Conflict of interest claims have led a UWA alumnus to lodge a complaint against a high profile professor with connections to Christian Porter, but some evidence suggests the claims may be overstated.
University of Western Australia (UWA) public policy professor Peter van Onselen has a substantial media profile, including in The Australian, and has participated in public discussion about allegations made against Mr. Porter.
That has led to some controversy on social media, however, because Dr. Van Onselen ostensibly has a “long friendship” with the attorney general.
UWA School of Journalism alumnus Eliana Bollati tweeted on the 13th of March that she intended to make a formal complaint to the university regarding Dr. Van Onselen’s lack of disclosure of personal interest in remarking on the Porter case.
Pelican understands the complaint has since been lodged and the Chief of Staff to the Vice Chancellor has responded to Ms. Bollati.
In the document submitted to the university, Ms. Bollati claimed Dr. Van Onselen had spoken “very little” about his friendship with the attorney general when publicly discussing the case.
Dr. Van Onselen has participated in discussion around the case on ABC Breakfast Radio, via articles for The Australian, during appearances on Insiders and The Project, and via Twitter – though records of the latter have been deleted from his account as of the 18th of March.
Ms. Bollati, who is an editor at Esports News Network (ESTNN), claimed that Dr. Van Onselen acted against the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalist Code of Ethics.
The MEAA is a trade union and industry advocate for creative professionals in Australia.
One of the standards outlined in the Code of Ethics is that journalists should “disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism.”
Dr. Van Onselen did disclose his relationship with Mr. Porter when appearing on Insiders on the 7th of March.
“I don’t have a problem disclosing it,” Dr. Van Onselen said.
“What I have a problem with is the assumption that because you know somebody, as a commentator, it changes your view.”
As an example, Dr. Van Onselen told Pelican he had written pieces with varied stances towards Mr. Porter.
“I have comfortably written more articles and delivered more commentary over the years critical of Porter rather than positive,” Dr. Van Onselen said.
But Ms. Bollati said that was not the problem.
“Whether or not he is being impartial is not the issue, the issue is that he is not perceived as impartial by the public and his refusal to recuse himself in light of this is concerning,” Ms. Bollati wrote.
“This refusal to make his relationship clear to the public in his media appearances is quite damaging to the credibility of journalists all over the country.”
Ms. Bollati wrote that as part of the Masters in Journalism cohort of 2016, she had witnessed Dr. Van Onselen speak about his friendship with Mr. Porter.
“Peter van Onselen made it clear to my class…that he had been friends with Mr. Porter for over two decades and that he was able to gain Mr. Porter’s agreement for a mock presser due to this friendship,” Ms. Bollati wrote.
Dr. Van Onselen told Pelican this friendship was not particularly notable.
“Porter was one of many guest lecturers in that course, it’s not as though our friendship was unique,” he said.
“Politicians from all parties do guest lectures for me.”
Pelican also understands Dr. Van Onselen did not meet Mr. Porter until 1999.
Ms. Bollati wrote that Dr. Van Onselen’s lack of disclosure was particularly concerning given she believed he took a discrediting stance towards the alleged victim.
In an article Dr. Van Onselen co-wrote with Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian, the alleged victims’ diary entries and details of her struggles with mental illness were published.
This article did not contain a declaration of Dr. Van Onselen and Mr. Porter’s friendship.
“By continuing to comment he risks distorting emphasis, and his decision to proliferate material on Twitter which discredits the victim indicates he is unable to abide by the MEAA standards to resist the compulsion to intrude in sensitive and delicate matters which could cause further harm or distress to the family of the victim and her friends,” Ms. Bollati wrote.
Although Dr. Van Onselen did not disclose his friendship with Mr. Porter in that particular article, he has done so in at least one of his other articles published on the 5th of March in The Australian.
“Yes, I have known Porter for more than 20 years,” Dr. Van Onselen wrote.
“Unlike many others reporting on this sad saga with close links and friendships with the alleged victim, I have been open about that.”
Pelican understands that Dr. Van Onselen also disclosed his personal connection with Mr. Porter on Twitter before deleting all of his tweets on the 14th of March in what appears to have been a response to backlash on the platform.
Given these concessions, it may not be accurate to claim that Dr. Van Onselen has substantially neglected the Journalist Code of Ethics.
One argument put forth for this view is that the friendship had been disclosed multiple times and was therefore ‘common knowledge’.
Nonetheless, debate reigns as to the extent of the relationship between Dr. Van Onselen and Mr. Porter.
Dr. Van Onselen attended Mr. Porter’s first wedding.
But attendance of media professionals at weddings of political figures and friendships between the two are not uncommon, and Pelican understands Dr. Van Onselen was not a best man or groomsman on that occasion.
Nor did he attend Mr. Porter’s second wedding.
However, during his appearance on The Project on the 3rd of March, the day Mr. Porter identified himself as the subject of the allegations, Dr. Van Onselen stated that “he (Mr. Porter) introduced me to my wife”.
Further questions remain about whether Dr. Van Onselen’s disclosures were explicit enough and whether such disclosures should have been made more ubiquitously in his various media appearances – even if the friendship had been of a low magnitude.
Ms. Bollati wrote she had spoken highly of Dr. Van Onselen’s abilities as an educator in the past, but that she and supporters were requesting that Dr. Van Onselen recuse himself.
“I would request the university speak to him about this behaviour, provide him with the current expectations for journalists with regards to ethics in Australia, and ensure that as long as he remains a teacher for UWA, he abides by the ethical standards our ethics body (the MEAA) has laid out for working journalists,” Ms. Bollati wrote.
“Any educator should be ensuring that they put forward a strong example of ethical journalism for their students.”
A UWA spokesperson responded to Pelican with the following comments:
“The University is committed to freedom of speech and academic freedom.”
“The views expressed by members of the UWA community are theirs and theirs only, and do not reflect the views of the institution.
“The University has robust procedures to investigate complaints made about the conduct of any of its employees and considers complaints received in accordance with those procedures.”
Over the past few weeks, Dr. Van Onselen has lost about 20,000 Twitter followers.
Ms. Bollati told Pelican the University replied to her complaint but it remained unclear whether any further action would be taken.
“The University did at least acknowledge Dr. Van Onselen’s behaviour was unbefitting for someone representing the University’s Masters of International Journalism, but in terms of whether they would address that behaviour with him, it didn’t really provide much context,” she said.
“The role of the fourth estate should always be to serve the public interest.”
Words by Millie Muroi