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Tuesday, 11 May 1993
Page: 384

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Transport and Communications) —by leave—I will not detain the Senate very long. Frankly, I think it is about time that this whole matter was dropped, because it is ridiculous for an opposition that says it is concerned about the central policy issue of pay television to have now been running on this for three days. I would never have even entered into the debate if it had not been for the statement carried on the front page of the Australian last Friday quoting Senator Alston quoting me. If Senator Alston now wants to say that the Australian quote is inaccurate, let him do so.

  I invite honourable senators to look at the record. Last week Senator Alston met—and the only thing I know about this meeting is what I saw in the press, both on television and in the newspaper—with Senator Bourne of the Australian Democrats to discuss setting up a Senate inquiry.

Senator Alston —Mr President, I raise a point of order. I am loath to intrude, but as I understand it the Minister has sought leave to make a personal explanation.

Senator COLLINS —I can say anything I like.

Senator Alston —So he is just at large once again to vilify and defame anyone on any basis.

The PRESIDENT —He sought leave to make a short statement.

Senator COLLINS —I am not as large as I was; look at this. Considering that I use food as a crutch, I am not doing too badly at the moment—still down to one lettuce leaf a day.

Senator Crichton-Browne —How much have you lost, Bob?

Senator COLLINS —Seventeen kilos. That will be the story for today. Senator Alston met with Senator Bourne last week for a couple of minutes to talk about a Senate inquiry. Senator Alston went out, told the press gallery—and it was published—that the Democrats had just agreed to support the Opposition's call for a Senate inquiry. I noticed that—I paid some attention to it—and said, `Oh'.

  What then happened was that Senator Bourne, and on television it looked to me like a very angry Senator Bourne, went public and said that that was absolute rubbish and that in fact all she had said to Senator Alston—and I have no reason to disbelieve her—was `show me the terms of reference and we'll have a look at them'. All I said before, as I said this morning, is that Senator Bourne clearly learnt her lesson last week about having meetings with Senator Alston, and I learnt mine.

  In respect of the Australian Financial Review—and this will be the last word I have to say on the subject—I always make a distinction, and always have done, between news columns and opinion columns in newspapers. I meant what I said this morning. If a journalist wants to disagree with me about this, he or she can. Journalists are very happy—and entitled—to talk about the standards of competence that Ministers should obey, so I am sure it is perfectly appropriate for me to canvass for one minute what I think a journalist's professional ethics are.

  High up on the list of crimes against the AJA code of ethics in my view is misreporting the news; that is, going to a demonstration, seeing 100 people there and reporting it as a thousand. But a worse crime than that in my view—and it always has been—is censorship of the news; that is, distorting the news by omission.

  One can say what one likes in opinion columns. For years I have had a high regard for the Australian Financial Review. I have publicly said that in my view the Australian Financial Review has carried the best and the most comprehensive account ever of the entire Coronation Hill debate. I have also kept a complete chronological clipping file of the uranium debate, because the Australian Financial Review gave the best coverage of that.

  I am saying that if two officers issue a statement of news fact that this was by agreement, then no journalist in a news column is entitled to print that it was anything other than that, unless that person can demonstrate it was not. Journalists can speculate in opinion columns about that as long as they like, but they are not entitled to leave that out, and that is what they did.

  The Australian Financial Review article contained 1,500 words. The only paragraph they did not print was the one containing the words `by mutual agreement'. Every other paper in the country carried that, despite opinion columns that asserted to the contrary, and they are entitled to do that. For example, the opening paragraph of the article in the Canberra Times stated that Christine Goode `has stood aside'. This was not the case with the Australian Financial Review. In that particular story—and I am confining my remarks to that particular story—the operative words, `by mutual agreement', in the statement were ignored and left out.

  I would like to know when the Australian Financial Review stopped being a newspaper of record. That is what I would like to know in respect of that particular story. Until the Australian Financial Review proved with investigative reporting or whatever that those words were not true, it should at least have printed them and acknowledged them. That was my complaint about the Australian Financial Review, and I stand by it.

  I have to say this: if some of the journalists that comment in columns on the professional ethics of politicians, and suggest that they resign, applied so carelessly, frivolously, pompously and condescendingly the words `He is intelligent and he is nice but he should go'—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, I raise a point of order. We gave leave to Senator Collins to make a short statement. He has now been speaking for eight minutes and what he has said is all rubbish. It is not of any interest to the Senate whatsoever and we do have important business to carry on with.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator COLLINS —Mr President, I will conclude. If those journalists applied even half the same standards of professional competence to themselves as they so carelessly do to others, they would resign tomorrow and should resign tomorrow as a result of that story. This has been—and I will conclude on this note—a demonstration of irrelevance. Senator Alston has been carrying this all week as the major issue for the simple reason that he has nothing else to offer.