After the closure of Tasmanian Country a secretive group plots a replacement

Potential supporters flag privacy concerns about request for personal information
Published
 July 6, 2020
Published:  July 6, 2020
The last edition of Tasmanian Country was published on June 26. Image: Mark Horstman.

Privacy concerns have been raised about a secretive group promoting a new rural newspaper to replace the shuttered Tasmanian Country after it asked potential supporters to provide personal details but refused to disclose who is gathering the information.

The final edition of Tasmanian Country produced by News Corporation on June 26 featured an A4-sized insert with the teaser “Want to keep reading? Do you support a weekly rural newspaper for our state?”

It asked readers to visit a website and give their contact details to “help us to bring a dedicated rural newspaper directly to your doorstep”, and exhorted readers to “Tell your friends. Tell your neighbours. Tell Tasmania!”.

Tasmanian Country reader Andrew Muirhead was among those to express alarm over the secrecy of the group and the collection of personal information.

“I suggest be careful giving your personal details to this 'Taspaper' group. They are anonymous — you don't know who they are, what country they are from, why they need your email and phone number, or what they will use them for,” he cautioned potential supporters in a comment posted on the group’s Facebook page.

The anonymous administrator of the Facebook page responded “we are 100% Tasmanian owned, and will only use these details for the publication of a weekly rural newspaper”.

They defended the “unfortunately necessary anonymity” and said they would “give everyone more detail about the project (and who we are) as soon as we can!”.

Another reader, Robert Trethewey, also expressed caution: “While we all applaud your idea, I would love to know who is behind this and what your version of the Tas County would look like, or are we just pumping our names and addresses into a database?”

Dr Claire Konkes, the head of media at the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Arts and Media, said there was an appetite for regional journalism, but the secrecy surrounding the sponsors of the project was concerning. “It doesn’t point in the right direction for a community spirited publication,” she said.

“Not disclosing who is behind the proposal shows a poor regard for potential readers. To be asking potential readers to disclose their personal information but not be willing to show your own face sets the wrong tone for a new publication.”

Peter Skillern, the chief executive of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, said he was not aware who was behind the group.

Deep cover

The flyer prominently displayed the web address www.taspaper.info,  but included no identification of who was behind the site.

A TasPaper Facebook page, established shortly after the flyer was distributed, also does not disclose who is behind the project.

Those behind the pitch for a new Tasmanian rural newspaper have gone out of their way to obscure any digital fingerprints. 

News Corporation, which published Tasmanian Country, declined to disclose who paid for the advertisement.

“We can't disclose who an advertiser is, or who paid for an ad,” Mathew Charles, a News Corp Australia spokesperson, told Tasmanian Inquirer.

The advertised web address redirects visitors to a Google form that lists as required fields name, address, phone number, email, suburb and postcode. Those behind the pitch have gone out of their way to obscure any digital fingerprints.

A search of the domain registration record reveals only that the website address was registered on June 18, 2020, just over a week before the last edition of Tasmanian Country was published. The domain has been registered in such a way to conceal all contact details.

The Tasmanian public relations and lobbying firm, Font PR, has previously expressed interest in buying Tasmanian Country, but was rebuffed. News Corporation still retains the business name.

Tasmanian Inquirer emailed and left a phone message for Becher Townshend, the managing director of Font PR, to ask whether the company or any of its associated entities were behind the ad and website and, if so, why there was no identification on them. No response was received.

Font PR publishes the Derwent Valley Gazette, Tasman Gazette, Sorell Times and the East Coast View. It also produces the Tasmanian Business Reporter on behalf of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Beyond its newspaper interests, Font PR boasts a roster of 31 lobbying clients and does public relations work for a range of government agencies, private companies and lobby groups. It is also an adviser to both the Gutwein government and the Liberal Party of Australia’s Tasmanian division.

Konkes said it would be great to see a new regional and rural Tasmanian paper. “But if you are a publisher, you need to establish a level of trust with your audience. Concealing who you are is not a good way to start.”

Konkes said if a PR firm or industry group was behind the proposal the test of their journalism would be how they covered elections and controversial issues that a rural newspaper would be expected to report on, “such as foreign ownership, aquaculture or forestry”.

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Postscript: About 16 hours after this story was published the promoters of the anonymous Taspaper website and Facebook page announced that they were launching The Island Country as a weekly rural newspaper. The website for the new publication lists former staff of the now closed Tasmanian Country - Karolin MacGregor, Leena Lavonius and James Young - as the three founders.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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