What Happens When A Newspaper Doesn’t Identify A Conflict Of Interest?
Everyday, articles are written and published all over the world from journalists of various backgrounds. But what are consequences for those involved when a journalist writes an article about a personal friend? A conflict of interest is defined as; ‘A situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.‘ A case that comes to mind surrounds an article published on the 15th October 2008 by Carolyn Webb, titled “ Woman tells of being ‘raped’ by minister: EXCLUSIVE. In this article, Carolyn Webb reports of a Woman that was allegedly raped in 1998 by MP Mr Theo Theophanous inside Parliament House. Turns out the victim was a personal friend of Ms Webb. What happened then?
Consequences for THE AGE:
The AGE became aware of this conflict of interest whilst preparing for the article and did nothing about it. They argued the story was regarding ‘allegations, not facts’. Instead of checking the sources for creditability, the story was published and had major effects for the parties that were involved. In order to have professionally handled this situation the friendship between Ms Webb and the victim should have been noted in the article to inform readers.
The Australian Press Council, Statements of Principle; “8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.” The AGE did not do this.
Consequences for Theo Theophanous:
Mr Theo Theophanous reported the womens friendship to the Australian Press Council, claiming conflict of interest among other aspects. This article based off allegations, resulted in Mr Theophanous being charged with rape on the 24th December 2008. After 7 months, Magistrate Peter Reardon dismissed the charges due to the case lacking “creditability, reliability and truthfullness”. Not only did this damage the former industry ministers career but also effected his family. In a report given by The Age journalist Sarah- Jane Collins, it is stated that ‘The former industry minister said he was elated by the decision and thanked his family for their support. He thanked his wife, whom he said “never stopped believing in me. She knows who I am”‘.
Consequences for the alleged victim:
The un-named woman who proved Carolyn Webb with the ‘exclusive interview’ claims the article is false. The woman, who lives in Greece was dealt a 2 year suspended jail sentence in 2009 for defamation.
“I never gave an interview of any kind to the stated journalist and in no case did I ever give permission to publish anything regarding the case,” the woman said (provided by The Herald Sun)
The Woman was suing The AGE for damages costing $20 million dollars as she claims it ‘ruined her life, leaving her unemployable.. and suffering from a mental illness’. It is unsure whether or not she received this money.
Consequences for Carolyn Webb:
This article was focused on ridiculing Mr Theophanous based off allegations that were provided to Ms Webb by a ‘friend’. Webb did not ask Theophanous for any comments regarding the situation and failed to check with witnesses that were there at the time. This article damaged Ms Webb’s creditability as a journalist due to the outcomes of the article.
It is unsure whether any other punishments where handed out to Ms Webb. She is still a journalist for The Age.
As a journalist, it is essential to ensure that any article published contains facts to protect the lives of those that are involved. This article not only impacted the journalist but the newspaper, alleged victim and the career of a former MP member. This is just what can happen if a newspaper does not identify a conflict of interest.
Written by: Taylor Porter