This was published in yesterday’s Crikey subscriber email. It raises some interesting questions that are worthy of discussion here at Pure Poison.

Utegate raises no end of questions for the media too
Here’s Crikey’s own Bernard Keane thinking out loud via Twitter on Saturday:

Not sure how both Rudd and Turnbull can still be leaders after this. One or other is in deep trouble.

And it’s starting to look quite that serious. Both men are calling aggressively for the other to stand down, and both are standing firmly by their stories. It’s a Mexican stand-off that will end with egg on face if nobody pulls the trigger. One (or possibly both) of the two men will certainly be seriously compromised when the truth does finally out.

Fairly amazing when you think about it. That political leaders withstand the political pressure exerted by wars, global financial crises, and overboard children, but the question of the existence of a single email, and the genuineness of that email, can threaten to end political careers

While there are many aspects to this saga, clearly the most central is the question of that email from the Prime Minister’s office to a public servant by the name of Gordan Godwin Grech (brainfart corrected.) The Daily Telegraph printed the email in last Saturday’s newspaper, later conceding that it was never actually sighted. The reporter in question, Steve Lewis, claims that it was read to him over the phone by a “primary source”. Kevin Rudd flatly denies the existence of the email and searches of the relevant IT infrastructure seem to suggest that no such email was ever sent.

Malcolm Turnbull has been hinting none-too-subtly since 4 June that he’s known about some sort of correspondence believed to be “smoking gun” evidence of Kevin Rudd’s dodgy dealings. Reading his statements in the context of the last few days (great summary by Possum) makes this clearer than it was at the time. Turnbull says that he had not seen the email prior to its publication in the Tele; unfortunately for Malcolm he blew that charade apart this morning when he said Senator Eric Abetz was reading the email from the newspaper a day before it went to print.

All in all it’s a tangled web of minutiae that promises to be explosive in its untangling. But the politics aside for a moment, whichever way you look at this whole thing the media is up to its armpits in it, and some serious questions have been raised.

Firstly, is Steve Lewis telling the truth about the manner in which he received this email? A cynic might suggest that the “read over the phone” story is a bit far fetched given that there’s an awful lot of information to be read out, what with email addresses, CC’s, timestamps and the rest. Is Steve Lewis trying to keep his informant at arm’s length to protect his or her anonymity?

Secondly, is it ethical for the Daily Telegraph to mock-up for display an email using the text read to one of its reporters over the phone, implying rather boldly that it is in possession of the electronic or printed version of the email? Shouldn’t the fact that the email has not been sighted be disclosed to readers who will otherwise interpret the mock-up as proof of possession?

Thirdly, and most seriously, should Steve Lewis and the Tele protect a source that has fed them an allegedly fraudulent email, now the subject of an AFP criminal investigation, that may possibly be the catalyst for the Prime Minister or Opposition leader of the nation quitting their job? While most people would agree that it’s important for journalists to be able to afford their sources a certain level of protection, surely there comes a point at which the interests of the nation override that protection. While the Tele deserves a certain amount of credit for breaking a story of significance, perhaps there are now greater priorities than an extra day at the centre of attention.

Steve Lewis has today written an article calling for “full transparency” from the Rudd government over Utegate. The thing is, if Lewis was a little more transparent himself the whole controversy would instantly become a lot clearer. And let’s put this in perspective one more time: the bona-fides of a single email, the source of which is likely known to a newspaper journalist, will either end the career of the nation’s Prime Minister or Opposition leader, or cause them significant damage. A heavy burden of responsibility for a reporter and newspaper who hold the key to the truth.

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