From that font of boundless lefty wisdom Wikipedia a reasonable definition of gossip: “Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.”
Today, Andrew Bolt, the shining star in the glittering galaxy of Herald Sun talent, ripped into Neil Mitchell for naming the two Collingwood players caught up in a Police investigation that VEXNEWS had already named.
Thatâ€™s all good sport of course and we certainly arenâ€™t in the business of defending Fairfax Radio folk but on the way through our friend Andrew wrote some uncharitable things about VEXNEWS, without actually naming us.
We initially thought weâ€™d ignore it because itâ€™s difficult to convey how much we enjoy Boltâ€™s column and in particular his blog which is clearly the best thing of its kind, even for those not agreeing with his conservative views, as we sometimes donâ€™t.
Then we thought weâ€™d write him a private letter. And we prattled on in the letter about keeping secrets and such.
To stay consistent we decided not to send a private letter but an open one of the indulgent kind effete left-wing human rights lawyers write to each other or to Robert Manne in Arena from time to time. I think it makes our point and I hope makes it clear enough that I can disagree with him and admire his work (and chew gum) at the same time.
I am displeased that you reduce VEXNEWS to the description “gossip site”. You’ve always been encouraging and supportive of work I take very seriously, much more seriously than is perhaps imagined by some pontificators, so the sting of your barb is felt all the more.
Equally I very much doubt your newspaper has a better friend than me online and offline. And I very much doubt there’s anyone mixing in political circles who hasn’t heard me encourage them to look past what they’ve heard or presume about you and actually read what you write and learn something they didn’t know. I don’t think there’s a better or more thoroughly researched opinion writer – if that’s the right term – than you in the country.
So I take criticism – even oblique criticism where I’m not named – from you very seriously indeed.
I don’t think I have any special entitlement not to be criticised but the criticism should be for what we do or are not a false description that we are a “gossip site” sort of in the loathsome manner of a Hollywood tabloid or Crikey particularly as it once was under the grub Stephen Mayneâ€™s proprietorship.
Crikey published and occasionally still publishes – completely untested and unverified- emails or â€œtipsâ€ from anonymous people about others including about their private lives. We have never, ever done that. Not once. I check everything we put up, to the greatest possible extent with our extensive network of contacts and sources. We (and they) make mistakes, I’m sure, but not many. And when we do – unlike most publications – we point them out with the same prominence as the original article.
The only correction we can think of this year like that was when we ran an article foreshadowing that former Labor MP Craig Langdon was going to resign his seat in a huff. He emphatically denied it and so we ran a correction of equal if not greater prominence. As it turned out, a couple of months later, he did resign his seat.
We break more stories – mostly about political matters- in a week more than most of the people calling themselves journalists do in a year. Some of the yarns relate to personal matters involving public figures but not that many. We’re far more interested in the battle of ideas and the political contest than who’s sleeping with whom.
Just today in an interesting episode that probably won’t get picked up by most of the snoozers who pass for state political journalists, we’re reporting on the ALP preselections in those two new vacancies in safe seats triggered by yesterdayâ€™s ministerial resignations. The story is basically that John Brumby wanted his own candidate in one of the seats but the party (the Left) said no. Will anyone pick up the story? Probably not. Is it gossip? No, not according to any accepted definition. We didn’t present it as a huge anti-Brumby thing and quite consciously we buried the lead in a story about the preselections generally. It’s just one example – of many – where we take what is normally the exclusive information of a few and share it with the many. And whatever that process is, I really don’t it’s fair to say it involves the repetition or publication of “gossip.”
Very occasionally, we’ll run references to rumours but only if they’re verified by us as being true. And I’m quite strict about that. If you can think of an example when we haven’t been, I’d be surprised.
We have excellent sources and we assemble news in largely the same way as the many talented people in newsrooms across the country.
We are no more a gossip site than your own publication, which most certainly isnâ€™t.
Frankly, we make fewer factual errors than I see newspapers making all the time.
Also, I disagree with with what Iâ€™d contend is a very old-fashioned and increasingly irrelevant view that unless its published in one of the â€˜old mediaâ€™ that itâ€™s not news. I know Australia lags behind the US in this respect but the truth is weâ€™re hurtling towards a new world where we break news â€“ because we have the courage and ability to do so â€“ and you blokes report on our reports. Thatâ€™s not necessarily a bad thing but we ought not pretend itâ€™s not already going on and wonâ€™t continue to evolve in that direction. What ought to happen if traditional media journalists want to act ethically is to actually acknowledge VEXNEWS as the original source for their reporting. The fact that doesnâ€™t often happen does not reflect well on the ethics of those guilty of this sin of omission.
Mahatma Gandhi said â€œFirst they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then the fight you. Then you win.â€ Iâ€™m not exactly what stage VEXNEWS is at and sometimes weâ€™re happy doing our thing without getting the front-page pole-axing that Neil Mitchell got today but the world of news is changing fast and I think those who fail to acknowledge that are going to become increasingly irrelevant.
We published the names of those two chaps on Monday morning (not Tuesday as you suggested) shortly after the Herald Sun had broken the story about unnamed Collingwood players being involved in a â€œsex attackâ€ for reasons which have little to do with the arguments of Neil Mitchell: 1) The Herald Sun exclusively published a story reporting that there was an investigation into “Collingwood players”, 2) It censored the names of the players, 3) We don’t think Simon Pristel (and equivalents) should exclusively decide what the people of Melbourne are entitled to know about matters of huge public interest 4) We established to our normal level of comfort the identity of the players from multiple well-placed sources, 4) There was no legal impediment on us reporting those facts and 5) Most importantly of all, people wanted to know who it was so we told them. That’s our job.
The community needs to sort out what the rules are, formal and informal. And I hope as it does it so, it is very cautious indeed about censoring news.
Apparently there are 1200 active suppression orders issued from Victorian courts alone. There are countless statutes banning publication of a wide range of things. Itâ€™s difficult to keep up with the extent to which it is illegal to publish some news. You watch, soon enough, weâ€™ll have privacy laws, from judges or politicians, as they do in the UK, where even perfectly true stories deemed by them (particularly those about them) are prohibited from publication because they breach â€œprivacy.â€
When involved in politics as I once was, I had a different view from the one I now have. As a publisher of news, I am very worried that this trend towards criminalising news reporting is growing and I know many of your colleagues similarly worry. You all should. Journalists arenâ€™t jailed, or threatened with jail, very often here but the day is not far off where that could happen, in our view, for doing their job.
If we have erred, we have erred on the side of reporting the facts. We were very careful to report no more than what we knew to be true. Our responsibility is to our readers to the truth. And we’d rather be on that side of the fence than on the censorship side, any day. It puzzles me greatly that this cityâ€™s best newspaper would go any other way (and then end up naming the players anyway). I know from many people in your building that many of your colleagues quietly agree with me. Maintaining a vast chamber of secrets ought not sit comfortably with any journalist worthy of the name.
Be well, your devoted fan,
PS Andrew, VEXNEWS has a Twitter account. And in Twitter it is possible to form lists or categories of other Twitter accounts to make it a little easier to follow.Â Twitter users describe VEXNEWS not as a gossip site but as a source of news and current affairs.Â 187 people have done so.
Dozens of Gallery journalists, the NSW Leader of the Opposition, news buffs, book publishers and others classify VEXNEWS for their own purposes as:
news, political, parliament, fourth estate, newsy, journos, media, breaking news etc.
Not â€œgossip siteâ€. Indeed I couldn’t find anyone who’d described us this way (perhaps after reading this someone might set up such a list).
And Iâ€™m not suggesting that those classifications are definitive but they are a pretty good guide of what at least some VEXNEWS readers think about what we do. It’s a crowd-sourced description that reflects a public view. If newspapers are to stay relevant and important to our lives then they will need to have regard to those views, I think.