Mavericks

Timothy Wetherell
May 8, 2009

This RMIT journalist student wrote this article about maverick journalists on April 27, 2009

For most people being assaulted on television, losing your house and being sued by a shock-jock and a senator would lead to a career change. But for Stephen Mayne these events have been part of his making. Viewed by his enemies as an unconventional muck-raker, self-promoter and “shit-canner” of journalists, Mayne's rise has also led some media commentators to describe him as our only maverick journalist.

Yet Mayne views himself as an activist and journalist with some maverick qualities. As founder of online news service Crikey and blog The Mayne Report, he has become known for his unorthodoxy, notably when he published, without supporting evidence, the Evans/Kernot affair based on a Laurie Oakes column that spoke of the ‘big secret' Cheryl Kernot's left out of her biography. After some argument Oakes broadcasted the sordid details in the six o'clock news that night.

Other techniques used by Mayne have included publishing anonymous stories, insider emails and leaked materials followed by an open forum on the documents. Although Mayne admits that: “There (were) times with Crikey where I didn't check material as much as a mainstream media outlet, but I mitigated that by always publishing rights of reply and any additional information that came out on an issue.” Mayne regards these methods as ultimately bringing more information into the public arena.
“So my form of journalism was to therefore not do a forensic investigation and speak to whole range of people and come up with one polished, balanced piece of journalism. My approach often would be to publish an email and subsequently publish a response and then a few comments about it and talk about it such that at the end of the process you have quite a full picture of the issues involved,” Mayne recalled.

Whether Mayne is performing journalism at all times is debatable. Veteran journalist for The Guardian in London, Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News says: “Journalism without checking is like a human body without an immune system. If the primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth, then it follows that the primary function of journalists must be to check and to reject whatever is not true.” On Davies' logic, Mayne's less scrupulous items would fall short of journalism. Davies further warns of neutrality in journalism stating that it is contrary to truth-telling, which he sees as the purpose of journalism. By journalists not making judgements on conflicting claims it leaves the reader to draw the conclusion “we don't know what's happening – you decide” to which Davies says is “transferring the truth-telling judgements out of newsrooms into the hands of outsiders.”

For Mayne some of his journalistic risks have turned out to be monumental mistakes that have flowed into his personal life. Former 3AW shock-jock Steve Price sued Mayne after he published a Raymond Hoser press release, which he had only partially read. He later discovered that it contained defamatory material about Price. Despite pulling the press release off the web following Price's complaint, Mayne failed to apologise and then escalated matters with a public relations campaign against Price. Spurred on by the mudslinging Price aggressively pursued Mayne in the courts, costing Crikey $50,000 and Mayne his house. Despite being a “traumatic experience,” Mayne regards the public sympathy from the Price episode as being the making of Crikey with monthly revenue increasing from $10,000 to $30,000 per month.

While Mayne seems to fit the maverick criteria, with the departure from Fairfax of journalist and blogger Margot Kingston he is a loner in the Australian context.

Media commentator, author and journalist Margaret Simons, whilst uncomfortable with the term, regards maverick journalists as those who have “not been captured by the public relations industry (and) almost work outside of the law.”
For former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and publisher of Crikey, Eric Beecher, mavericks are journalists: “who are prepared to take risks...and to operate outside the established media and the status quo to investigate and muckrake that otherwise wouldn't be revealed.”

Serial dissenter John Pilger in his 1995 Edward Wilson Lecture at Deakin University referred to “principled audacity (or) the sort of brave, nonconformist journalism that is faced with extinction in the West.” But, Simons criticises Pilger for blurring the lines of journalism and advocacy stating: “A journalist has to report what they find whether or not they agree with it or like it and I am not always convinced that Pilger does that.” Similarly, Eric Beecher who admits respect for “some” of Pilger's work says there is a “veneer of objectivity” and that “you only have to scratch below that veneer to find that there is an ideological and very subjective underpinning to his views on certain subjects.”

For Pilger the term “objectivity” has been hijacked thus forcing journalists to not question the wisdom of right-wing ideologues. By not diverting from the same ideological message – Pilger argues – there is an “illusion of a free and diverse expression” in Australia. Counter to his perceived consensus in Western media, Pilger argues that a journalist's role is to “speak to the people, not to power”. Hence debates about objectivity are largely artificial for Pilger. The maverick journalist, as Pilger describes in Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is one who that “stands outside of the mainstream; and the common element is the journalist's ‘insurrection' against ‘the rules of the game'.”

Long time Middle East correspondent for The Independent in London, Robert Fisk, in his most recent book The Great War for Civilisation states: “In the end, we journalists try – or should try – to be the first impartial witnesses to history.” But he cites the “best definition of journalism” as coming from Israeli journalist Amira Hess who said: “Our job (as journalists) is to monitor the centres of power.”

In comparing Pilger to Fisk it seems the former at times takes the place of a cheerleader of the left through the veil of journalism, while Fisk is more concerned with reporting. But, Fisk has found himself in stark difference to his colleagues on many occasions. In August 2007 Fisk wrote a piece challenging the narrative of September 11. Contrary to all ‘official' reports Fisk asked why certain technical questions remained unanswered, such as: where did the aircraft parts of the attack on the Pentagon end up? Why did the third tower at the World Trade Center collapse when it wasn't struck by a plane?

And how two mechanical engineers in the US were challenging the terms of reference of the 9/11 report on grounds it could be “fraudulent and deceptive.” But does this make Fisk a maverick or just a sceptical journalist? Since 9/11 western newsrooms have been loath to question the dominant narrative of how the terrorist attacks occurred. Citing Margaret Simons' test of a maverick, was Fisk close to operating outside of the law? Was his reporting excluded from the mainstream media? Clearly not. Fisk was asking how the US was attacked that day with his column appearing in The Independent, which has an average daily circulation of more than 200,000 newspapers.

The muddied distinction between advocacy and journalism in Pilger's work was evident in his most recent documentary, The War on Democracy. His interview with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which is shown in parts throughout the film, is one instance whereby Pilger does not apply the same journalistic standards as he does to leaders he opposes. Clearly he is less sceptical in his interview with Chavez than with former US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega. The former US official is intensely questioned about the US government policy of funding opposition groups in Venezuela. While Pilger makes little attempt to question the policies of Chavez's government and describes him as “a man deeply committed to helping people” and offering “a new beginning” for Venezuela. Thereafter Pilger shows how the elected government of Venezuela is undermined by the interference of the Bush Administration. Meanwhile Chavez remains immune from any probing about his own government's folly. There is no ambiguity as to who are the bad guys in this film. To Pilger's critics this interview crosses the line from maverick journalism to polemic.

As Pilger is hardly published in Australia, when questioned about why there are so few maverick journalists in Australia, Simons and Beecher point to economic and career reasons for reporters not leaving the pack. Simons herself believes she has fatally harmed her chances of working for Fairfax following her severe criticism in her book The Content Makers: Understanding the media in Australia and on Crikey. For Beecher the culture of the newsroom discourages alternative techniques and personalities. But notes that Australia is not alone with most other Western countries bereft of mavericks.
Mayne admits that it has been “an unbelievably bumpy and dramatic career”. He says that despite the risks taken is now able to work from home, while on the Manningham City Council, a freelance contributor to Crikey and Fairfax, on the talk circuit and has a book contract with News Ltd. Not bad for a loner.