Guy Rundle exposes travesty of Australian reporting on Larissa

Excellent article by Guy Rundle exposing the nature of the reporting on Larissa. MUST READ.

Rundle: anatomy of a Larissa Behrendt beat-up

What do you do if you’re on a roll with a major beat-up, and you don’t have a full story? Run it anyway, and let the headline do the work. Thus The Oz returned to the task of assaulting the reputation of Larissa Behrendt, based on a tweet she sent out a week ago to 800 people.

On Monday, we had a report on a report done at UTS where Behrendt teaches. The report, on indigenous education at UTS was equivocal, saying some things were done well, some not so well. Behrendt wasn’t mentioned by name, and the key focus was a department she has nothing to do with — this nevertheless became “fresh problems for Behrendt”.

On Tuesday, the paper clearly had a tip-off from someone that West Australian academic Hannah McGlade had a complaint: Behrendt had attempted to have her barred from writing for the National Indigenous Times, the fortnightly that had a wrenching internal dispute last year.

According to the story, Behrendt had told NIT general manager Beverley Wyner that NIT would have to choose between her and McGlade as columnist.

Wyner couldn’t be reached to verify this. Hold the story until she could be got hold of — to see if there was a story, affecting someone’s reputation? Don’t be silly.

The best Patricia Karvelas at The Oz could do was the accusation by McGlade herself, and hearsay from current NIT editor Stephen Hagan. Behrendt denied the accusation as did previous NIT editor Chris Graham. Karvelas quoted Chris Graham thus:

“Larissa at no time pressured anyone to drop Hannah McGlade as a columnist. It simply did not occur.

“Any other characterisation is completely false. I am the founding editor of NIT, and remain one of its major shareholders.”

Karvelas left out Graham’s opening remark (“The allegations in your email to NIT regarding Larissa Behrendt are wrong”) for obvious reasons, but also left out a fairly crucial fact:

“What did occur is that the entire editorial team of NIT resigned as a result of the conduct of Beverley Wyner.”

The construction of the story now gets curiouser. Karvelas emailed Behrendt for comment at 4.30pm:

“Hi Larissa

The Editor of the NIT says you tried to pressure them to drop Hannah McGlade from writing for the NIT McGlade also says this. They say you have since not written. Would you like to comment on this from these people?”

Of Behrendt’s denial, Karvelas then says in her story “But when The Australian put to [Behrendt] the allegation was that she had spoken to Ms Wyner, she did not respond in time for publication.”

Yet NIT editor Hagan’s accusation had been that Behrendt had applied pressure through Wyner. So why did Karvelas not put that in the initial email? What other accusation was Hagan making? Perhaps it was simply an oversight — and doubtless not the old trick of asking separately a question you don’t want answered.

Otherwise, lacking first-order confirmation from Wyner, and with an outright denial from Behrendt, you’d either have to spike the story, or recklessly publish unconfirmed and multiply denied allegations.

In terms of The Australian’s priorities, going with this half-story was probably the right move. Because next day, an email turned up from Behrendt to Beverly Wyner and her husband, which portrayed the situation as something very different to a demand for someone’s exclusion:

Indeed, the very parts of the email that The Australian excerpted confirmed this:

“When I realised that Hannah McGlade was a likely new contributor I rang Beverley to confirm. I was very distressed by this,” the email says.

“Hannah has a high level of personal animosity towards me. She has made scathing personal public attacks on me and I felt uncomfortable with her coming on board  … I felt that this meant that our paper was giving all her views legitimacy, including her personal attacks on me.

“I was very upset and emotional at this thought, an indication of what Hannah’s hurtful behaviour has impacted on me in the past. Beverley told me that Stephen Hagan would ring me and discuss a way forward.

“This was not done. I never received a call from him. Then I read the editorial in the paper when it came out and realised that my time with NIT had come to an end.”

There is clearly no explicit reference to refusing to write for the paper if McGlade was a contributor — indeed Behrendt mentions the suggestion that the new editor would ring her to discuss a “way forward”. How does The Australian construct this as a refusal to write? Via its next sentence, following the excerpted email:

“The [National Indigenous Times] editorial announces Ms McGlade as one of the paper’s permanent columnists.”

The implication is obvious — Behrendt saw the editorial announcing McGlade’s new column, and by that token, flounced off. But this is a total misconstruction by omission. Here is what the NIT editorial in question — the new editor’s first — says, from issue 202, May 2010:

“This editorial is also an opportunity to acknowledge principal past editors, columnists and staff who have seen the company through taxing times: Chris Graham, Amy McQuire, Brian Johnstone, Jacqui Newberry, Larissa Behrendt and their staff who have moved on to new endeavours.”

In other words, Behrendt read the editorial and concluded that her “time with the NIT was at an end” because the editorial said she was no longer a columnist! She’d been publicly sacked. Any reference to Hannah McGlade was beside the point. Behrendt herself makes this point in the next paragraph of the letter, which The Australian excluded:

“I spent many years writing my column, for several years without payment … I feel now that I have just been thrown away.”

This is clearly a reference to a public sacking without notice. It was the new NIT management who acted, not Behrendt.

Furthermore, The Australian’s story leaves out much of the context of the email, in which Behrendt talks about her ongoing commitment to the NIT:

“I have delayed writing as I feel very distressed over matters to do with the NIT.

“It has been hard for all of us who remain committed to the paper and who felt loyalty both to Beverley and to Chris [Graham, previous editor] to stay out of the conflict without compromising relationships that were valuable to us but I think we all tried in our own ways to do this.

When Beverley called me early last week about the NIT’s new direction I was immediately supportive and agreed to stay on exclusively with NIT.”

Such context makes clear the conflict within NIT was wrenching and complex for all concerned, and that the possible appointment of McGlade was one issue among many. Something a diligent journo would ask questions about — attentive to the possibility that it is not impossible that they are being used by their sources.

But here is Karvelas’s email to Behrendt:

From: “Karvelas, Patricia”
Date: 19 April 2011 3:37:04 PM AEST
To: Larissa Behrendt, Terry Clinton
Subject: email

Hi Larissa/Terry

I have a leaked email that confirms that Larissa did in fact say that Hannah should not be run in the NIT despite what was said yesterday. I have attached it.

I am looking to publish its contents tomorrow and am providing an opportunity for you to respond

Thank you

Patricia

Two things are interesting in this email. First there is nothing in Behrendt’s email that says McGlade should not be run as a columnist. Instead she notes her distress at McGlade being run as a columnist, given that that might legitimise McGlade’s attacks on her, and talks of discussing a “way forward”. Secondly, there was no contradiction with Behrendt’s earlier statement to The Australian. In Tuesday’s story she is quoted as saying she had not spoken to [new NIT editor] Stephen Hagan, and the letter confirms that.

More importantly, the story as it appeared in The Australian makes stronger claims than the ones Karvelas was asking Behrendt to respond to. Rather than saying that Behrendt recorded her distress at McGlade’s possible appointment, the story, in headline and lede, made accusations that the body of it did not support:

“EMAIL REVEALS BEHRENDT BAN BID

A leaked email written by high-profile lawyer Larissa Behrendt, who last week publicly insulted Aboriginal activist Bess Price on Twitter, demonstrates she did indeed try to have another Aboriginal woman banned from writing for the National Indigenous Times.”

So not only had Behrendt been asked to reply to an accusation that was weaker than the one that was subsequently made, but the accusation could not be substantiated by the very material they were quoting. And they have now run the story two days in a row, without a quote from Beverly Wyner, to whom Behrendt is alleged to have made her complaints — so there is no first-hand confirmation of the accusation.

One might call this “courageous” journalism, though not in a good way. Perhaps The Oz is going for a second Pulitzer, in fiction.

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