Checking once, twice: reporting the leadership spill
Malcolm Turnbull gives his final media conference after being dumped as Liberal leader.
There’s movement. A figure emerges from the Prime Minister’s office, and for a second, he’s just a silhouette.
The cluster of journalists standing at the entrance of the ministerial wing stand to attention, their necks craning around one another to get a better look. Already their fingers are flying across the keyboards of their phones – texting, emailing, tweeting his movements.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne makes his way down the hallway, his manner relaxed, his eyes seeming to glide over everything but the journalists in front of him.
From their vantage point, they have an unobscured view of who is walking in and out of Malcolm Turnbull’s office.
If they glance ever so slightly to the left, they can see the same movements in and out of the office of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
Pyne continues down the corridor, finally sending a knowing glance at the group of journalists awaiting him. He steps out of the wing and they lurch forwards.
“Minister, will there be another party room meeting today?” a Fairfax reporter asks. “Does Dutton have the numbers?” another presses.
Pyne smiles. “It’s all good,” he says.
His smile is strained. He cuts through the media scrum, slipping outside through the large glass doors to cross the courtyard on his way into the House of Representatives.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr Pyne moved a motion to stop the sitting day and adjourn Parliament early. The motion passed creating a first in Australian history.
The sitting week of 20 August 2018 has been regarded as one of the most chaotic in Australia’s political history. It unfolded quickly and unpredictably, elements that set it apart from previous leadership coups.
The government was in disarray, riven by agendas and resignations, and above all, fuelled by the relentless rumblings about whether Peter Dutton had the numbers to roll Malcolm Turnbull.
The tumultuous nature of the spill week posed a number of challenges to the press gallery journalists covering the events.
The verification of sources
In that week alone, hundreds of news stories, blog posts and analysis pieces were generated by media outlets about the spill. And then there were broadcast media outlets providing live, rolling coverage of events.
All of those stories had to be verified before they were published or went to air. The immediacy of the reporting posed ethical and professional dilemmas, and different outlets had their own processes for trying to ensure they were reporting correct information.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) abided by a two-source rule for breaking news. During Friday’s party room meeting, the ABC would not broadcast information unless two journalists had received confirmation text messages from different Members of Parliament.
Matthew Doran, a political reporter for the ABC, was in the newsroom while the second vote was underway.
“There was this kind of hush as the party room meeting kicked off,” he said. “Everyone was texting. Jane Norman was getting really good intel, as was Andrew Probyn in the studio.”
Mr Doran said when someone received information, they would alert the entire newsroom.
“One person would stand up and say ‘I’ve got this’,” he said. “Then someone else would stand up and yell out, ‘Yep. Confirmed.’”
The reporters would then cross-check between themselves to ensure the information was from separate sources before they ran the story.
The ABC’s National Affairs correspondent Greg Jennett was reporting live from the studio during Friday’s party room meeting. He made a point of parking his phone during the meeting, relying solely on his producer for information.
“Anything I announced through the series of ballots were from the producer in my ear,” he said.
“Even if I had been monitoring my phone, I would be uncomfortable about making those calls based on one person’s phone live-to-air.”
On the other hand, Seven News was using by a primary source rule for verification. Bureau chief, Mark Riley, has been in the press gallery for 26 years and over that time, he has developed critical contacts.
“As soon as we picked up new information, I broke them live-on-air,” he said.
“There was a moment on-air where I said I had the numbers from the party room, but they were from a media advisor, not a member.”
“I said, ‘Look that’s the number I’ve been given, but just give me a second and I’ll check with the primary source’.”
He then texted the member while on-air and confirmed the information when the source responded.
Olivia Leeming, a political reporter for Seven News, said Mr Riley’s professional relationships were vital to their coverage.
“He has direct contacts with Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison, so it was straight from the horse’s mouth,” she said.
Feeding the ‘live’ beast
Over the course of the spill week, the ABC received 17 million hits across all its online content published about the leadership crisis.
The turbulent events forced news organisations to morph into live, rolling coverage and, as a result, several online publications set up daily live blogs, to document each and every incremental detail.
The ABC’s live blogs garnered more than 1.8 million page views on both the day before and the day of the leadership spill.
The broadcaster also turned to live, rolling television coverage, switching frequently between unscripted studio analysis and live crosses from the courtyards of Parliament House. In that week, the news channel recorded its highest 24-hour reach for 2018.
Matthew Doran spent hours wandering and monitoring the corridors of Parliament House throughout the spill week. He paid close attention to the ministerial wing, noting who was entering and leaving the Prime Minister’s suite. On one day, he racked up 97 tweets about the comings and goings.
“Every movement in and out of that office became crucial,” he said. “Because it was moving so quickly, it made the little things all the more important.”
Mr Doran was standing outside the ministerial wing on Thursday, when Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash, and Mitch Fifield entered the Prime Minister’s office. After some time, they all walked out together.
“Someone like Mathias is pretty expressionless at the best of times, but he looked really quite pained,” Mr Doran said.
“They all looked like they were walking away from something… like they’d just quit or lost their jobs.”
Minutes later, a media release was issued announcing the three ministers would shortly hold a media conference. Doran said it was another red flag.
“It wasn’t anything to do with policy,” he said. “It’s weird for those three to step up together because their portfolios rarely intersect.”
The media conference that followed altered the events of the spill dramatically. The three announced that Malcolm Turnbull did not have the party’s support.
Olivia Leeming says the announcement was pivotal.
“If they’ve shifted their support, they will shift a lot of numbers behind them, and it’s all over for Turnbull,” she said.
The art of untwisting facts
While the speed of the leadership spill surprised many journalists, they were also posed with the challenge of analysing facts and information, many of which had been twisted and exaggerated.
Mark Riley said it was all about making the right calls, but also remaining cautious.
“They do lie to each other, so they’re going to lie to me,” he said.
“Everything a politician does is political. What I’ve got to do is put the information through my own filters.
“There are certain markers that occur in this dance of absurdity that leads up to leadership spills, where they always deny what they’re doing,” he said.
“So obviously they deny on-the-record, and then confirm off-the-record to people like us.”
Mr Riley says misinformation was circulating from both camps, which isn’t unusual in a leadership coup. The Dutton camp used the media in an attempt to build forced momentum.
“They’re not just trying to mislead me,” he said. “Through me, they’re trying to mislead the general public, and the other members of the government who are watching what I’m broadcasting.”
Matthew Doran said that while the Dutton camp was vocal that they had the numbers to oust Malcolm Turnbull, he says there was no way to fact-check it at the time.
“If someone is telling me that Turnbull is a dead man walking, that he’s a megalomaniac, that he’s gone crazy in office… you have to ask yourself, what are their motives?” he said.
Matthew Doran and many of his press gallery colleagues said the spill was a test of the journalistic tenets of truth and accuracy.
“You have to be even more careful about presenting it with an alternate opinion or an alternate view.”