The fuzzy ethics of checkbook journalism

There are laws that govern certain types of checkbook journalism. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 – for example – states that money which a convicted criminal earns as a result of a crime, including through paid interviews, is classed as proceeds of crime and is therefore liable of confiscation by the Commonwealth.

Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says money can distort the truth.

money changes everything

Even if the payment isn’t illegal or unethical, Jonathan Holmes, host of ABC Media Watch’s flagship show from 2008 to 2013, says that when money changes hands, it can change everything.

“Money can distort the truth, it’s the raw truth,” he says. “Just as you suspect it might distort the truth, in the case of a whistleblower, it might distort the truth in the case of this family. I’m not saying he would, I’m not saying that he does. It’s just a lot of money.

“The other danger is that it gives anyone with a story exaggerated ideas of what they can possibly get from the media and that’s bad for the information climate.”

For his part, Max Markson – the talent agent who signed the deal with Nine on behalf of Cleo’s family – said in 2016 that of all the deals he negotiated, he never attached a conditions that prevent telling one side of the story. He said at the time that criticism of the payout usually came from the media and almost always from competitors.

Dr. Sacha Molitorisz, professor of journalism at the University of Technology and holder of a doctorate in media ethics, does not think there is an ethical problem with the payment. He thinks the type of paid journalism — like the Sunday night interview — is different from public interest journalism.

“I don’t think anyone likes to pay. There’s a taint when you have to pay for any aspect of the story, but that’s the real world.

Journalist Ray Martin

“Credible news outlets have rules about not paying for stories, not paying sources, not paying for journalism, and I think that’s a good stance to take,” he said. “What do we have here?” We have a big commercial media company paying big bucks for a big story. It becomes something slightly different once the money enters the frame. It’s still journalism, but it’s a different kind of journalism. It’s more storytelling.


Cleo’s family is certainly not the first to receive money from the media. When Chamberlain was acquitted of murdering her daughter Azaria at Uluru, she was reportedly paid $250,000 by Nine for the rights to her story.

As the sole survivor of the Thredbo disaster in 1997, Diver’s story was also highly sought after. Seven won the television rights to tell her story, for a rumored $250,000, and the Australian Women’s Weekly to a print interview. He also became a commentator for Seven during the 1998 Winter Olympics.

There are more controversial payments – the amount Seven paid Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to tell the whole story about her affair with former staffer Vikki Campion, the money paid to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke for a spread in women’s day of his affair with his wife Blanche D’Alpuget or 60 minutes’ involvement in the botched kidnapping of Sally Faulkner’s children in Lebanon.

The survival of Stuart Diver is one of many stories told for a lucrative sum.

The survival of Stuart Diver is one of many stories told for a lucrative sum.Credit:Dallas Kilponen

Two former magazine executives and a television executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they often felt it was more appropriate to pay for interviews with ordinary families who had suffered trauma, than to pay for an interview with a celebrity who came with a strict set of rules to govern what could and could not be said. They felt it was more ethical to pay a sum of money than not to.

Mr. Holmes, who also worked as an executive producer of Four cornersindicates that there may also be other benefits to obtaining exclusivity from a television network or publication.

“You no longer have to deal with all the other media companies in the world knocking on your door 24/7, which with a family like this would be very difficult to manage” , he said. “You sign an exclusive deal with a relatively reputable outfit, and they will effectively protect you from everyone else, for their own sake.”

If there is an ethical concern, Mr. Molitorisz says it has to do with Cleo’s age. “Her well-being has to come first and it gets really tricky because she’s so young and so vulnerable, and who knows what she’s going to think when she’s an adult,” he says.

“As a journalist, you have a responsibility to your interviewees…and when those people are children, you have such a degree of responsibility, you have a duty to them.

“This is the real world”

While paying for interviews is not common practice for Australian newspapers, it is a reality for TV stations and magazines.

Ray Martin, who interviewed Chamberlain exclusively in the 1980s, put it bluntly in 2016: “I don’t think anyone likes to pay. There’s a taint when you have to pay for any aspect of the story, but that’s the real world.

Four-year-old Cleo Smith in hospital after her rescue in Carnarvon.

Four-year-old Cleo Smith in hospital after her rescue in Carnarvon.Credit:Washington State Police

Payment is common practice in other countries. In the United States, this is generally considered unethical, with most newspapers and mainstream news shows having a policy prohibiting it. But some tabloids and TV shows – which rely more on sensationalism – will pay for interviews. In Britain and across Europe, journalists who pay for news are also common.

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Mr Holmes said the BBC pays small sums for all interviews – even with politicians. When working on the investigative program Panorama, Holmes said people were paid a small fee to secure the interview’s copyright.

“It was standard and indeed, expected by everyone,” he says. “These things vary from culture to culture.”

Molitorisz says research by UTS’ Center for Media Transition found that some journalists in conflict zones would give money to their interviewees.. But again, it was a different circumstance. “It was more a case where at the end of an interview, or at the end of a report, they saw that someone needed some money to go to the hospital or to buy food for their kids, and they would hand over their $50,” he says.

Ultimately, Holmes says, ethical judgment on the deal should be reserved for how Nine handles interviews and future work with the family.

“How are they going to deal with Cleo’s problem?” How are they going to deal with the question of the aggressor? If the story comes out and it is repugnant, then it will be worse that the $2 million has been paid,” he says. “On the other hand… It’s so much money that it’s almost impossible not to be sensationalist trying to get reimbursed. What is unhealthy is the amount of money, because it makes the temptations to distort and sensationalize too great.

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