Humble pie in papers and politics

At BRW magazine I learned the importance of admitting mistakes. It’s a lesson Tony Abbott must urgently heed.

A memo to Tony Abbott: You can learn from a big mistake made by David Koch and myself.  

Last night I attended a farewell party for the print edition of BRW.

As you can imagine, we went through all the old stories. I was reminded of the greatest mistake I made in journalism.  In the 1980s, David Koch was Personal Investment editor. For its sister publication, BRW, he came up with a “scoop” list of Liberal party members attending a dinner which, incorrectly, he had been told was a list of big Liberal contributors. I was managing editor of BRW at the time and neither of us did enough checking.

But once we were convinced a mistake had been made, Koch and I came to the same conclusion: we had to make one of the biggest corrections in journalism at that time. Like diplomats, all too often journalists don’t face up to mistakes. Yet BRW’s correction went for weeks as we admitted the mistakes person by person.

We regretted the mistake, but by admitting it and doing everything possible to rectify it, neither the magazine nor Koch or I suffered long-term reputational harm. Indeed, it might have even enhanced our reputation. Of course, we assured readers it would never happen again.

Australian diplomats have made a horrendous mistake in Indonesia in their intelligence gathering. Statements such as 'all countries are spies' can’t be used as an excuse. In diplomacy, (like journalism and business) you must confess your sins and take all steps to make sure it does not happen again. At the moment the public servants are snowing Tony Abbott trying to keep their jobs. The national interest is greater than public servant jobs.

Footnote: What inspired me about the farewell to the BRW print magazine was to discover that among the current generation of journalists the spirit of innovation that led to the development of BRW is alive and well. The up-and-coming journalists now understand that the current structure of large media companies like Fairfax are high risk places to work because too often they stifle innovation. 

So some journalists are developing their own brands via social media and directing readers to the large media companies. But the journalists (not the media company) ‘own’ the customers. Others understand the potential of China, which past generations of Fairfax people worked so hard to stamp out.

Yet other BRW people believe they develop new media technologies. It was a sad event but also uplifting. The spirit of BRW will play a role in enabling the profession of journalism to not only survive the current turmoil but also, in time, again prosper. 

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