Who leaked Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mockery of US President Donald Trump to veteran Canberra journalist Laurie Oakes?
That is the question still resonating from the viral audio first posted by Oakes and Instagram the day after the PM mimicked and satirised ‘The Donald’ at the Canberra Press Gallery’s midwinter ball.
The age old convention is that anything said in speeches by the nation’s leaders at the ball are ‘off the record’. The ethical rule is that the remarks are made in confidence, meaning the journalists all agree not to report what was said.
Oakes will not reveal who gave him the audio. Some speculate that it may have been someone from the PM’s office, motivated by a strategy to reverse his current unpopularity by displaying some humour and self-deprecation, even if it came at President Trump’s expense.
In his Channel Nine report Oakes exonerated himself, saying he was not at the ball so considered himself not to be bound by the convention of being ‘off the record’.
This brought howls of protest from people concerned that the media and its practitioners had damaged Australia’s now very sensitive relationship with the US.
Commenting on The Australian website, Kath W wrote: “No wonder journalists are very low on the trustworthy scale.”
Mike, another commenter, wrote: “This idiot Oakes is well past his use by date! Some other commentator on this thread said that Oakes is a grub! I totally agree. A long tradition of ‘off the record’ means just that! Many years ago, I respected Oakes as a serious and intelligent political commentator — sadly no more!”
The journalists’ code of ethics is clear: “Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances”.
So, technically, Oakes was correct. By not going to the ball he was not bound by the accepted off-the-record status of anything said there if any third party source relayed any information from the PM’s speech to him.
But readers might like to consider whether the ethics of ‘off-the-record’ serve their interests. When it comes to the comments of elected officials, do they have a right to know?
The ‘Placido Domingo’ incident
It is not the first time press gallery confidences have been broken. In an off-the-record speech to gallery journalists at a Christmas dinner in 1990 then-Treasurer Paul Keating made a disparaging comparison about Bob Hawke’s leadership.
He offered by contrast his own leadership qualities, claiming he was the Placido Domingo of Australian politics.
Keating’s quotes did not survive the off-the-record confidence and soon found their way into the media, sparking one of Australia’s greatest leadership rivalries which eventually resulted in the downfall of Hawke.
In 2007, press gallery journalists Tony Wright and Michael Brissenden took the unprecedented step of breaching their 2005 confidence with then-Treasurer Peter Costello.
They justified their actions as being in the public interest to correct Costello’s assertion of selfless party loyalty. They broke the off-the-record rule, reporting Costello had told them at a private dinner he would challenge then-PM John Howard before the election and ‘carp’ from the backbench if he did not get the leadership.
In his recent book Making Headlines, former editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, disregarded the ethical rule completely by wilfully breaching private confidences he had shared over the years with prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
He believed sufficient time had elapsed to release him from the agreed confidentiality.
But Mitchell’s actions have helped to bring the off-the-record rule into disrepute. Politicians wanting to duchess journalists by confidentially sharing observations and information with them now know they will be taking a calculated risk. The only way a politician or news source can ensure confidentiality is by keeping his or her mouth shut.
For career politicians on the make or prime ministers desperate to hang on to power, this is an impossibility.
In truth and real politik, nothing is really off the record when it is journalists writing the first draft of history.