‘And there it rests’, wrote Caroline Overington in the November 30 edition of Media Diary in the The Australian.
The column seemed to signal the end of the threat of legal action by the paper’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell against University of Canberra academic Julie Posetti.
For those who just walked in, Mitchell threatened to sue Posetti for defamation after Posetti tweeted some rather unflattering comments about The Australian’s editor-in-chief made by the paper’s former rural reporter Asa Wahlquist at this year’s Journalism Education Conference.
The problem, though, is that it hasn’t rested there. The legal jousting has continued, turning into a soap opera for the nation’s media junkies.
The latest plot twist has Posetti standing by her record of events. Her lawyers issued a statement saying her tweets ‘gave a fair summary of the matters stated by Ms Wahlquist and clearly held out those posts as being reports of statements attributed to Ms Wahlquist and not our client’s own views’.
As much was admitted by Overington who, in the same Media Diary, claimed Posetti’s ‘Tweets are a fair summary of what Wahlquist said’.
The University of Canberra has reportedly backed Posetti, to which Mitchell has observed: ‘It is fascinating that a journalism lecturer and a university are risking public money to defend their right to publish lies, already admitted as such by the speaker’.
Notwithstanding Chris Mitchell’s ‘fascination’, it is both right and proper that Posetti’s university should back her. It is a sign that the principles of both academic and journalistic freedom – the freedom to communicate ideas or facts without threat of legal action – survives in the modern, corporatised university.
But the whole episode raises broader questions about the extent universities will be willing to support academics and, more specifically, journalists-cum-academics if their reports have implications for the interests of the university itself.
This isn’t just idle speculation. Over the past two decade or so, universities around the country have moved to establish centres devoted to conducting quality journalism.
In 1990, UTS established the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism while last year Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology established the Public Interest Journalism Foundation with the mission to promote ‘innovation in public interest journalism.’
Such collaborations have also become increasingly attractive to news organisations starved for resources and staff in the current business environment.
In the lead up the Victorian state election, for example, Swinburne teamed up with Crikey totrawl for stories through 200 annual reports released on one day by previous Labor government.
Earlier in the year, Crikey worked with staff and students from UTS on a series investigating thebeneficiaries of Australia’s foreign aid budget, which followed on yet another collaboration in 2009 that looked at the amount of spin in our media diet.
On the face of it, working alongside or from within a university seems to offer a safe harbour for journalism and journalists. This is particularly so in the case of large-scale investigative projects which are often time-consuming, expensive and, in many cases, may lead to a dead end.
Viewed from one perspective, these collaborations between journalists and universities should be fairly uncontroversial. After all, isn’t this the kind of research work that universities do?
Yet universities may not be as hospitable to journalism as they might at first appear.
In an environment where universities are under increasing pressure to supplement public funding from external sources, including from international students and overseas markets, there may come a time when the interests of the university and their journalists clash.
This isn’t just idle speculation. Some years ago, I worked on a conference about West Papua that was to be held at RMIT University. The conference organisation seemed to be going well, until the Indonesian government made representations to the university about the topic of the conference.
Concerned about its relations with the Indonesian government, RMIT withdrew official supportfor the conference and refused the use of the venue.
It doesn’t take an overly active imagination to think about what might happen to a university-based journalism centre if it were to start asking thorny questions about China’s involvement in Tibet which had repercussions for the student market.
It is possible that our universities would pass these tests with flying colours – as has the University of Canberra in backing Julie Posetti.
At the same time, though, in the Mitchell-Posetti case, the interests of the University of Canberra have not been directly affected. A better test of whether the dual of professional identities of journalism academics can be reconciled will come when, inevitably, the work of journalists within the academy conflict with the business needs of the university itself.
Originally published on The Drum.