Commentators and ‘conflict of interest’

The idea that decision-makers have conflicts of interest is well established in law and the governance of private organisations. Those who have a direct or indirect (say, through a relative) financial interest in a decision usually have to excuse themselves from the decision-making process or at least declare their interest.

Though formal rules are less common than for decision-makers, the idea of a conflict of interest has spread into public debate and commentary. Two recent examples of a potential ‘conflict of interest’:

In a recent episode of The Gruen Transfer, an ABC TV panel show that discusses advertising, regular panel member Todd Sampson expressed strong views against an ad from a child abuse charity. Last Monday, the Fairfax press ran a story reporting that Sampson’s agency had done work for that child abuse charity, until they had a falling out in 2003. The reported claim was that this was a conflict of interest that Sampson should have disclosed.

Today, The Age ran a story about the departure of Monthly editor Sally Warhaft, reportedly over excessive meddling by editorial board chair Robert Manne. The report contains these paragraphs, emphasis added:

Monthly contributors contacted by The Age, most of whom declined to be identified, expressed shock at Dr Warhaft’s departure and praised her abilities as an editor.

“I’m deeply disappointed by what has transpired,” said regular contributor Gideon Haigh. “It does change my attitude to the magazine. Sally was a very good editor, as good an editor as I’ve worked with in 25 years as a journalist.”

What isn’t mentioned in the report is that Haigh is was Warhaft’s partner.

In the Sampson case, he says he was not even aware that his agency had a history with the charity. But even if he had known, clearly any financial relationship is long gone. So the distorting ‘interest’ could only be some residual bitterness at the falling out. Not only is this unlikely – few of us identify so strongly with our employers that we hold grudges on their behalf – but it would stretch the concept of an ‘interest’ so far that much time meant for debate would be spent on a long and dreary cataloguing of our prior involvement with the parties to the discussion.

In claims like the one against Sampson, the conflict of interest claim is itself more distorting of the debate than the interest. It deflects discussion away from the substantive issues, and towards side-issues. Those who have the weaker substantive case are the most likely to try to take advantage of a ‘conflict of interest’ claim.

In the Warhaft case, someone commenting on their partner former partner would normally trigger a disclosure, and it would have been preferable for it to have occurred in this case. But on the other hand, it was probably because Haigh rated his relationship with Warhaft more highly than his relationship with the magazine that he was prepared to go on the record on an issue that would have been in people’s minds – was she sacked for incompetence? – how does knowing this affect our interpretation of Haigh’s remarks? Is he more biased because of some residual affection or less biased because despite the break-up he can still see Warhaft’s talent as an editor?

Also, the other contributors were speaking anoymously, presumably because their interest in the Monthly‘s high payment rates could be jeopardised if they defended Warhaft publicly. They put their interests above our interests as readers in having sources willing to publicly stand by the information they are putting into a newspaper.

I thought Warhaft was doing a good job three years ago and still think she did a good job, despite publishing that nonsense from the PM. Or am in defending her in a dispute with Robert Manne because Manne has attacked me in print a couple of times?

Ultimately, inquiries into the motives of people in public debate don’t get us very far. They are hard to know for sure, and never more than a modestly useful heuristic, since someone can be right despite having an interest an issue, and wrong despite being disinterested. Indeed, someone with an interest is likely to have more knowledge as well as the greater potential for bias. Knowing about interests is no substitute for knowing about the substantive issues.

And in the examining of the substantive issues, the ‘conflicted’ party is usually not the only voice being heard, so there are the correctives of other opinions, and rarely will any individual debate determine an issue. The likely negative effects of a conflict of interest in public debate are so low that I would be sorry to see the norms on disclosure shift any further towards reporting them.

44 thoughts on “Commentators and ‘conflict of interest’

  1. Haigh is Warhaft’s partner

    I’m open to correction, but I thought that was past tense not present tense.


  2. Sinc – You could be right; Google wasn’t turning up anything recent on their relationship. Obviously an amicable split if you are right, with these nice comments and Haigh appearing in just about every issue of the Monthly.


  3. They were once a couple, but they split up several years ago. This is common knowledge and could easily have been checked with a phone call or two. If anything, Haigh’s comments — about an ex — show graciousness & professionalism.

    Which raises an ethical question of its own: If you’re going to gossip in public about people’s personal lives, and cast ethical aspersions based on this, shouldn’t you be sure you have your facts straight? Will the original post be corrected?


  4. Andrew Norton, you’re a fraud, a failed gossip columnist masquerading as a thinker. Warhaft and Haigh split more than three years ago, as you could easily have discovered — if you’d bothered to do any work (that can mean leaving the internet) before blathering on your blog. Haigh married a few months ago; the least you could do now is correct your post and apologise graciously. It seems clear that Haigh contributes to the Monthly because he’s a versatile writer, as anyone with an eye for good prose and detailed reportage could see. Quite apart from the howling errors, your piece is just dribble. But thanks for the delightful phrase “a modestly useful heuristic”, which confirms how truly pathetic your ramblings are. Oh, and I would have thought Haigh would be able to claim the title of a Carlton classical liberal, so if you run in to him you might have even more explaining to do.


  5. Anon – Though Gideon leaves nearby, I don’t know him well enough to do more than say hello, and I generally don’t mix in the same circles. However a conversation with the one person I know who does confirms that they are no longer a couple and I have corrected the post.

    As for the post, I was not suggesting that either Haigh or Warhaft had done anything wrong, and if you read it you’ll see that the point of the post was to question the kind of conflict of interest claims that are often raised in these circumstances.

    I don’t see that reporting that someone is in or has been in a relationship is ‘gossip’.


  6. Andrew, your reply makes no sense. The point is: if you wish to make public accusations of conflicts of interest, check your facts first. And if you get them wrong, you should have the grace to apologise, not merely correct. But I feel that asks too much of you, as your patently inadequate responses above indicate. By the way, your corrected piece is now of no consequence, as its argument — I use the term loosely — is in tatters.


  7. Alex Stanton April 26th, 2009 11:39

    By the way, your corrected piece is now of no consequence, as its argument — I use the term loosely — is in tatters.

    The substance of Norton’s argument is grounded in the relation of hidden interest to expressed opinion. He appeared to think that there was no conflict of interest issue in either case.

    Although Norton did spot a reversal of this relationship in the Monthly staff’s sources who revealed their interest but not their identity:

    Also, the other contributors were speaking anoymously, presumably because their interest in the Monthly’s high payment rates could be jeopardised if they defended Warhaft publicly. They put their interests above our interests as readers in having sources willing to publicly stand by the information they are putting into a newspaper.

    Possibly this subject is dear to Norton’s heart as his employer, the CIS, is routinely subjected to hails of abuse by Australia’s Left-wing intellectuals on “conflict of interest” grounds. Usually on the flimsy grounds that businesses sometimes agree with and support the classical liberal point of view.

    Of course Left-liberal intellectuals, after a “long march through the institutions”, have established hegemonic control over most of Australia’s cultural apparati. As was the stated goal of Baby-booming, Gramsci-reading uni arts graduates.

    Not to make a cultural revolution mind. More just to secure a cushy non-demanding job amongst clubbable people.

    This was paid for by constantly buttering up and sucking up to Broad Left-wing politicians eg 2020 conference. No “conflict of interest” to see here folks. Just keep movin’ along…


  8. None the less Alex, it was Haigh who helped get the inexperienced Warhaft a job as editor of The Monthly in the first place so perhaps to begin with there was a conflict of interest.


  9. Alex – You don’t get the argument I am making; perhaps I did not state it clearly enough. The initial assumption is that there is a norm of disclosing potential conflicts of interest in commentary and debate, presumably in the belief that knowing about these interests affects our judgment on the quality or weight of the evidence or argument being presented.

    This norm is sufficiently strong that the Fairfax papers did not kill the story about Todd Sampson, even though the link is far more tenuous than a past romantic relationship. Indeed, Sampson had no personal involvement in the dispute in question.

    The point I was making is that even though this norm exists, in neither case does it actually provide very useful information.

    If Gideon was/will be offended, I apologise. I was using him as an example rather than criticising him.


  10. Incidentally, I did verify that there was a relationship via Warhaft’s acknowledgements in her speeches book and via Google. I should however have been more cautious in assuming that it was an on-going relationship, but given my point was to downplay the evidentiary value of relationships past or present it did not affect my overall argument.


  11. Christ.

    1. Jack: my heart bleeds for the CIS mob. Long March, Gramsci, blah balh. BTW, has it occurred to you or Andrew that the writers might wish to stay anonymous so as to protect themselves from a Manne-on-man battle?

    2. Anon: this is just the sort of gossipy codswallop that you berated Andrew for. Name a source or admit you’re stooping pretty low.

    3. Andrew: I get your argument; it’s not that sophisticated. But even you could surely see that “how does knowing this affect our interpretation of Haigh’s remarks? Is he more biased because of some residual affection or less biased because despite the break-up he can still see Warhaft’s talent as an editor?” is speculative piffle. Or perhaps not. You’re not pointing out subtle moral dilemmas, you’re just drowning in a sea of non-meaning. I’ve not suggested you’ve criticised Haigh; I’ve merely suggested that you played loose with the facts and, when hauled up on it, were left with, well, a crappy example.


  12. Alex –

    On 1, that too. He can get pretty nasty (as you can). But overall I would have thought their main concern was maintaining their relationships with the Monthly overall, including Manne as editorial board chair and not appearing to the next editor that they were too much on Warhaft’s side.

    On 3, I did not say the argument was sophisticated; I was trying to make a point, not show off. Indeed, you have not yet disagreed with the post’s argument, unless you think disclosing a past or present relationship would substantially alter the view we take of this matter.

    I’m left with two examples dealing with past relationships rather than one.


  13. Fair enough, Andrew. I’m not sure I agree with your reading of issue 1, and I think you’re being presumptous about it, but I think we’ll only know for certain after at least a few Months.


  14. Andrew, I can understand your concern that the discussion may lead to quibbles about conflicts rather than the meat of the subject – we certainly don’t want to do that. However, it’s incorrect to dismiss conflicts too readily. Take the example of trotting out an economist/commentator from HIA to talk up the rental crisis. Particularly on the TV news, it’s easy to miss the commentator’s organisation. If you don’t know about HIA then it takes a quick Google to discover that there would certainly be a conflict or bias.

    The Housing Industry Association is Australia’s largest residential building organisation. Members include builders, trade contractors, design professionals, kitchen and bathroom specialists, manufacturers and suppliers.

    HIA is the Housing Industry Association – the voice of Australia’s home building industry.

    The media overwhelms us with similar kinds messages (from HIA, APM, Rismark etc) with little to no mention of the conflict or potential bias.

    I’ve only recently started to see how pervasive the issue of bias is. I’ve discovered the Overcoming Bias blog but haven’t had time to dig in yet.


  15. Steven – I think the HIA case is one of potential (or indeed probable) bias and therefore required disclosure, but not of conflict of interest. Their job is to promote the interests of the housing industry, and that’s what I presume they are doing.

    The conflict of interest rules/norms come into play when the person has a an interest in the issue other than the capacity in which their views are being reported. In these examples, Todd Sampson is an expert on advertising (he is consistently very interesting on The Gruen Transfer) and Gideon Haigh is a first-rate journalist with experience of numerous editors and publishers. There can be no disputing their competence to comment on the issues they have.

    The question is whether their personal connection to the issue raises issues of disclosure; I think it is commonly assumed that it would (and was in the Sampson case), but for the reasons I tried to articulate in the post I am uncomfortable with this, though I have not yet done enough work or thinking on the subject to argue for a particular set of norms that say when a theoretical conflict should be disclosed.

    There are also economic and technological considerations; time on TV for example is far more valuable than space in a newspaper.

    Plus the issue of whether disclosing the conflict would acually amount to advertising, eg in the Alan Kohler case a couple of years ago when people said that his ABC TV news reporting should be accompanied by a disclosure about his financial newsletter.


  16. I was the first “Anon”. The argument has moved on since my original comment, which simply had to do with the basic journalistic responsibility of checking facts before publishing them. The various comments above seem to establish that Andrew Norton doesn’t see this as a blogger’s responsibility, which shows that he doesn’t see himself as a “journalist” or “reporter” in the traditional sense. Old-school print journalists would never have excused themselves from checking facts on the grounds that they didn’t “know” (only “lived near” – !!) the people they were writing about, or by repeating that they’d “googled”, as though this amounted to adequate journalistic research. Classical liberal, my arse: Perez Hilton of the inner north, more like.
    But all this is by the way. This is just to point out that the first and second “Anons” (the second being the person who sneered that Haigh got Warhaft the Monthly gig) are two different people.


  17. While I do try to ensure that what I say is correct (and I publish corrections when I am wrong), like almost all bloggers I work from the public record, which had no easily located mention of the Warhaft-Haigh relationship ending (I could not find one at all, but not everything appears in google). Being able to ring people to ask them for information remains the preroragative of MSM. I don’t have Haigh’s phone number in any case.

    I did as much as bloggers could be expected to do in fact checking, and established from both a book Warhaft had edited and web references that there was a romantic connection. My mistake was not to attach a caveat that I could not verify that it was a current relationship.


  18. What a very peculiar and misinformed post, Andrew. I thought better of you. Thank you to Alex Stanton for the thorough correction, saving me the trouble. To correct the further disinformation that I had anything to do with Sally’s appointment as editor, I’d love to take credit, but can disclaim any responsibility. Nor did having a former partner as editor make my job any easier: Sally rejected plenty of my ideas, and even spiked some of my stories. The only reason I appear making a comment in The Age story is that if I’m asked my opinion, I’ll (unfashionably) give it under my own name. Those oh-so-lucrative pay rates of The Monthly – although the Australia’s Review of Books was paying $1 a word in 1996 – have in my case no relevance: I’m disgusted by the board’s behaviour in this matter, and have informed the proprietor that I will no longer contribute to the magazine. It’s all pretty simple, really. Not a modestly useful heuristic to be seen.


  19. My God, Andrew, you’ve stumbled into a nest of vipers! These luvvies really do have sharp, poison-dripping tongues.

    All they had to do was tell you that Haigh was no longer Warhaft’s partner, and ask you to correct the record.

    Instead they spice their replies with vituperative personal attacks.

    I’m seriously amazed.


  20. Though the responses were way out of proportion to the error, I am not amazed. A common enough form of behaviour, amplified by the widely remarked on disinhibiting effects of the web. It is why I thought it was necessary to have a civility policy when I started the blog. I should be possible to disagree without personal abuse.


  21. I’m with Jeremy – an amazing reaction to an interesting though not very provocative posting.
    Andrew’s distinction between conflict of interest and bias is useful and worth remembering in the climate change discussions.
    Almost none of those writing on the subject is disinterested in the outcome, though we would hope that few are biased. Scientists working in the area have a great financial and career interest in maintaining government and public belief in the seriousness of the threat – research grants, positions as heads of institutes etc. But none of this should produce bias. Similarly the fact that a sceptic on the matter might have received money from energy companies should not be used to reject the views outright.


  22. Journalists make mistakes too, but fairly rarely do I see them come out and correct their mistakes. But in the end, I think we can tolerate a few mistakes (within reason and with boundaries of course!) in order to foster debate about, and analysis of issues. I think that goes for this post too, it was about a current issue and frankly credit to Andrew for coming out and correcting the record when the mistake was pointed out. It does seem though that this has definetly been blown out of proportion.


  23. I think its reasonable that those with power in our society should expect their lives to be (objectively) analysed, in so far as it transgresses on their public works.

    Nevertheless, Andrew is also not without power, and has an onus to check facts or otherwise himself be subject to similar analysis/query.

    ‘Why did he not check?’

    As such, an apology is warranted to show good faith. Perhaps not in the original article (which need not show the corrections I do not believe) but certainly in comments.

    And as one who is ‘fashionably’ anonymous (although I ALWAYS use my handle when making a contribution) I think that it is possible to divide one’s public contribution from personal life, unless matters move to intrude (such as when personal experience forges a publicly-expressed opinion) – just as I said at the beginning of this comment.


  24. I don’t know whether the responses were so far out of proportion, Andrew. The Age and LP have both perpetrated this calumny before. The insinuation in The Age was that I was only run in The Monthly because I was Sally’s partner, which was not only inaccurate but a libel. An LP commenter repeated the untruth last night despite their earlier retraction. I think you were uncharacteristically careless here. Your modus operandi seemed to be that if something could not be immediately disproven by a google search, then you were entitled to publish it as fact, as grist for your analytical mill. I don’t care that you’re ‘not a journalist’; you’re also not an idiot. I actually enjoy your blog. Read it regularly, in fact, which is why I was able to respond quickly. But you might like to consider whether there is not a greater substantiating burden because the internet has proved Churchill’s remark that a lie can be half way round the world before the truth can puts its pants on.


  25. The insinuation in The Age was that I was only run in The Monthly because I was Sally’s partner, which was not only inaccurate but a libel.

    That is a very silly insinuation – anyone who has read The Monthly would know different. Apart from Rudd’s essays that I read for other reasons, Gideon Haigh is the only person worth reading in that magazine.


  26. Gideon – I think you are reading it other than the way in which I thought it was writing it. I intended to use your mention in the story as an example in a post suggesting that conflict of interest disclosure norms were too strong. It was not trying to insinuate that judgment was distorted by your relationship with Sally, and indeed that (from the perspective of the readers) the relationships may have been a positive, because you were prepared to go on the record as a result, while others spoke only anonymously. (Two issues here, one whether judgment was affected, the other motive for contributing to the story.)

    If I was trying to perpetrate a ‘calumny’, it would have been a very different post – one arguing for rather than against the importance of conflict of interest disclosures, and attacking you and/or The Age for not providing one.

    Anyway, I don’t expect we will agree. Apologies for the error.


  27. I understood the post perfectly well, Andrew, and am not disputing the validity of the observation. I was simply concerned at the recirculation of something quite inaccurate and potentially misleading, which I have troubled to correct elsewhere. I appreciate the apology.


  28. LoL. Stopped buying it a long time ago. Now I just read the interesting bits in the news agent – but I can stop that now.


  29. As an uninformed but interested Monthly reader, my spontaneous two-cents responses to the above:

    a) I do think the original post deserved the criticisms it has received, and don’t think complaints were in any way out of proportion. I love my blogs & think they have many advantages over print journalism — but not if serious bloggers excuse themselves from basic standards of reporting, especially fact-checking. A mea culpa (not just a grudging bare-bones correction) would have been in order. Checking the acknowledgements of a half-decade-old book doesn’t count as fact-checking. Journalist or not, Norton should have at least made some serious effort to check his claims.

    b) ESPECIALLY when personal/sexual relations are involved. Are we so 1950s that nobody has any sexual past? Are we really so juvenille that any hint of past involvement (long-term/short-term, serious/casual, whatever) requires “disclosure”? Haigh and Warhaft have shown maturity & modernity by carrying on professionally despite whatever was between them previously. Surely any of us who’ve had more than a single monogomous relationship (ie, the vast majority of the population??) should be able to respect this without demanding intimate details & without pretending that every subsequent interaction between the two is somehow “corrupted” by a previous relationship. It’s 2009, people. Jeez.

    c) Gideon Haigh says he won’t be writing any more for The Monthly. As a fan of the magazine and of Haigh, this makes me sad. It won’t stop me subscribing — Haigh or not, it offers something I can’t find anywhere else in Oz media. But he is one of the mag’s strongest writers, so I will be sad to see him go. I hope he’ll reconsider.


  30. “Now I just read the interesting bits in the news agent ” – apparently some people don’t appreciate the difference between a news agent and a library. I hope Sinclair hasn’t been blocking the aisle in the newsagent while reading Gideon’s very long essays.
    I thought Gideon’s worst Monthly essay was on Google. I wonder if Andrew read it – Gideon thinks that “To the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail; to the man with Google, everything looks like information”


  31. Aw. Nice to see that things got so sweet in the end — makes this luvvie feel all warm inside. Oh, and Andrew: cop it sweet. You made a public mistake, and you were hassled by a couple of posters for it. Seems OK to me. Now, about that modestly useful heuristic …


  32. Andrew I think you have done everything correctly. You had incomplete information when you published the article (none of us knows everything) but you have acknowledged your errors and published prompt corrections. This is a great example of responsible content moderation.


  33. Hi Andrew, I agree with you that the question of bias is really a broader issue than conflicts of interest.

    Hopefully the desire to keep a good reputation would be enough incentive for folks to disclosure conflicts that they thought were of interest. It’s possible that editing for publication could remove such a disclosure. That could be consider bad editing but perhaps not as there are many factors as you allude to. A difficult area. However, if it’s considered important the issue will probably come up again in a public forum allowing the individual a moment to explain themselves.

    As for the HIA constant harping about the rental crisis (and similar issues from similarly biased organisations), I reckon it’s not particularly HIA’s duty to disclosure (although the reputation of the spokesperson/economist is on the line) but the journalist or media channels’. Of course there are difficulties of time and space but there is the reputation of the individual journalist, editing staff and media channel to consider. Personally I find it to be a lack of quality in the journalism. The media channels could redeem themselves with the occasional investigative piece which reveals these biases and seeks to uncover the truth.


  34. Steven – I think industry group representatives do normally have their affiliations noted in media reporting. It would be very much the exception if they are not, though it may only be a brief note on the screen. I don’t know of any research as to what the public makes of these reports, though we do know that the public knowledge of most issues is quite low.


  35. While right and wrong can’t be decided by referendum, I’ll add my e-voice to the view that Andrew’s initial error was mild relative to the errors of misinterpretation and exagerated offence in the responses it attracted.


  36. I’m going to be a complete bitch and put up this piece of footage for perusal.

    Awkward? Impersonal? I certainly had trouble watching the whole thing.

    Notice Chloe’s response when Sally ‘mentions’ that she is an editor


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