Image for The Australian Financial Review goes missing on Unaoil scandal

The leaking of a treasure trove of internal documents to The Age unmasking corruption in the global oil industry has triggered global media coverage and triggered police to launch anti-corruption investigations in a raft of countries. But the Australian Financial Review (AFR) – Australia’s only national business newspaper – paid scant attention to the scandal.

It was a huge story for The Age and Huffington Post by anyone’s standards: extensive revelations based on a huge trove of internal corporate emails from Unaoil, a Monaco-based company which specialises in advising companies working in the oil industry in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

The documents, The Age alleged, revealed Unaoil “as an agent of serious corruption” implicating a global network of companies, politicians and bureaucrats who were brokering deals over oil industry contracts. The special purpose website built for the series of stories was unambiguously titled “The Bribe Factory”.  On the first day of a three-part series launched in late MarchThe Age ran the story across six pages along with the front page teaser “World Exclusive: Big Oil’s Bribe Factory”.

The series ran big for a further two days, generating huge international interest. There were numerous stories spanning everything from allegations against major Australian Stock Exchange listed companies to oil deals in the Middle East, Africa, Eurasia and Asia.

For its part, Unaoil, having not responded to questions from reporters at The Age and Huffington Post sat tight for almost two weeks days. On April 12 Unaoil released a statement complaining “unfounded allegations have been made against Unaoil and its management causing serious harm to our business, our employees and our reputation.”

The revelations in the news reports spurred police raids in Monaco, triggered investigations by the FBI and the Justice Department in the US and anti-corruption police in the UK. In Australia the series bolstered calls by the Labor Party in Australia for a Senate inquiry into corporate corruption and spurred the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to seek access to some of the leaked material.

The articles hit a nerve with the reading public too.

According to an email to Fairfax staff shortly after the series was released:

“In total across all mastheads, the series has attracted 882,600 unique browsers and racked up more than 1.4 million page views. The engagement has been amazing, with the readers collectively spending 1800 days, or almost FIVE YEARS, reading the series.”

Mark Day, the media columnist over at Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian churned out a column running to just over a thousand words pouring scorn on the merit of the Unaoil expose. He wrote:

“I doubt that more than 1 per cent of Fairfax’s readers cared more than a tinker’s cuss about the story. Bribery in the Middle East? No shit, Sherlock! Big business paying money to smooth its way through corrupt regimes where transparency, process and fairness are concepts as remote as democracy? Whoever would have thunk it? Fairfax dedicated acres of space to long-winded prose about people we’ve never heard of doing things we hardly care about. 

While anti-Fairfax put-downs are par for the course for the tribal culture of Murdoch’s mastheads, what was more puzzling was the reaction of Fairfax’s own stablemate, the Australian Financial Review.

The AFR ducks for cover

The extensive first-day coverage of the The Age and Huffington Post’s scoop – which were also shared with the Sydney Morning Herald – generated a huge reaction in the mainstream media and in social media.

Even though the expose had not been offered to the AFR – which boasts column that it is “the authority on business, finance and investment news in Australia” – it opted to run nothing on its website the day the story broke.

The next day it was the same again for the print edition: nothing. (That day the AFR had a front-page “exclusive” of its own: “Chinese plan posh Aussie food float.”)

Later that day the online edition of the AFR re-published one of The Age’s stories in the series which revealed the board of the private healthcare company, Primary Healthcare, knew when it appointed Peter Gregg as CEO in February 2016 that he was under investigation over a payment from the time he worked with Leighton Holdings. (In a statement Primary Healthcare insisted that “in his position with Leighton Holdings, Mr Gregg acted at all times in accordance with the law.”)

Day three of the The Age and Huffington Post’s Unaoil’s expose garnered limited attention at the AFR. The extent of its coverage was confined to an article tucked away on page 38 headlined “Primary Health’s Gregg sues Fairfax Media over reports.” (The same story had run on the AFR’s website late in the afternoon of the preceding day.)

And that was it from the AFR until weeks later when it reported that the Turnbull government was increasing funding to allow the AFP to expand investigations into allegations of offshore corruption. It also reported on evidence to a Senate committee in which the Australian Securities and Investment Commission flagged it was planning to lay charges against Primary Healthcare’s CEO, Peter Gregg.

The AFR wasn’t the only major business masthead to largely ignore the scandal in the initial stages. While the story was widely covered in the mainstream media around the world it rated only passing mentions in blogs on the Financial Times website.

While Mark Day poured scorn on the significance of the story Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal covered the story more seriously, including a report covered on the Iraqi Prime Minister ordering an investigation of the allegations relating to Iraqi oil industry officials.

How can the failure of a major financial masthead to cover a massive global corruption scandal in one of the world’s largest and most controversial industries be explained?

The story was so extensively covered in Australia it couldn’t have escaped the attention of editors and senior reporters. For some reason the AFR’s editors clearly made a decision to give the story little coverage, at least until the Australian Government and some of its agencies reacted to the revelations.

Why the AFR largely ran dead on the story remains a mystery. Perhaps it was fear of legal risks.

Or perhaps it was a preference to leave the heavy-lifting on the story to The Age and Huffington Post which had access to the primary source documents. (Not that the lack of access to primary source documents prevented numerous other outlets covering the story and adding to it.)

Or does the lack of coverage by the AFR indicate something about the wariness of business mastheads to cover corporate corruption scandals?

Or perhaps there is some other compelling explanation. After all, the week after the Unaoil revelations broke, the AFR devoted significant space to original in-depth reporting on the contents of the Panama Papers, another trove of leaked corporate documents.

Tasmanian Times sought a comment from the AFR as to why the Unaoil scandal was given so little coverage.  However, the AFR did not respond.

So while the AFR likes to boast that it is “the authority on business, finance and investment news in Australia”, perhaps there are some topics it really is not much of an authority on at all.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based Contributing Editor of Tasmanian Times. His earlier articles on Tasmanian Times are here.

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