There are some journalists in Canberra who have some very, very big decisions to make in the next three or four days.
At stake is nothing less than the immediate future of the Australian Government and potentially the basis on which newsmakers – politicians and business people chief among them – deal with the fourth estate.
This is because there are two irreconcilable narratives from the deeply divided leadership group in the Australian Government.
The basis of Kevin Rudd’s campaign is his moral indignation at the relentless attacks on his reputation by “faceless men”, determined to destroy him for reasons that are unclear. He is a man twice wronged, betrayed as leader and who since has done nothing but his job until declarations from colleagues of their lack of support forced him to stand aside.
On the other side is an ever-growing line of senior Ministers and backbenchers claiming to know that Rudd has systematically and selfishly sought to destroy Julia Gillard’s leadership by, among other things, briefing journalists against her every initiative.
Rarely in politics are versions of reality quite so binary. There is no room to reconcile these positions – either he did it, and is unfit to lead his party, or he didn’t, and must be supported in the crusade he has been forced to undertake to clean up Labor politics.
These versions of events are irreconcilable on the basis of the facts we have to hand.
There has been a very specific allegation that points to how this can be resolved, however. An experienced journalist and former Hawke staffer, Barrie Cassidy, has written that he knows which journalists Rudd has spoken to, when, and what was said about the leadership.
If those meetings did indeed occur, the journalists involved, whether as volunteers or as conscripts, have been employed by Rudd as foot soldiers in his campaign.
In reporting what he did, Cassidy has made himself a party to the story, volunteered himself to join battle against what he calls Rudd’s “extraordinary” denials of wrong doing.
Given that the question “did he or didn’t he” is at the heart of the positions of the supporters of both Gillard and Rudd, those people in the media who know, or believe they know, the truth have a very serious question to ask themselves.
Is it not their responsibility to ensure that the truth is told? Assuming the Cassidy version of events is true, those journalists he will not name could come forward. If they don’t come forward, Cassidy, who clearly believes they should speak up, could name them and require them to respond.
Most people would undoubtedly feel that this is a no brainer. But it is not so clear cut.
Everyone with media experience will have been warned that there is no such thing as off the record. Clearly, off the record is a rule known to be honoured in the breach. However, when the story is complicated, it is often necessary to provide a journalist with more material than one wants to see made public, simply so that they can report accurately.
If the present Labor Party leadership imbroglio causes the off the record rule to be broken again, it will be the most high-profile example in recent history.
Whether this causes media professionals and the subject of media attention to have to recalibrate the rules of engagement will be the next question.
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