Debunking the romanticism of investigative journalism

By PNG Echo.

The Watergate Affair, uncovered by investigative journalists
The Watergate Affair, uncovered by investigative journalists

Investigative journalism is often romantically portrayed as journalism in its most altruistic form: media fulfilling its ‘fourth estate’ function of public ‘watchdog.’

It does this by drawing attention to failures within society’s system of regulation and to the ways in which those systems can be circumvented by the rich, the powerful and the corrupt. (2008, de Burgh P.3)

Beattie and Beal talk of the ‘fourth estate’ as the public interest guardians of truth. (2007, Beattie and Beal p.37) and in investigative mode the media has had a number of notable successes in forcing recognition of wrongs and providing the motivation to right the wrongs. Some examples:

  • In the USA in 1972, the story that exposed corruption in the US presidency and caused the impeachment of President Richard Nixon (Watergate).
  • In Britain the exposé of Thalidomide scandal – a pre-natal anti-nausea drug that was the cause of severe birth deformities. (2008, Economou & Tanner pp.15-16)
  • In Australia, the Chris Masters’ documentary for Four Corners ‘The Moonlight State’ (ABC television 11 May, 1987) revealed high levels of corruption in the Queensland police services – the subsequent inquiry brought down the Queensland government.
  • In Sydney Morning Herald, (October 10, 2008), Richard Ackland wrote in praise of Western Australian journalist Colleen Egan who crusaded to have the case of a convicted murderer reheard. A wrongly convicted man is today free by virtue of the tireless investigative work done by Egan. He called the piece: “When the law provides no justice, call a reporter.

The power of the press

Looking at journalistic investigations such as ‘Watergate’ and ‘Moonlight State’, the ‘all-powerful’ tag is a reasonable assumption to make.

Indeed, media was attributed with great power by Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Dr Jim Cairns who in 1975 stated that he felt it impossible to win political office if opposed by the media.

Going back even further, Napoleon Bonaparte dramatically stated:

…four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” (2006 Conley and Lamble pp.26-27).

‘The pen’s mightier than the sword’, right? Well not necessarily.

Perhaps the reality is more that:

 …the media’s proximity to key events is easily mistaken for power.” (2006 Conley and Lamble p 28)

It’s an illusion of power that is limited, it’s where reality matches neither expectation nor perception.

For the most part, journalists, (and even the lauded ‘investigative journalists’) rarely venture outside the established order where their power lies is in promoting accepted moral and societal values.   When journalists deviate from this they are seldom rewarded.

This was a hard-learned lesson for Australian right-wing shock jock, radio talk-back host, Alan Jones, in 2007 when he backed Liberal Peter Debnam to win the NSW State election and become Premier – Debnam lost.

The myth surrounding Alan Jones debunked when he backed Debnam
The myth surrounding Alan Jones debunked when he backed Debnam

Up until then, Jones was hailed the ‘King Maker’, politicians he backed won. Held in awe were Jones’ perceived powers to influence the public and fulfil political ambitions. Debnam smashed the myth.

Up until then, Jones had simply been backing the ‘odds-on favourite’. His perceived power lay in mirroring and reinforcing public opinion – he was correctly gauging popular public sentiment while giving the wrong impression that he’d created it.  He hadn’t.

Closer to home for PNG is the case of Belden Namah, the kingmaker who would be king.

In 2011, it was expected that the Prime Ministership, come the 2012 elections, would be Namah’s for the taking.

However, at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, articles, (1), (2) & (3) started appearing that threw light on questionable conduct (some written and contributed to by this writer).

Namah and his social media acolytles
Namah and his social media acolytles

And while I’d like to take credit for turning around public opinion, in reality, I suspect that the articles did nothing more than cement an uneasy realisation, already existing amongst Namah’s peers and fuelled by Namah’s erratic behaviour, that his conduct was unbecoming of a leader. It was this nascent unease that they subsequently acted upon. I was merely pushing them along in a direction in which they were already pointing.

It’s interesting to note that two years on, Namah’s very strident and noisy social media following has had no positive effect at all on Namah’s political fortunes. His political position continues its death dive and he’s become a pariah amongst his peers.

Use and abuse

If it’s a common perception that media can be manipulative, it’s also true that, at times, it is the media that is manipulated in order to effect agendas of both big corporations and government who play upon inherently latent prejudices.

Take the Julian Moti case: the charge against him was paedophilia, a crime guaranteed to have public opinion running high. Back in 2009 I wrote:

Paedophilia, being such an unspeakably hideous crime leaves a stigma hard to shake once an allegation is made. Though our justice system demands that a person is innocent until proven guilty, in the case of child-sex crimes, once the finger has been pointed the damage is done. It’s an effective smokescreen.”

The unlikely charges against Moti were a smokescreen for political motives of the Australian government.

Aripaea Salmon - Father os Moti's alleged victim
Aripaea Salmon – Father os Moti’s alleged victim

For, having interviewed the father of the alleged victim just days before his untimely death, there is considerable doubt in my mind about the veracity of the allegations and charges (Part 1) (Part 2) (part 3)

However, the mainstream Australian press ran with the story of the alleged paedophilia, thus garnering considerable national contempt for Moti

In this media-fuelled ‘outrage,’ the real story of Australia’s prosecution and persecution of Julia Moti, including the egregious flouting of international and domestic law, was ignored.

So busy were the press toeing the Australian government line and catering to the public’s thirst for scandal that they seriously neglected their ‘fourth estate’ commitments

Julian Moti, vilified by the mainstream press but vindicated by the High Court of Australia
Julian Moti, vilified by the mainstream press but vindicated by the High Court of Australia

It took Australia’s High Court to recognise the inherent wrongs, awarding Moti a permanent stay of prosecution citing ‘abuse of process’. Ironically, they came to that conclusion with no more information than that which had been made available to the Australian mainstream press (often by this writer).

Thus manipulators had become the manipulated – a considerable internal impediment to investigative journalism.

Whistleblowers and documentary evidence

When a journalist conducts an investigation, s/he has some advantages and some disadvantages over ‘official’ investigative authorities, such as police.

Firstly, the onerous legal paradigm of having to prove the allegations ‘beyond a reasonable doubt” is neither a requirement nor an undertaking of a journalist. Even in the most ethical newsrooms, to publish, an editor will usually only require that the allegations prove probability of guilt.

On the minus side, to conduct an investigation the journalist has neither the power to arrest, subpoena documents, interrogate witnesses nor require compliance, as the police under the right circumstances. Even public documents available under the Freedom of Information Act in Australia are difficult and getting more difficult to access with privacy laws, counter -terrorist security laws and other legislation impeding the flow of information.

Therefore, almost all successful media exposés will require substantial assistance from a ‘whistleblower’ who will often be acting illegally. Most of the high- profile whistleblowers in the news lately are more vilified than celebrated. Whistleblowers put their careers and livelihoods at risk, the rewards are hardly ever commensurate with the risk.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame
Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame

The case of ‘Wikileaks’ whistleblower, Julian Assange, mirrors very closely that of Julian Moti (in more than just their shared Christian names) in the way the relevant government pursued them relentlessly – with too many parallels to mention here, for our purposes it’s sufficient to note that in the Assange case, a sex crime is possibly being used to create a smokescreen around dubious governmental excesses – to shift the focus on what he blew the whistle on, maybe?

Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that whistleblowers are a scarce breed. William De Maria of Queensland Whistleblower Action Group found in a study he conducted that:

Protection for whistlebowers who expose via the media is the big no-go area for the drafters of whistleblower legislation in Australia and New Zealand. (2006 Conley and Lamble p 177).

…yet another considerable impediment to investigative journalism.

The monetary costs

But not only are there external obstacles to investigative journalism, there are considerable internal ones too that discourage editors from this genre.

Investigative journalism is often a long process and it’s costly. With newspapers in crisis, losing business daily to new media, the budget, increasingly, does not allow.

What’s more, at the conclusion of an investigative piece, publication is still not guaranteed as the editor has to consider the ramifications and costs of possible law suits like ones for defamation.

Professor Wendy Bacon
Professor Wendy Bacon

Australia’s defamation laws have been described as “draconian and unpredictable” (2006 Conley and Lamble p 37). Indeed the Australian laws of defamation has Professor Wendy Bacon, Journalist/activist and head of the journalism program at the University of Technology, Sydney, on her facebook page, mooting whether defamation has effectively become censorship under another name.

Because, while everyone is consider equal under the law, the cost of defending or prosecuting what is, in law, a civil case, is prohibitive for all but the wealthy

Defamation laws, as they stand in Australia, tend to effectively shield the wealthy and leave the poor defenceless which produces an interesting effect on media reporting. Investigative reporter, Chris Masters wrote:

The laws have turned our media into both coward and a bully. Too frightened to go up the big end of town, the media turn on and mug the powerless.” (2002 Masters)

Chris Masters Australia's celebrated investigative journalist
Chris Masters Australia’s celebrated investigative journalist

While the “bully’ tag is certainly contra to the media ethics laid down by the Media Alliance Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the peak industry body in Australia), that the media should be ‘cowardly’ is hardly surprising. In the reportage of the ‘Moonlight State’

Chris Masters […] would be defending defamation actions in court for the next 13 years at a cost of over a million dollars to the ABC.  (2007, Beattie and Beal p 217.)

In the main, editors will steer clear of anything likely to trigger a lawsuit – which makes negative reporting against large corporations or government, who will use the law to its nth degree to vigorously defend themselves – nigh on impossible.

Contemptuous restrictions

The restriction on reporting while matters are legally sub judice (under a judge) is another significant impediment to investigative reporting in certain cases.

Sub judice contempt laws were meant to ensure that the accused gets a fair trial free from  undue influence from extraneous sources like the mass media.

‘Trial by media’ is said to be an undesirable thing. But, not always.

When former child star, Sarah Monaghan accused her alleged attacker, actor Robert Hughes, of indecent assault, she chose to air the accusations in the media. There was a considerable hue and cry condemning her actions. “Trial by Media” they said angrily.

Actor Robert Hughes convicted of the crimes he was first accused of by Sarah Monaghan in the press
Actor Robert Hughes convicted of the crimes he was first accused of by Sarah Monaghan in the press

But Sarah Monaghan had no reason to trust the appropriate authorities who had ignored her complaints when she was a young vulnerable girl and even threatened to penalise her should she continue complaining of Hughes unwanted sexual attention. She was 10-years-old at the time.

Her story was not sub judice as she took the accusations to the media first – but she and the media were roundly criticised. I’m not sure that the critics were right.

But it is the Radio announcer, Derryn Hinch, known as ‘the human headline’ that has highlighted this impediment to reporting in Australia when he was charged and convicted of sub judice contempt and subsequently served time in prison.

It’s when this law is employed in contravention of its original intent that it can have its worst effect: that of creating a wall for the unscrupulous to hide behind to evade public scrutiny.

The administration of justice, the function of our legal system, needs to have altruistic intentions and generally it does. It’s why the statutes exhort the Commonwealth to be a ‘Model Litigant’ with the idea of fairness and the discovery of truth uppermost in its considerations.  Yet, if the acts (laws) are altruistic, the actors are not always. Too often sub-judice contempt laws, designed to protect the weak (the defence) are hijacked by the powerful (the prosecution and its agencies), providing a brilliantly effective shield from public scrutiny where the unscrupulous can operate with relative impunity. Without public scrutiny the temptation to treat obligations under the law contemptuously, is ever-present

This law is a considerable impediment to investigative journalism should that investigation be concerning any form of judicial (mis)conduct.

In PNG

Corruption
Corruption

All of the above assumes that journalism is operating in a liberal democratic context. While Papua New Guinea (PNG) lays claim, officially, to being one, the country and its government often don’t subscribe to the underlying ethical and moral principles that are the assumptions of the creed, rather than the formal rules.

With massive corruption rife in all public spheres, in PNG most people know who is doing what – or at least have their suspicions. I would wager that every single citizen and resident knows personally –and/or has been involved – in at least one instance of corruption. Most meet it on a daily basis.

Violence

If whistleblowers have a hard time generally, they face added dangers in a country where right is determined by who has the most powerful wantoks (tribes people/family). To hurt someone’s wantok, even by exposing their egregious flouting of the laws of the land, is deemed the greatest sin of all. PNGeans, generally, will defend their wantok to the death and extract savage ‘payback’ if one of them is hurt or aggrieved.

A veteran PNG journalist once asked me if I’d be so bold in what I write if I had the constant fear of leaving home one morning and never returning. Chances are I wouldn’t.

Violence often makes it difficult to perform journalistic duties in PNG according to the agreed ethical rules of journalism that operate in a liberal democracy (sometimes only honoured in the breach, even in liberal democracies).

Recently I was accused (in words of four letters) of being biased in my reporting because I had not sought the side of the accused before I published. While I arguably should have, I was not prepared to take the risk.

The man concerned is a lawyer, with many powerful contacts, he has also been accused of beating a woman so severely that she had to have a finger amputated and that’s not the worse of it.

The lawyer asked to meet me, preferably at his office. I declined. I have no doubt had I agreed to his demands I would have been putting myself in a potentially extremely perilous situation.

Eremas Wartoto - "meet me"
Eremas Wartoto – “meet me”

I did offer to publish his side of the story should he care to send it to me. He never did – but then the allegations against him are such that I fail to see what he could have said that would have ameliorated the severity of the charges. I can only deduce the offer to meet me was an attempt at intimidation. It was akin to the attempt of Eremas Wartoto who also wanted to ‘meet me’ after I wrote a damning story of some of his uncovered dealings. As he was in Australia, I agreed – then he backed off – making me wonder what was the point of the request.

Complicity of the people

In the public exchange of words with the abovementioned lawyer, the irony was that the expressed sentiment (mostly from PNG males) was that I, the journalist, had committed a heinous crime in publishing the alleged sins of this man (all of which were already in the public sphere) while this man who had just been arrested over major fraud (accessory in the Paraka matter) and had very public allegations against him over violence against women was proclaimed the ‘sinned against’.

Thus killing the messenger becomes a national sport in PNG.

‘Innocent until proven guilty’ was the shout.

In a society that understands bribery and even approves of it (it’s similar to a practise that is culturally honoured), not many people will ever be proven guilty – the guilty will make sure the question is never asked either by means of bribery or coercive violence.

Recently I read that one person (a woman, I believe) in her attempts to sue someone had to keep changing lawyers as the person she was wanting to sue/charge kept paying her lawyers to drop the case.

Yet, PNGeans have lovingly embrace the legal concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ while honouring other accompanying concepts only in the breach. It’s a fine deterrent to ever uncovering the whole truth let alone bringing a suspected felon to justice – and a considerable impediment on reporting.

It’s yet another legal principle not applied according to its original intent.

Legal and governmental impediments to reporting

The Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice

Contempt of court legislation also exists in PNG as do defamation laws, although the latter is more often threatened than applied.

Lawyer, Paul Paraka, managed to keep the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Finance department, where he was criminally implicated, suppressed for over six years with a court order. No media organisation could report on the matter or they’d trigger a contempt charge.

How does an investigative journalist operate in such an environment?

Media relations in PNG are further hampered by the disrespect shown to reporters by politicians. For instance, it was not unusual, for Belden Namah, especially when he was Deputy Prime Minister, to be two hours late for a press conference, or not turn up at all. That’s a whole other form of contempt. Yet Namah has lately berated the PNG media for not covering his utterances.

When I wrote a series of three articles(1,2,3) on the former Treasurer, Don Polye, he chastised me for not talking to him before publication. (This was via Facebook where I am assuming that the writer was the genuine article).

However, Polye and most government Ministers, are not easy to contact – most spend considerable amounts of time overseas. What’s more, had I indicated the material that I had that didn’t show him in a good light, there is every possibility that he would have moved heaven and earth to stop the story airing. To forewarn a subject on publication in PNG is to risk them tying you up in the courts indefinitely.

In what is ostensibly censorship, the PNG government has been known to put pressure on the press to drop stories.

…and the seed fell on stoney ground

In 2012, the Post Courier published an investigative piece of mine (Post Courier Nov 6 , 2012 headlines, Nov7, p 2) about PNGean owned property in Cairns. It caused much Ministerial chagrin.

The newspaper was contacted, from the top, and pointedly asked: “Why are you publishing the stories of that foreign journalist?” Ah patriotism, the last resort of scoundrels!

Thee then Minister for Energy and Petroleum, William Duma, could be seen the morning of publication storming around various government departments demanding to know who gave me the information (I got it from the Queensland Land Titles Office, Mr Duma, not from PNG).

Then Duma in a press release sought to shoot the messenger, as did Governor William Powi (William Titpe Powi to give him his full name) – with his outright denial, notwithstanding that I was in receipt of a certificate with all the details with that exact name attached. Another politician claimed to be “hurt” by the revelations especially as I’d had the temerity to include the allegations of corruption against him too.

William Duma
William Duma

I replied to the Hon members Duma and Powi thus:– ( A reply that no mainstream media outlet were, by then, game to publish. They’d been nobbled.)

‘How dare she reveal this about me’ was the general sentiment. There was little resultant shame in what had been revealed and no one’s head rolled

No shame, no action

The whole point of investigative journalism is to expose wrongs – not for its own sake but to force some remedial and/or progressive action in order to right the wrongs.

As such the press are really a ‘pressure group’ while acting in this mode. In the case of PNG the press in a particularly ineffectual one.

Sam Koim
Sam Koim

Take the ‘Cairns Property’ story, for instance, it was inspired by a speech (published) that TaskForce Sweep’s head, Sam Koim, gave to AUSTRAC in Australia about the problem of PNG corruptly obtained (stolen) money being laundered in Australia, often via property in Cairns.

I decided to find out the extent of the problem. Up until then, it was believed that the information was unavailable – offenders felt secure.

Disappointingly the story did not motivate anyone to action the findings – even though a cursory study of the details showed a plethora of coincidences of timing – certainly enough to trigger an investigation. But it didn’t.

Sam Koim informs me that the normal way that Task Force Sweep investigates cases is to act on complaints. Complaints are collated and prioritised when they’re received. Koim also explained that as the Task Force has a number of police attached they are able to proceed on a matter without complaint.

However, to my knowledge the Task Force never has initiated an investigation. “We have a lot on our table.” Koim said by way of explanation. The suggestion is that they are under-resourced – but then again, they have a huge job.

In the case of the Cairns Property story, no one who was able made a complaint. It was a very expensive exercise in futility. The bare costs of this investigation ran into a five-figure sum (in kina) and that’s not factoring in the journalist’s wages.

While I was not paid for the story, I’m sure I would have been had it been worth my while to raise an invoice. It wasn’t. The uppermost remuneration I could have expected was K1 per word and the articles were around 250 words long, The investigation’s bare costs had been up to 50 fold that number.

This impediment to investigations by freelance journalists in PNG is replicated in Australia where the rate is better – but not much. Not many freelance journalist can afford to work for nothing let alone have the work cost them money.

The greatest disappointment

The biggest disappointment of all, and the largest impediment to investing in investigative journalism in PNG is the abysmal outcomes.

copy-PNG-Echo-Header.jpgBecause as the stories come rolling out of my computer, so the silence is deafening. Story after story of corruption and collusion, some more documented than the first, are studiously ignored.

There was only one effort that yielded a result – and that was in the case of the woman who was raped by four police officers in Wewak and the subsequent abuse and bashing of women who complained (again by police).

However, it was not an easy task to mobilise justice– and to highlight the situation I had to step out of the parameters of my role as a journalist. I spoke directly to the Prime Minister (who was also, at the time, the Minister for Police) through his party’s facebook page (social media can be wonderful) and I didn’t mince words. I accused him, directly of being responsible.

Prime Minister O'Neill has the decency to be shamed by the violent attack on a woman by police officers
Prime Minister O’Neill has the decency to be shamed by the violent attack on a woman by police officers

The Prime Minister did reply, through one of his minions, accusing me of self-aggrandisement over my publishing of the saga (which the authorities said was better handled more “discreetly” – read: swept under the carpet) but, in the end, and for whatever reason, the Prime Minister was galvanised into taking action and I believe the police concerned have been charged even though one, I am reliably informed by a trusted source, is generally under the protection of Sir Michael Somare.

It’s an indication that all is not lost. The number one citizen of PNG can be shamed into action. But it’s a rare occurrence.

So when the PNG populace bemoans the lack of investigative journalism it would be well to consider all I’ve written. In PNG there seems little point in uncovering wrong-doing when the revelations are rarely acted upon. It is an indication that there is tacit approval for the aberrant practise and the short-lived outrage is nothing more than lip service. Until this attitude is altered investigative journalism is a dangerous and costly exercise in futility. Journalism isn’t failing PNG, PNG is failing journalism.

 

Bibliography

  • 2007, Beattie, S., & Beal, E., Connect and Converge: Australian Media andCommunications Law, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
  • 2006, Conley, D., & Lamble, S., The Daily Miracle. An introduction to journalism, Third edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
  • 2008, de Burgh, H, Investigative Journalism, Routledge, London and New York
  • 2008, Economou, N., & Tanner, S., Media Power and Politics in Australia Pearson, Frenchs Forest.
  • 2002, Masters, C., Not for publication, ABC Books, Sydney

Media references

  • (ABC television 11 May, 1987 Four Corners)
  • (Post Courier Nov 6, 2012 headlines, Nov7, p 2)
  • Richard Ackland, Sydney Morning Herald, (October 10, 2008),

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Debunking the romanticism of investigative journalism

  1. incisive, frank and truly and awesomely audacious…investigative journalism is a dead end…the dead end being put up by systemic and systematic corruption.I wonder.

  2. Now I know journalisim is another important aveanue to go against corruption, however, in png all medias are manuiplated. He who ever willing to try will take all risks like; job on line, leaving integrity to brivery & corruption & even to loose business.
    In PNG everything is systematic, no one really cares as we are being robbed day light by our very own politicans & top public servants. I really dont know when & how to stop those corrution activities.

  3. Excellent.PNG people don’t have room for accepting correction as Positive Criticisms.

    We all who are Christians know from the accounts of our Lord Jesus Christ appearing to the other disciples after His ressurection that He is alive in His glory body. Yet Thomas insisted that did not believe if he can not touch Jesus Scars. This why we use the common phrase”doubting Thomas”, but with out his doubts raised even the the majority believed, Jesus appeared suddenly. Jesus is the Truth, the Way and the Life. He is the Word of God. Without Doubting Thomas, there are revelation s Jesus revealed that we would not know the Truth.
    Therefore the Investigative Journalism job is a holy calling from the Lord. Only He can inspire you with boldness and the descriptive words of wisdom.
    PNG Echo, I personally salute you on my country’s 39years Independence anneversity. You are My hero. Br. David Herman T. Nime (Author of PNG- The Writing is on the Wall, Vol. 1, Corruption). God bless your heart richly.

    • Br. David, thank you for your kind words of encouragement. If only there were more of you and less of the hypocritical who tarnish the image of a creed that preaches love.

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