The News Limited vendetta against PM Gillard intensifies

After a good week for PM Gillard and her Government in which she achieved agreement with the Coalition to go along with the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, News Limited has ratcheted up its attack on her. Why? Is it because it feels that the asylum issue has been neutralized somewhat and will not be as potent a weapon with which to beat her and the Government? Any loss of weaponry must be a worry to News Limited as much as to the Coalition.

Of course she lost some skin by adopting the Expert Panel’s recommendations because they included processing on Nauru and Manus Island, places previously ruled out because of expert advice that they would not be effective deterrents to getting on unsafe fishing boats. The Coalition used over forty speakers to ensure that she suffered maximum embarrassment about her change of tack, variously described as a humiliating back-down, a back flip, a monumental reverse of stubbornness in the face of Coalition advice, or whatever pejorative phrase you prefer. But whatever the aspersions, she got the legislation through and gifted her Government the possibility that the asylum problem would become less troublesome.

During the same week, the High Court upheld the constitutionality of the plain packaging of cigarettes legislation to worldwide applause, and the economic parameters showed no sign of an adverse affect from the implementation of the carbon tax. Then Tony Windsor got up in response to yet another ‘Suspension of Standing Orders’ attempt by the Coalition, to blast Tony Abbott and call him a disgrace for his carbon tax rhetoric.

As the piece Journalists awake! You know Tony Abbott is conning you documented, for the first time several journalists began questioning Tony Abbott’s statements, or should I say his scaremongering and downright lies. It was an obvious shift, and was interpreted, at least by Labor supporters, as a ‘turning of the tide’. If one can judge from the weekend papers, they were not the only ones to have this feeling.

Let’s just walk through The Weekend Australian to see how this Murdoch flagship responded to the PM’s ‘good week’.

Its top headline read: Revealed: Gillard lost her job after law firm’s secret investigation. Digest that. First, ‘Revealed’, suggests a starling new revelation, and of course one that casts doubt surrounding Julia Gillard. Then consider; ‘lost her job’, which suggests that she was sacked, whereas it is on the public record that she resigned of her own volition. Then reflect on ‘secret investigation’, which suggests something sinister was under scrutiny. In one headline there are three sets of words that imply guilt; she is condemned even before a word of the article is read.

If the reader needed any more detail to fuel doubt about ‘Gillard’, the first paragraph reads:“Julia Gillard left her job as a partner with law firm Slater & Gordon as a direct result of a secret internal probe in 1995 into controversial work she had done for her then boyfriend, a union boss accused of corruption, The Weekend Australian can reveal.” Now it’s ‘left her job’, a ‘secret internal probe’ into ‘controversial work’, done ‘for her then boyfriend’, a ‘union boss’, ‘accused of corruption’, ‘revealed’ by The Weekend Australian. Note how this cascade of uncomplimentary and negative words gains momentum as the sentence progresses. It’s clever but very nasty journalism – the headline and the first paragraph condemn her. Many people would not read further for the details – they would have found her guilty already.

Not satisfied with that, as only an estimated 120,000 read The Weekend Australian, Sky News decided to raise this matter on its Agenda program, with Paul Kelly putting the questions. Take a look at the video of that segment of the interview. Play it through. Watch Kelly’s eyes and body language as he puts Julia Gillard under intense and persistent questioning. Note particularly how annoyed he gets when she suggests that he was asked to put those questions, angrily rejecting the notion that anyone could or would tell him what questions to ask. So it’s OK for a journalist to question the professional integrity of the Prime Minister of this nation based on a tired old story 17 years old, but it’s not OK for the PM to question the professional integrity of a senior journalist. Work that out. Now if you believe what Andrew Bolt says about this, the PM’s staff was told this matter would be raised, but the words used led to a ‘misunderstanding’ that Kelly had been asked to ask those questions. The last bit of the clip is another delightful illustration of how wet-behind-the-ears is Peter van Onselen, the MC of Agenda.

In the same edition of The Weekend Australian Hedley Thomas generously gives all the tedious details for voyeurs in The political controversy that won't go away. I won’t bore you with them here.

Subsequently a statement by Slater & Gordon partner Andrew Grech confirmed Julia Gillard’s contention that she had done nothing wrong and had left of her own volition, but that didn’t stop turncoat Graeme Richardson, now a News Limited man, from indignantly jumping to the defence of Paul Kelly on Monday’s Q&A and rabbiting on about a file he said she should have opened, nastily smearing her in the process.

Stung by the reaction of the PM and the Fifth Estate to the assault of The Australian and Paul Kelly on her, the paper has come out this morning with a large front page cluster of smears, and a ‘leaked’ draft confidential statement by previous partner Peter Gordon, strategically placed next to the Newspoll results, that says, amongst other things: ‘‘My examination of the material available to me at that time led me to the view that there was no sufficient basis to dismiss Ms Gillard for misconduct’’, which a reasonable person might believe would put the matter to rest, but we know it won’t. The vendetta will continue. Read the article by Crikey’s Bernard Keane: This is what the Right is expert at: smearing if you have any doubts.

See how what started as online scuttlebutt on social media emanating from disreputable cartoonist Larry Pickering has been picked up by News Limited, who ran it as a headline story, ostensibly on the grounds that it had new information that it could now ‘reveal’, and then escalated on Sky News Agenda so that it exploded well and truly into the public domain. Andrew Bolt picked it up and made mileage out of it, and other News Limited outlets repeated the original story, embellished with the Agenda interview. Even Fairfax gets into it through the Australian Financial Review with an unpleasant article from Jennifer Hewett: Old ghost is Gillard’s recurring nightmare. If you’re wondering how Fairfax got involved, remember that the editor of AFR is now Michael Stutchbury, an old Gillard foe who worked for News Limited. Michelle Grattan has written the only relatively positive piece: Internal inquiry cleared PM, law firm reveals Then this morning it is again splashed all over the front page of The Australian.

In case you think all this piece is about is the Slater & Gordon episode, it is not. I start with it only because it is News Limited’s current ‘winning’ card, which it turns over at the top of the pack. It illustrates the venom with which it is prepared to attack and denigrate our PM. But there is much more to the attack on PM Gillard over the weekend.

The next headline in The Weekend Australian is New offshore processing regime bars appeal on asylum, with a byline: Surge in boats to test ALP resolve, a double header!

The first paragraph reads: “Julia Gillard's new offshore processing regime has effectively locked asylum-seekers out of Australian court appeals, legal experts declared yesterday, as four boats arrived in 24 hours in a rush to beat the new laws. Human rights lawyers said the new offshore processing regime had stripped back the capacity for judicial review of government decisions and eliminated many of the grounds for legal challenges by boatpeople.” So already the paper that has repeatedly castigated the Government for its ‘failure’ in border protection, is now throwing up concern about the ‘stripping out’ of legal rights in the new legislation. Don’t imagine that the authors are beating their breasts in anguish at this ‘stripping’ of the rights of boat people; their purpose is to beat the Government around the ears for its callousness to these desperate people.

It goes on. Paul Kelly chimes in with For a determined Opposition Leader, all roads lead to turning back asylum-seeker boats. He begins: 
”Despite the gloss of bipartisanship over Nauru, the split between the Gillard government and Abbott opposition over border protection and asylum-seekers is now more obvious in its depth, range and fateful consequences. If you think this week solved the political divisions over border protection then you are misguided. This issue will only deepen as a public policy cancer because there is little prospect the boats will be stopped.” Don’t you love Kelly’s sense of drama – the ‘split’ with the Coalition ‘is now more obvious in its depth, range and fateful consequences’ and is a ‘public policy cancer’. The guru thereby denies any relief from the pain of boat arrivals. The pain must continue – News Limited needs as much Gillard pain as possible.

Later Kelly warns: ”In office, Abbott will face immediate pressure to halt the boats – pressure and expectations that he has created. He cannot wait years to negotiate and implement the protracted diplomacy Houston envisages. What is Abbott's alternative? It remains the policy he outlined to me in an interview published on January 21. Abbott said: "It is time for Australia to adopt turning the boats as its core policy. What counts is what the Australian government does, not what it says." Despite almost universal commentary that it is impossible, Abbott intends to turn the boats. This is his real solution.” Kelly concludes: “And most of the Coalition, dancing on the grave of Labor's retreat, seemed oblivious to the consequences of its own policies and the vast challenge it faces immediately on taking office.”

It’s not all negative, but it starts that way and that’s what counts.

Chris Kenny, who can always be relied upon for an anti-Gillard article doesn’t disappoint with: Jibes about dog-whistle politics on asylum come back to bite Labor. He begins: “Border protection, more than any other issue, demonstrates how Labor has alienated itself from the political mainstream. Right until its offshore processing conversion, moral grandstanding by the Rudd and Gillard governments offended voters. Labor's contortions over asylum-seeker policy have rivalled London's rhythmic gymnasts in all but elegance. But beyond the significant humanitarian, immigration and security implications of last week's backflip, the electoral fallout is consequential.” Note the sarcastic pejorative language.

Kenny has another article – one was clearly not enough for him to express his venom. Titled The onus is on moral posturers to say why they persist with their disingenuous myths, he begins: “The report of the expert panel on asylum-seekers has exposed some long-denied realities, not only demolishing arguments used against tough border control measures but dispelling myths that have been patronising to mainstream Australians. This week's policy reversal might slow the boats - given time and a resolve not seen to this point - but because of the about-face on what has been framed as a moral stand, it is impossible to envisage Labor escaping a political reckoning. Ineptitude, leading to needless trauma, tragedy and expense, will play a role in public assessments, but so will the way the progressive political class has insulted voters over this for more than a decade.” You don’t read any further to get his rancorous drift.

Cameron Stewart has a go in: Finger in the dyke can hold only so long He begins: “The initial euphoria in some quarters about a breakthrough in asylum-seeker policy is being tempered by the realisation that the grand plan unveiled this week by the Houston panel faces a series of potentially fatal obstacles.” And ends: “The government can only hope that those parts that can be introduced immediately can slow the momentum of the boats for long enough to allow the bigger picture of the Houston plan to ripen. It's a gamble of the highest order and the odds are not good. But this government, having comprehensively misread the asylum-seeker issue for the past five years, has little choice now but to roll the dice.” Not much joy for the Government there. Just doubts and uncertainty!

Predictably Christopher Pearson revels in See, Abbott was right all along I won’t bore you much with his hubris; only with his conclusion: “As the Houston report makes clear, Labor was blind to the power of pull factors. It substituted moral self-righteousness for sound policy. The Australian people will not forgive Labor for elevating its moral vanity before the national interest. The reckoning will be protracted." You don’t need to read the rest to get his self-satisfied message.

Peter van Onselen, who is strongly supportive of asylum seekers, couldn’t resist the opportunity to heap scorn, admittedly on both Labor and the Coalition. In Let’s dispel a few myths about asylum seekers he begins:“Attempts by both major parties to rationalise support for offshore processing of asylum-seekers on the grounds that they are saving people from drowning really is a hollow argument.” And ends: “If it doesn't like the laws of the land that afford asylum-seekers appeal rights equal to those of Australians, change the laws. If it doesn't like the international responsibilities being a signatory to the UN conventions on refugees requires, rip up the agreement. Then our political leaders could do what they like without being in violation of the very laws they are elected to uphold. I might not agree with their approach - and would continue to argue against it - but I could at least respect it.” A pox on both their houses says PvO.

Greg Sheridan was particularly critical in Collapse of resolve is to blame. He begins: “The Gillard government lacks the strategic credibility and, on the evidence, the strength of will to deal with a people-smuggling industry that is a worldwide phenomenon of growing sophistication and criminality.” Here are some other excerpts: “…Australia’s liberal institutions have become craven before naked aggression. This aggression often involves the threat to self-harm, but no other group has a blanket licence to ignore the law. Similarly, the Opposition Leader’s proposed push back of boats is lawful and sensible policy.” He continues in this hard-line vein: ”Labor is wrong and weak; Abbott is right and tough.” There’s not a drop of joy for Labor in his piece; only sneering criticism, and Abbott gets a leg up for good measure.

Henry Ergas jumps in with Gillard's morality of convenience He begins: “Julia Gillard is a woman of principle: the survival principle. And if the backflip on asylum-seekers is about saving lives, the life it is intended to save is her own. Little wonder she dressed soberly for the occasion. English judges donned the black cap when passing a sentence of death; this was conservative Julia, in twinset and pearls, dispatching another promise to the high jump.” That’s enough from Ergas – you can guess the rest.

There was an editorial that at least acknowledged that Julia Gillard had had a good week: Good week in parliament tinged with Green hysteria. It was mainly a tilt at the Greens. It began: “After four years in which 23,000 boatpeople arrived on our shores, and at least 1000 perished at sea, the past week was constructive for Australia's parliamentary democracy.”, but the editor could not resist a tilt at Labor and a touch of hubris en passant: “This newspaper has advocated bipartisanship since the High Court scuttled the half-baked Malaysian Solution a year ago. And, as early as July 2008, when Labor abandoned John Howard's policies, we urged the government to guard against an influx of newcomers taking advantage of the changes.”

In case the Greens missed the message, the editorial concluded: “Like the Greens' holier-than-thou rhetoric, the provision of public money to organisations agitating for a more open-door policy is out of step with the values of mainstream Australians.”

Moving away from the asylum seeker debate, there was an article by Christian Kerr: Appeal to WTO may yet deliver Big Tobacco victory. No doubt The Weekend Australian felt it would be a pity if the Government’s big win in the High Court was not sullied by the possibility of ultimate defeat by the WTO. Kerr begins: “We have taken on big tobacco and we have won," a jubilant Attorney-General Nicola Roxon declared on Wednesday when she spoke to the media after the High Court ruled plain packaging of cigarettes did not violate the Constitution. Her glee was understandable - Roxon introduced the laws for plain packaging as health minister - but in the excitement of the moment her rhetoric became hyperbole. The government has won a significant battle against the tobacco companies but it has not yet won the plain packaging war. Two more clashes must be fought and won before it can claim victory, and these battles will be waged on very different terrain.” He ends on a gloomy note: “Plain packaging may yet be doomed”. Of course it could be argued that the article is simply stating the facts and the obvious implications. Perhaps, but its tone suggests that Kerr would take pleasure in that outcome.

There was also a Tom Dusevic puff piece: How would Abbott Govern? and a nicely written piece by the reliable George Megalogenis How the language of shock-jocks came to drive political debate.

Herewith concludes the excerpts from The Weekend Australian.

But there’s more from News Limited. Just take a look at Lyn’s Front Pages for the first day of this week.

The Daily Telegraph screams Carbon Pain Registers: “Half of small businesses are already feeling the effects of the carbon tax – but only a third are passing price rises on to customers. An exclusive Daily Telegraph survey has found some small companies struggling with rising power and supply costs... “ and in The Advertiser a mega headline: Our Carbon Pain “Struggling small businesses are absorbing the higher costs caused by the carbon tax, resulting in reduced profits, and are calling for the tax to be scrapped. In the latest challenge for the Gillard Government, a national survey of 186 small...”

And on cue many of the Opposition questions in QT on Monday were about the awful effects of the carbon tax.

So what is this piece asserting? It is pointing to the concerted attack on PM Gillard, her Government and its policies in News Limited media following a successful week for Labor. It is improbable, even implausible, that this attack on so many fronts is a coincidence. My thesis is that fear that PM Gillard and Labor might be on the up, that the tide might be turning for them, and running against Tony Abbott, has prompted a savage counter attack from a news organization that is devoted to the removal of the PM and of the Labor Government and its replacement with the Coalition. Sensing that the chance of this happening was beginning to recede, and even the bookies were changing their odds, they pulled out all the big guns to give the PM and Labor a massive broadside, hoping it would sink them, or at least hole them amidships.

Murdoch’s News Limited media empire is formidable. We must never underestimate its power, its malevolence towards the Government, and its determination to destroy it. When the signs are improving for Labor, the News Limited vendetta will intensify. It will be out there firing broadside after broadside in a ‘take no prisoners’, ‘rescue no survivors’, ‘fight to the death’ battle.

What do you think?