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Age journalist censured for conflict of interest in reporting MP rape allegation

The Australian Press Council has upheld a complaint against The Age that the newspaper allowed one if its journalists to publish a lengthy article about the later discredited allegations of an alleged rape victim against an MP, despite the woman being a personal friend.  

Carolyn_WebbFormer Victorian Minister Theo Theophanous complained that an article written for The Age by Carolyn Webb in late 2008 was unfair. The charges against him were later dismissed.

Webb was a friend of the woman making the allegation and had visited her in Greece and stayed at her house, Theophanous complained.

In its ruling, the Press Council said the paper should have put another journalist onto the story or disclosed the potential conflict of interest. It said:

On the basis of the material before it, the Council has found that Ms Webb clearly had a potential conflict of interest through her friendship with the woman making the allegations. In the course of the lengthy preparation of the article for publication, this relationship became known to the newspaper itself and, it appears, so did the woman’s previous inconsistent version. The article was concerned with very grave matters and focused heavily on highly personal allegations in an exclusive interview with Ms Webb. In these circumstances, the newspaper should have assigned overall responsibility for the story to another journalist instead of, or at least in addition to, Ms Webb. Alternatively, the relationship should have been disclosed in the article. On these grounds the complaint by Mr Theophanous is upheld.

A complaint about a later article about the same matter in sister title The Sunday Age was narrowly dismissed by the newspaper watchdog. It ruled:

In the Council’s view, this article trod close to the line of fairness and balance through its degree of reliance on unattributed quotations and assertions as the basis for very severe criticism. The Council also believes that it is often unwise, and sometimes clearly unacceptable, for a newspaper to publish an article by a journalist who may be vulnerable to perceptions of a conflict of interest in favour of or against a person referred to in the article, at least if the relevant facts are not disclosed. However, the Council is not persuaded that the content and authorship of this article transgressed its principles in these respects.”

The APC also criticised a further article by the journalist Melissa Fyfe which included a paragraph added  later in the editing process claiming that the politician admitted to “using dirty grubby tactics”. It ruled: “The Council considers that the paragraph is unacceptable because it is not an accurate or fair paraphrasing of Mr Theophanous’ quoted remarks.”

The watchdog also urged that the Fairfax newspaper should update the online version of its article to note the later  dismissal of the allegations, urging: “At least in some circumstances it is reasonable to expect the dismissal to be annotated on the archived earlier story, even if it cannot be guaranteed that the alteration will be made to copies held on third parties’ websites. The Council considers that such an annotation should be made in this case, especially because of the seriousness of the allegations and the unequivocal nature of their dismissal by the magistrate. This could be done by a simple cross-reference to the newspaper’s own report of the dismissal.”

However, at the time fo writing, no such cross references appear against The Age’s online story – indeed, it links to a further six futher articles published prior to the MP being cleared.

Update: In a statement to The ABC’s Media Watch Paul Ramadge, editor of The Age, said: “The paper was aware that the journalist knew the alleged victim. The nature of this “relationship” has been distorted in the Press Council complaint. At the time the story was being prepared there was no friendship between the women, in the sense of emotional or social ties, and so no impediment to the journalist doing her job impartially.”

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