Inside the NT News war with ICAC: The only casualties are truth, accountability and $12 million of public funds

by | Jan 12, 2022 | News, NT Politics, Opinion | 0 comments

ANALYSIS: The ICAC Inspector’s report released last week into a complaint by the NT News and its former editor Matt Williams is not a get-out-of-jail-free card as the Territory’s only daily newspaper seems to think it is, nor is it vindication for them – it’s a new nadir of just how corrupt and incompetent the Northern Territory has become.

Newspapers are now arguing to have incriminating information removed from the public record while the body tasked with investigating corruption appears so incompetent they can’t download a text message properly.

Meanwhile, the NT Police Commissioner is pursuing an investigation into this news outlet based on allegations made by the man the ICAC found acted corruptly, while the Gunner Labor Government has still not acknowledged its role in pushing through the $12 million taxpayer-funded grant for the grandstand project, and while a public servant who was found to have engaged in a duplicitous process to help get the money through Cabinet has been tasked with implementing recommendations to the process he was found to have manipulated.

We live in a magical little jurisdiction, where nobody in a role of public trust is ever accountable for anything – let alone $12 million of taxpayer money.

Self-preservation has always been a necessary instinct to survive in Darwin politics, where integrity matters far less than the ability to protect oneself at all costs. And if you mess up, never, ever accept responsibility, there’s always someone else to blame.

That old adage, which the current Gunner Government and the NT News have matching tattoos of, was splashed all over the NT News’s front page since last week for everyone to read – if, of course, you actually understood what they were trying to say amid the confusing and contradictory statements.

Their current issue stems from former editor Matt Williams being caught out for an incriminating text he sent his mate Brett Dixon when the heat started to get turned up on the Darwin Turf Club’s grandstand project, pledging to provide favourable media coverage, even as the public soured to the controversial deal.

It was captured in the NT ICAC’s report into the grandstand scandal, which made other, more significant findings, including the unseemly matter of $12 million of public money being wasted on a grandstand that did not stack up business-wise and that certain parties inside and outside of government acted inappropriately to see carried out.

But the NT News, who reported on the ICAC’s extraordinary corruption findings for one day before pushing it off the front page to run a story the very next day about how wonderful the new facility was, seem to have lost sight of the fact that the issue of concern for Territorians is the $12 million of public funds that should never have been spent on the grandstand and the corruption that surrounded it all.

They have instead become obsessed with the text message between Williams and Dixon – which has consumed their reporting of the grandstand scandal since it was revealed last year – while allowing the Chief Minister to walk away without explaining why he personally took a flawed business proposal into Cabinet to secure funding.

Even now, as the public’s faith in the ICAC is all but lost, the NT News’s reputation continues to be damaged by their latest attempts to obfuscate and dodge accountability.

The text message in question is the one in which Williams tells Brett Dixon, as the public’s outrage grew in late 2019, that he “will do my absolute best to put a stop to this and you can count on us to deliver plenty of positivity when the grandstand opens”.

That’s the heart of the text and everyone can see the issue in that single line. The NT News is not even denying their editor sent the text offering to stop the negative media coverage or the examples of “plenty of positivity” that occurred in the newspaper by every objective measure in the months that followed – what they’re complaining about is how the text became public.

Instead of accepting responsibility for their actions, and atoning for their failures, they’re hitting out at those who exposed them, in the same way the Gunner Government and the police commissioner have.

How many other texts from the NT News’s editors or reporters have been sent to advertisers, public servants or elected officials promising similar favours? We’ll never know.

News Corp refused to explain text message, then brought in Sydney lawyers

When given the opportunity to explain the text to Territorians last June, Williams and News Corp did not respond to direct questions sent by the NT Independent. Instead, the company sent a generic statement about how great Williams had performed in the role before being moved on to a new job in Melbourne with News Corp, which incidentally involves gambling and the racing industry.

Then, a full month later, News Corp brought in their lawyers to file a formal complaint with the ICAC Inspector about the damning text message being revealed in the report.

They claimed, among other things, that the ICAC Act was breached because Williams and News Corp were not provided the opportunity to provide comment before the text message and some other findings were made public – including that the unnamed “senior media figure” had “personal and professional relationships” with key racing industry players and that an “undertaking was honoured and continues to this day”.

Last week, ICAC Inspector Bruce McClintock ruled in their favour.

He found that retired ICAC Ken Fleming in fact violated the Act by not providing “procedural fairness” to Williams and News Corp before including the text in the report, which he determined was an “adverse finding” against Williams although Williams was not specifically named.

And he found that the full text taken from Dixon’s phone was incomplete, which Mr McClintock determined was a failure on the part of investigators due to “inexperience”.

This is not an exoneration, it’s a sign that the Northern Territory is damaged beyond all repair and the chances of anyone being held accountable for their actions has been greatly diminished.

The text was apparently, somehow, “screen-shot” by ICAC investigators from Mr Dixon’s phone more than a year before it appeared in the corruption report, the NT News has claimed, and the only part missing was at the end, when Williams wrote that the NT News was “a big supporter”, which was assumed to have meant of Mr Dixon. But the ICAC Inspector determined the line “…of racing and we will continue to be” was omitted in the text that was published.

Of course, Mr Dixon was the racing industry in the NT, as many have noted, serving as chair of both the Darwin Turf Club and Thoroughbred Racing NT, which distributed government money to the different racing clubs and also bought advertisements with newspapers.

Mr McClintock found that text messages between Mr Dixon and Williams before and after the one quoted did not change the meaning of Williams’ language, nor did he put any stock in their claims the message was only published to damage Williams and the NT News.

However, the findings that the ICAC did not provide Williams with a chance to respond and that the message was incomplete are problematic for the integrity of the OICAC, if anyone needed any further affirmation that the office was not functioning the way in which the public expected and appears to be outright incompetent.

Mr McClintock’s finding that the Office of the ICAC “had developed a siege mentality” against the NT News because they were concerned how the newspaper would report the grandstand corruption findings is also troubling and completely inappropriate for a body like the ICAC who should conduct their business with no concern for how the media interprets it.

As the NT News’s one day of front page coverage played out however, the Office of the ICAC should not have been surprised; it all went down the way they suspected. As Fleming originally said, before the remarks were stricken from his report, the Williams “undertaking was honoured and continues to this day”.

The reason the text was included in the final grandstand report – while not surprising for people involved in politics and journalism here – was to show the public just how tainted the place has become, where news agencies cover up scandals and offer favourable coverage when things get tough for their mates.

But don’t expect the NT News to accept any responsibility for their editor’s role in this whole debacle. It’s now been stricken from the public record – their Sydney lawyers saw to it – covered up and they hope, forgotten. Which runs in direct contravention of what newspapers should be advocating for, but has clearly been their approach for years.

To add to the absurdity of it all, the NT News actually wheeled out Brett Dixon himself – who is currently throwing every legal argument he can against the ICAC to see what sticks to have its corruption findings against him dismissed – to comment on allegations only he has made about the OICAC.

As per the NT News on Sunday: “Mr Dixon said it was ‘difficult to imagine a more serious matter than an ICAC officer leaking evidence obtained by ICAC using its coercive powers’.”

A more serious matter? How about a corruption finding for inappropriately securing $12 million of public funds for your company to build a grandstand that nobody needed and the government could not afford that benefited a select few? That’s just one ‘more serious matter’ that jumps out as this whole perverse saga rolls on.

ICAC report was into misappropriation of $12m of public funds for grandstand

For all of the NT News’ self-righteous fury over the last week, they’ve yet to even mention the $12 million of taxpayer funds that inappropriately went to Dixon’s company to build the grandstand, that the government approved under suspicious circumstances. That’s what the report was about and where the public anger still rests.

But self-preservation can be a strong instinct, and losing $12 million of taxpayers’ money through a devious and duplicitous process must now be overlooked, according to the NT News, because the ICAC did not ask their editor if he was okay with the release his text message to Dixon that demonstrated an egregious violation of every principle of responsible journalism.

While it has been found by the Inspector that the proper process was not followed by the OICAC in publishing that text, it doesn’t mean the text wasn’t sent, nor that the pledges contained therein were not fulfilled.

But because both the ICAC and the NT News failed to live up to community expectations, the ICAC Inspector’s wisdom is that it should all be shoved down the memory hole.

While losing sight of why the investigation was carried out in the first place, the NT News and its long-standing patron Mr Dixon, now have a common enemy in the Office of the ICAC who exposed their deceitful dealings.

And they’ll continue to work together to ultimately get the grandstand report thrown out completely, if they can, or at the very least continue to distract the public from the fact nobody has been held accountable for pilfering millions of taxpayer money that could surely have been put to better use and benefited more Territorians.

Again, it’s the shoot-the-messenger-who-exposed-us mentality rather than accept responsibility that has become all too common here of late.

We’ve seen it before. This is how the NT’s establishment functions and you can blame that on a lack of leadership from the top. The Gunner Government, that was elected on a platform of restoring integrity, has still failed to accept responsibility for its role in awarding the money to the Turf Club through a process that was inexplicably changed at the last minute from a market-led proposal to a capital grant.

This is now the lawless land where a police commissioner who was also provided gifts of hospitality by the Turf Club as the “chairman’s friend” has been given free rein to use public resources to investigate how it was that the NT Independent exposed his failings, the government’s failings, the NT News’s failings and those of his mates.

As the Opposition pointed out yesterday, we still don’t know who exactly is under investigation.

One thing you can count on however, is that the investigation will conclude with no consequences for anyone in a position of public trust.

 

Christopher Walsh is the editor of the NT Independent and formerly held roles as senior political reporter at the NT News and investigations producer at ABC Darwin. He is also co-author of Crocs in the Cabinet: An Instruction Manual on How Not to Run a Government.

*Disclosure: NT Independent editor Christopher Walsh was senior political reporter for the NT News for more than three years and sued News Corp and Williams for wrongful dismissal in 2017. The matter was settled out of court.

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