Australia’s own little “sexing-up” timebomb is ticking away nicely.
It was planted last week when The Age journalist Mark Forbes claimed that at a Defence Intelligence seminar in Canberra a senior intel officer suggested that the Bush administration’s claims justifying an invasion of Iraq were exaggerated and that the Australian government was told that WMD did not pose an immediate threat.
Turns out that Forbes was attending the seminar as a student, not a journalist, and several days later the director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation Frank Lewincamp outed himself in The Age as the expert quoted. And he denied what Forbes attributed to him.
In a first for any journalist, The Age published Forbes’ response to this twice. Firstly in Saturday’s strike-battered edition which many regular readers missed. The response was given another burl yesterday.
Today, the head of Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University Ross Babbage has upped the ante by writing to The Australian blasting Forbes actions, threatening a ban on journalists attending such briefings and demanding an apology from The Age.
Crikey has bought into the ruckus, too, with a letter pointing out that the Herald Sun has been oddly quiet about the embarrassment to its main competitor. The Correspondent says Forbes’ father is a News Ltd scribbler and suggests the corp is going easy on his feelings.
Here is Professor Babbage’s letter to The Australian:
Journalist’s unethical conduct
24 February 2004
DURING the last week there has been extensive public comment arising from remarks that are reputed to have been made by Frank Lewincamp, the Director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, to an ANU course last September. The primary stimulus for this comment has been two articles written by Mark Forbes and published by The Age.
Mr Forbes attended the ANU class because he was enrolled as a student — he did not attend as a journalist. All teaching sessions within the Master Degree Program in Strategy and Defence at ANU are conducted under the Chatham House Rule. This states: when a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. Despite the fact the students were reminded of the rule both before and after Mr Lewincamp’s presentation, Mr Forbes wrote his first article in a way that led informed readers to believe that it referred to Mr Lewincamp. In the second article, written after Mr Lewincamp advised that he was the likely source, Mr Forbes included what he asserted to be quotations from Mr Lewincamp’s address.
Universities, professional associations and institutions such as the Australian Institute of International Affairs routinely conduct policy-sensitive discussions under the Chatham House Rule. This permits senior politicians, officials, diplomats, servicemen and others to speak freely without fear of being reported. Mr Forbes’s serious breach of this rule now threatens this long-standing practice — an important convention of our working democracy. Ironically, some of those most severely affected are likely to be Mr Forbes’s journalist colleagues. There must now be great doubt about whether journalists will be permitted to enrol in policy-related university courses or to join professional associations.
It is time for The Age to apologise for Mr Forbes’s highly unethical conduct to Mr Lewincamp, to the Australian National University and to his student colleagues.
Professor Ross Babbage
Head, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University