As The Australian shows, it’s easy for a paper to go overboard – I’ve done it too

Back in the days when I edited a print publication, I once went totally overboard in a story about an apparently out of control public body. It’s only about eight years later that hindsight makes me realise how badly I misjudged the news value at the time – sometimes you get too close to a story.

It feels to me that The Australian has done much the same thing in its battle with Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland.  

In my case, I edited a magazine called Hospital Doctor.

My battle with officialdom was with a British organisation called the General Medical Council, which regulates the conduct of doctors.

I became aware of some organisational problems within the GMC.

Arguably there had been a lack of oversight. The president had been paid a salary that equated to a million quid over a few years and very few of the people involved in the organisation seemed to know about it. And there was a colourful cultural clash going on between an elected member and some of the staff.

It smelt bad. I stepped back from editing the mag for a number of weeks while my deputy took the helm, so I could dig properly.

I found myself driving round the country with a car boot full of documents I’d copied in a supermarket coinslot photocopier in the middle of the night. It all felt quite dramatic.

And there were some tantalising documents – in internal emails, the staff had been rude about this elected member.

But in truth, that was about as far as the story went.

Yes, more people should have know, and perhaps even had a say, in what the president was earning. But if they had, I suspect he’d have still received the money.

And the staff had been rude about a member who, frankly, was somewhat eccentric.

By then though, I was deeply into the story. I’d invested time and energy – the closest I’ve ever come to falling asleep at the wheel was in my cross country drive with those copied documents – and convinced myself it was a big story, and worth telling in some depth.

So I did – it was thousands of words and we spread it across pages and pages of the magazine.

It also cost us a fortune to get our libel lawyer to okay it for publication.

The story stood up. Indeed, it even helped me win a couple of awards.

But when I look back now, it simply wasn’t a big enough story to run on the scale I did.

But it had taken on a momentum of its own.

It feels to me, that the battle between Overland and The Australian has similarly picked up momentum.

It’s a complicated tale.

It went public last August when Overland used a televised press conference to attack The Australian‘s coverage of anti-terrorism raids. He claimed the paper had published too early, endangering the raids. The paper denied it.

But it became a battle over sources, and went painfully legal.

The paper has since been examining in, to use its own words, forensic detail, the behaviour of Overland in other cases. It has written thousands of words – certainly far more than it has about bigger scandals. Overland comes out of it badly.

You can find more commentary on the battle from Crikey’s Margaret Simons, The ABC’s Media Watch and rival paper The Age. (This appears to be a story that is of more interest to journalists than the public, and it feels a little like whoever writes about the issue ends up being sucked into it. Certainly Simons is now involved in her own tussle with The Australian.)

A phrase leapt out at me in a piece yesterday from The Australian’s media editor Geoff Elliott. Discussing how reporter Hedley Thomas was sent from Queensland to look into the issues in Victoria, Elliott mentioned “the boxes of documents that Thomas regularly transported back to Queensland after his visits to Victoria”.

It reminded me of my own car boot full of documents. Once you go that far, it’s hard to turn back.

So far, those outside the story probably see one of two sides. Either, the paper is cynically pursuing its own agenda to prosecute a private war. Or it is subjecting a powerful figure to long overdue scrutiny. It is, I suspect, neither of those two things, and both of those two things.

Once you’ve got something, it’s hard to let go. Particularly when you take it personally. That’s the nature of  investigative journalism.

But I don’t think this is a story that would have got anything like the column inches if The Australian wasn’t directly involved, and the senior editorial staff were not heavily invested in it.

Is there a story there? Yes. But has The Australian gone overboard in telling it? Yes.

But the way it happened may have involved less cynicism than you’d think.

Sometimes, you just get too close.

Tim Burrowes


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