30 August 2007

Free speech, Sydney etc

Today's Australian Media section has some good stories, including

# Reports of speeches given at a free speech conference dinner by Geoffrey Robertson and Irene Moss, with additional comments by Chris Merritt, the paper's legal writer.

# "Loose lips sink a few reputations", Tony Barrass"'s survey of the now discredited story, published on the front pages of the Saturday editions of The West Australian, The SMH and The Age
and featured on the Channel 7 News, claiming that the wreck of HMAS Sydney had been found.

The reporting of the "discovery" of the Sydney cuts to the heart of what we do and how we go about our business.

On Saturday, August 11, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian - with a combined Saturday readership of more than three million - made a cold statement of fact on their front pages. The SMH declared "We found HMAS Sydney", while The Age ran a picture of the ship next to the headline: "Back from the deep".

This "exclusive" story was written by the respected West Australian journalist Paul Murray, whose reputation as a fiery, clever editor of The West Australian during the 1990s gave the story weight and gravitas. With a long-standing copy-sharing agreement between the West and Fairfax stable in place, here was an old-fashioned scoop, a gimme for a page-one splash in the week's biggest circulating paper.

A team of amateur historians, the story said, led by father and son Phil and Graham Shepherd, and assisted by master diver Ian Stiles, had "almost certainly" found the HMAS Sydney, the West said. But there was nothing almost about the banner headline that screamed: FOUND.

On Saturday night and throughout Sunday, Kerry Stokes's Channel 7, now in constant cross-promotion as the biggest shareholder in West Australian Newspapers after recently increasing his shareholding to more than 17 per cent of the money-making machine, backed up the print claims by running "exclusive pictures" of the Sydney from a camera dropped to the murky depths off Dirk Hartog Island in WA's Shark Bay region, about 1000km north of Perth. Viewers were treated to clear underwater footage of the wreck and to any interested observer - and there were many that day - it seemed the long-lost ship had indeed been found.

The timing couldn't have been better for the Perth newspaper, which after years of meticulous planning and new $100-million presses, had picked August 11 as the launch date for its new Saturday lifestyle magazine.

Lucrative advertisers had come on board and they had a page-one splash of warship proportions to propel the new product into the circulation stratosphere.

Editorial heavies at the SMH and The Age were just as excited when they became aware of the story on Friday. The Age's defence correspondent Brendan Nicholson, who spent many years in the west, quickly punched out a backgrounder to complement the splash, while the SMH used a reverse white-on-black page one for added impact, boldly declaring: "We found HMAS Sydney".

The Australian understands SMH editor Alan Oakley and The Age's editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan agreed to pay $20,000 a piece into a syndicate organised by West editor Paul Armstrong to get first rights to the pictures coming out of Shark Bay. Like Jaspan, Armstrong cut his teeth in the high-octane Fleet Street environment and loves nothing better than a war story.

His office is decorated with a picture of war planes, while a poster of a cigar-munching Churchill toting a machine gun used to distract visitors and reporters. The Sydney yarn had it all.

With Seven, The Age, SMH and The West signed up, the kitty was up to $80,000. That money, once expenses were

taken out to send two news crews - one print, one TV - to remote Dirk Hartog, would be then donated to the SAS Trust, the parties were told.

It wasn't the only money Stokes had put into the expedition. A patriotic war buff known for his generosity - last year he paid $1 million for Alfred Shout's Victoria Cross won at Gallipoli and then handed it to the Australian War Memorial - Stokes threw in at least $50,000 so a remotely operated mini-submarine could be brought down from Singapore to help the searchers film the wreck.

The reaction of the find on the Saturday swung from disbelief to euphoria. Glenys McDonald, regarded by most as an expert on the Sydney, told Perth's Sunday Times she was staggered. Phil Shepherd, one of the searchers, had called her the day before and told her the wreck "couldn't be anything else". She warned him about going public before any find had been confirmed. That advice was ignored.

Relatives of the 645 sailors, most of them elderly, were interviewed on all television channels, and all said the same thing; they hoped the final chapter in the nation's worst maritime disaster was coming to an end.

West Australia's leading maritime archeologist Dr Mike McCarthy, along with Veteran's Affairs Minister Bruce Billson, spoke with cautious optimism when asked to comment. "If this turns out to be the Sydney then this will be an absolutely wonderful outcome," Billson gushed.

But it didn't take long before the gunwales began to fall off. To add to suspicions, the report mysteriously vanished from Fairfax and West websites.

On Sunday, as The Australian and other media organisations continued asking questions, more doubts bubbled to the surface. Dr McCarthy, having realised the find he was commenting on the previous day was in fact the same one he had ruled out on several occasions before as director of maritime archeology at the WA Museum, then raised serious doubts. He is a world leader in the field.

Salvage experts bought into the debate and agreed. And when locals told reporters that the search area off the remote island had been a dumping ground for trawlers and barges not worthy of repair, the story was in tatters.

Other simple facts should have blown ship's whistles: the Sydney was 170m long, yet this wreck was about 30m in length and just 8-9m wide. It was in just 130m of water. Every conflicting voice in the search for the Sydney - and there are many - agree on one thing; it lies in deep water, possibly 3000m or more.

On Monday, after splashing with one of the biggest stories in years, not one word on the subject appeared in the West or The Age.

The SMH carried two reports on page two, an interview with a nephew of a missing Sydney sailor and a piece from Britain's The Daily Telegraph on a survivor of the Kormoran, the ship that engaged the Sydney.

On Tuesday, the West was again silent, but the SMH ran a small piece suggesting the navy would work to "try to verify" claims the wreck was the Sydney. A small editorial suggested the find could actually be the Kormoran and acknowledged - in complete contradiction to its Saturday headline - that "it will be some time before the

find can be confirmed or discounted".

It wasn't until Wednesday - four days after the Saturday splash - that the Sydney got a mention in Perth's daily paper: in a meek interview with an old sea dog in Geraldton, 450km north of Perth, who was cranky about the "knockers" of the search team.

In WA, talkback radio was being inundated by people desperate for more information on the discovery. ABC Perth morning presenter Geoff Hutchison tracked down Graham Shepherd by satellite phone. Shepherd was angry that he had been called un-Australian by Mr Billson (he hadn't) but acknowledged that the find was "more than likely" not the Sydney.

To add to Shepherd's woes, the equipment brought down from Singapore - paid for by Stokes - was not properly working. Incessant winds and bumpy seas continued to hamper the search site, while morale among the 14 or so men - including the two news crews - crammed aboard the search vessel was sinking as each day passed.

Steaming towards them was the HMAS Leeuwin, the navy's hydrographic survey ship. Minister Billson had no option but to divert the ship from Darwin to investigate what he called a matter of national importance.

Mr Billson claimed he asked four times for the co-ordinates from Mr Shepherd during a personal phone call. The searchers refused, saying they were bound by confidentiality agreements they had signed with the media organisations.

The co-ordinates - long and lat south 25.46-359 east 112.36-736 - were given to Billson's office by The Australian, which obtained them from the Shire of Shark Bay. The council had sent The West Australian a complaining letter about their previous Saturday's coverage. That letter has yet to be published.

Not surprisingly, it took the navy's sophisticated sonar equipment a matter of hours to rule out the lump on the bottom of the Indian Ocean as the Sydney. The Leeuwin swept two other areas before heading back to normal duties.

By Friday, the biggest story out of the west in a decade was, just like the last sighting of the Sydney, down in the bow, on fire and limping into the sunset.

And Armstrong, having realised all hope of salvage was lost, began blasting away in Saturday's editorial.

Blaming the "foreign-owned Murdoch press" and the "increasingly irrelevant ABC" for the failure of the search, the editorial said it was a travesty to the memory of the 645 men who perished that the searchers had been besmirched and reviled. He attacked Billson for showing "sudden interest" in the hunt, wasting taxpayers' funds by sending the Leeuwin to Shark Bay and suggested that the "reaction of rival media organisations which missed the story when it broke was utterly predictable".

Story? What story? And why the outrage? Didn't the West expect the navy to investigate such a momentous claim? And why didn't anyone make one phone call to any maritime historian or expert - WA's rich nautical history makes it the home of some of the world's leading maritime archeologists - to verify the claim? As it transpired, almost everyone in Shark Bay knew it was a dud.

The Age and the SMH have yet to run a correction or an apology.

Armstrong refused to talk to The Australian, but he did in his own unique way at least have the gumption to tell his readers that the wreck was not that of the Sydney, albeit a week later in a editorial rant laden with hubris and arrogance.

But don't hold your breath waiting for two of the nation's most respected mastheads to do as much.

Last night, Fairfax spokesman Bruce Wolpe told Media: "The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have a longstanding copy provision agreement with The West Australian, and on the basis of that relationship, we accepted the story for publication. Both papers followed developments during the week leading to the confirmation that this was not the HMAS Sydney.

"When we are ready to report further to our readers on this story, we will."

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