February 19, 2004


Looks like the Melbourne Age might have its own little Andrew Gilligan scandal going on. On Saturday, under the headline "Government 'warned' on intelligence", foreign affairs correspondent Mark Forbes wrote:

Intelligence agencies told the Federal Government in the weeks before the Iraq war that some of the Bush Administration's claims justifying an invasion were exaggerated, according to one of Australia's most senior intelligence officials.

The official - who spoke on condition of anonymity - said the Government was told before the war that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction did not pose an immediate threat. Iraq's chemical and biological warfare capabilities were largely latent, they said.

Iintelligence official Frank Lewincamp revealed yesterday that he was the source of The Age’s claim:

The head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Frank Lewincamp, has told a Senate committee he was the principal source for a report in Saturday's Age on assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Lewincamp said he had spoken to Age foreign affairs correspondent Mark Forbes about four times since the seminar, most recently on Friday when Forbes told him an article on intelligence reporting on Iraq WMD would be in The Age the next day.

Mr Lewincamp said he did not make and would never make some of the statements attributed to the official in the report.

"For example, I have never said the Bush Administration's claims justifying an invasion were exaggerated," he said. "Nor have I said that the Government was told that Iraq WMD did not pose an immediate threat."

That piece in today’s Age omits a line of Lewincamp’s that The Australian picks up on:

"Mr Forbes has confirmed to Professor Ross Babbage of the Australian National University that some of the information in the article was based on his attendance as a student at a presentation which I gave to a masters program seminar at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in September last year," Mr Lewincamp said.

Professor Babbage said last night he believed the newspaper report was "not an accurate reflection about what was said on that day" and breached a promise not to repeat it.

"A promise not to repeat" is a little different to speaking "on condition of anonymity". Bring on the inquiry.

UPDATE, via the ABC:

The journalist has been instructed not to comment and the Editor of The Age says the newspaper stands by the story and The Age neither confirms nor denies the identity of the source.

Posted by Tim Blair at February 19, 2004 12:45 AM

I remember Kevin Rudd claiming that this article destroyed John Howard's credibility. Retraction forthcoming? Nah.

I think that these reports highlight a blatant disregard of journalistic ethics and professionalism in order to either sell papers or support the journalist's bias on this issue. Will "Media Watch" blast this? Nah.

Posted by: TokenModerateGuy at February 19, 2004 at 06:54 AM

Ewwww... Mini-Me Gilligan wannabe — hit it with a stick! Quick! If all else fails, I'm sure Boris Johnson can find Mark Forbes a job at Smith Square or The Spectator.

Posted by: Craig Ranapia (Other Pundit) at February 19, 2004 at 06:59 AM

Heard a whole report this morning on ABC NewsRadio. A whole report. The word "Hutton" and the word "Kelly" wholly absent.
This is a big deal. It is yet another journo making it up as he goes along. Keep on it Tim.

Posted by: W at February 19, 2004 at 07:31 AM

The Age article clearly misrepresents Mr Lewincamp for a second time. Compare this paragraph from The Age, "reporting" Lewincamp's statement:

Mr Lewincamp said the statements were made at a seminar at the Australian National University, held under the "Chatham House rule". The rule says participants at a briefing are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker may be revealed.

with this paragraph from The Australian, directly quoting Lewincamp:

"The seminar was conducted under 'Chatham House rules', there was a further injunction given clearly to the students, including Mr Forbes, both before and after my presentation that there be no attribution, citing or disclosure of any information in the speech."

The Age has compounded its original breach of promise by misreporting the victim's response.

Posted by: EvilPundit at February 19, 2004 at 07:32 AM

Well, let's see if Forbes has breached the Age's code of conduct.

Also, it is probably the case that Forbes' article and the use of anonymous quotes required approval from the foreign affairs section editor.

Posted by: George at February 19, 2004 at 08:02 AM

It's so encouraging to see there are journalists who still have integrity, like Tim, and will try and make us aware of those 'journalists' who lack integrity. I've always believed that our democracies NEED a free press that digs out facts our governments may try and hide from us. I appreciate the journalists who do this.

However, it's very discouraging for the average
person reading the mainstream, media when the media seems to be shoving a certain ideology down our throats. I don't want to be told what to believe, nor do I want the facts tailored to fit the ideology. I don't want to be lied to by 'journalists'.

So, I thank the journalists who believe in their profession enough to expose their fellow 'journalists' who stretch the truth.

For me, this isn't a left vs. right political issue. Don't care where the lies come from. I just want the facts. If the facts don't fit with what I *want* to be true, this is a GOOD thing. Everyone needs to be confronted with facts that make them re-think positions. If you only want to read that which reinforces your world view, you are a sad and closed minded person.

Posted by: Chris Josephson at February 19, 2004 at 08:12 AM

My thoughts exactly, Chris.

Posted by: TokenModerateGuy at February 19, 2004 at 08:20 AM

I remember reading the Mark Forbes article some days ago and wondered why it had been printed. It appeared to me that if you are going to make such serious accusations you should do a lot better than citing an anonymous source. It just seemed that he could have made the whole thing up.

Of course that's just what he did. Why on earth did his editor print the story?

Posted by: Michael Gill at February 19, 2004 at 09:25 AM

Hmmm, I wondered what was behind Alexander Downer's claim in The Australian today that government opponents were "sexing up" their anti-war claims. The piece at http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,8721642%255E7583,00.html
ended with this:
While our critics continue to disingenuously push accusations of dishonesty, they underestimate the intelligence of the public. Australians see through phony debates and appreciate the honest exposition of the reasons behind difficult decisions.

Posted by: slatts at February 19, 2004 at 10:07 AM

Downer is right - the children overboard debate was the perfect example of how a story's 'sexed-up' index is often in inverse proportion to the degree it resonates with the public.

Meanwhile, here's a new book from Robert Manne and leftie friends vilifying John Howard, the publication of which is no doubt timed to extract maximum publicity from their fellow travellers in the left media prior to the upcoming election.

Posted by: ilibcc at February 19, 2004 at 10:57 AM

"'A promise not to repeat' is a little different to speaking 'on condition of anonymity'. Bring on the inquiry."

Yeah yeah, Tim. Just rearrange a few more deck chairs on the Titanic, why don't ya? You guys can 'inquire' all you like. We still joined a war that MOST AUSTRALIANS DISAGREED WITH (queue the hilaaaarious "lefties-with-their-paper-mache-john-howards" gag) on a bullshit premise.

So you can whitewash any outlet that reports unfavourably on the war & subsequent Iraqi quagmire. And you can pretend that your conservative hegemony isn't coming to an abrupt end via two election losses later this year.

Posted by: shaun at February 19, 2004 at 06:05 PM



Posted by: ilibcc at February 19, 2004 at 09:09 PM

Lefty BINGO! (Quagmire & Hegemony!) Thanks Shaun!

Posted by: Craig Mc at February 20, 2004 at 06:24 AM

So, it's okay to lie about other people lying to prove that they're liars? This is making my head hurt. Why is it regarded as a legitimate tactic to accuse of government or leader of lying by deliberately misconstruing what was said ("imminent") but perfectly okay at the same time to make up evidence out of whole cloth? It's beginning to look like the primary qualification for being a lefty journo is the willingness to tell bare-faced lies and then getting incensed when called out about it.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at March 2, 2004 at 06:50 AM