Most of the focus on today’s Federal Court judgement in the case brought by ex-Federal Parliament Speaker Peter Slipper against his staffer James Ashby will be on the central finding that Ashby’s sexual harrassment case against his ex-boss was an abuse of process.
Justice Rares found:
Mr Ashby instituted the proceedings without reasonable cause because they were and are an abuse of the process of the Court.
The court also found that Ashby’s co-worker Karen Doane and ex LNP Mal Brough acted with Ashby for the purpose of inflicting political damage on Slipper. But Slipper also alleged that News Ltd’s senior Daily Telegraph reporter Steve Lewis was part of Ashby’s plan to damage the Speaker. Justice Rares’ finding in favour of Lewis will be a relief to reporters who are often accused of being involved in political games. Lewis, he found, was just doing what reporters are expected to do – chase stories.
Rares subjected the actions of Lewis to detailed examination and found his actions as a reporter played an important role in the affair. But he found there was nothing unusual in a symbiotic relationship between journalists and people involved in politics. ( This is certainly true).
Lewis had been reporting on Slipper unfavourably for two years. Ashby and Doane would “have believed that Mr Lewis would give their stories attacking the person for whom they were working a sympathetic, if not enthusiastic, airing.” Nevertheless, Rares concluded that Lewis was merely acting as most reporters would do in vigorously pursuing a story and that there was no evidence that his actions were politically motivated.
His findings in relation to Lewis can be found in the judgement from Par. 142 onwards:
Mr Lewis appears to have pursued, enthusiastically, the stories potentially available to him based on Mr Ashby’s and Ms Doane’s information. However, I am not satisfied that Mr Lewis shared with them the purpose of advancing the political interests of Mr Brough or the LNP or of aiding Mr Ashby or Ms Doane in their future prospects of advancement or preferment. It is more likely that Mr Lewis was focused on obtaining good copy for stories to sell newspapers. He may not have been so naïve that he was blind to the motivations of Mr Ashby, Ms Doane or Mr Brough. Mr Lewis was no doubt wanting to encourage them, as sources, to continue to provide material which he could use to publish. But, that did not involve him in seeking to achieve the same end as his sources, despite some overlap. Publication of significant or sensational news can have significant impact on the public perception of persons or bodies referred to in the stories that favours one side rather than another in the political debates of the day. However, that consequence does not necessarily suggest that the journalist or publisher is seeking to aid or support the side of politics that benefits from the publication. Rather, it is more likely that, by publishing the story, the journalist or publisher is simply fulfilling his, her or its role of reporting news. Once presented with sources such as Mr Ashby and Ms Doane, together with the prospect of a story such as in the originating application, it is difficult to think that any journalist would have acted differently to Mr Lewis in pursuing and publishing that story.
The question many will ask is whether Lewis would have been as enthusiastic if he was pursuing Abbott, Hockey or Bishop.The truth is that News Ltd’s agenda is so well known that sources seeking to damage the Coalition would have been less likely to approached Lewis and News Ltd would not have encouraged him so keenly to pursue such an investigation or paid the sources’expenses. News Ltd’s disdain for the Gillard government has been open. Political reporters act within professional boundaries but are often used to meet the poltiical goals of media companies that employ them.
The role of Lewis needs more examination.