blog sites [IA and True Crimes News Weekly] print absolute garbage. Absolute rubbish.
Even as part of their reporting, they just report rumours. They do hit jobs on me which are completely inaccurate and a lot of other people all of the time… They publish any rumours they hear. The garbage can’t be separated from the facts.
The takedown of Markson’s ‘100 per cent certain' assertion from IA editor David Donovan is worth repeating:
Markson’s comments, if you have reported them accurately, are defamatory and false. IA is a member of the Press Council and the Canberra Press Gallery. We are not a blog and we do not publish rumours or smears. The idea a tabloid Daily Telegraph writer would suggest we do is a case of base projection...
The very idea you can "break" a story that thousands upon thousands of people already know about is absurd. Markson, if she had a shred of self-respect would acknowledge she did not break this story and hand any misbegotten rewards she received back.
I am a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation, in charge of the ATO’s role in international tax reform from 2002 to 2007. I retired from the ATO in 2008. I am also a former academic with about 35 refereed tax articles published. I have been writing a weekly column for IA for over three years with about 180 articles published so far. I am also a published poet. In August this year, I was accepted into the Canberra Press Gallery as the Canberra correspondent for IA — although illness has so far prevented me from fulfilling that role in any meaningful way. I do not deal in garbage or rumour, unlike the Daily Telegraph. I deal in facts and arguments, and reasoned opinion and analysis.
The fact that I am a socialist and that the general approach of IA and other independent media are left wing means that Markson can dismiss me and other IA writers and independent media from the tower of reaction that is the Murdoch media.
The media should not just be about relaying information of which it is 100 per cent certain. Its role can be to produce material that aids us in arriving at certainty. In relation to Barnaby Joyce before the December by-election, the mainstream media failed miserably to do that. IA did not.
What Markson is trying to do is to justify her award despite the fact that she did not actually break the story. IA and True Crime News Weekly did that. Markson has resorted to name calling in a desperate attempt to bolster support for her winning the award.
This whole fiasco shows the wider problem the mainstream media has. Small media outlets like IA are not beholden to the Canberra bubble for ongoing drip feeds of information from politicians and others. We do not have our agenda or editorial approach determined by a man in New York. We can produce material that challenges the way society is structured and operates. I try to do that in my analysis; others at IA do it in their reporting and analysis.
We need ongoing support to do that and to continue to earn the ire of conservative journalists and more generally of powerful men and women in society, like politicians and their backers. If you support media that is not beholden to politicians, or Rupert Murdoch, or the honchos who run Channel 9, subscribe to IA and help keep our critical reporting and analysis flowing.
Listen to IA's Dave Donovan discuss Markson's claims here:
You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassant. Signed copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.
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