Our Media: Prosecutor, Judge, Jury and Executioner

Are you, like me, incensed by the performance over the last week of our mainstream media, particularly News Limited, as it pursued our Prime Minister over matters 17 years ago when she was a solicitor at Slater & Gordon?

What has become of our media? Supposedly the guardian of our democracy, the seeker and purveyor of truth, the erudite analyst of current affairs, the vehicle for learned opinion, it has degenerated into a politically-motivated ‘frothing at the mouth’ rabid attack dog, bent on savaging the elected leader of this nation. Murdoch’s News Limited will not let go. Its teeth are dug deep. It is determined to foster and advance a vitriolic hatred of our most senior politician. Facts have become irrelevant.

News Limited media is an utter disgrace and a pox on our democracy. We are witnessing a catastrophic and seemingly irreversible descent into mediocrity and maliciousness within what once was a respected mainstream media operator.

We are seeing this crucial part of our society taking to itself the role of prosecutor, judge, jury, and if it can, executioner as well. It is obscene.

The last piece on The Political Sword detailed all the material on the Slater & Gordon matter that had been published recently, along with the comments and the opinion. It suggested that the motivation was malignant, and the purpose was the destruction of our Prime Minister and her Government. I need not go into the details. You can read them here.

Julia Gillard has been assailed for years with implications of wrongdoing in the early nineties during the time she was an industrial relations lawyer at the Labor-oriented Melbourne law firm of Slater & Gordon, and about the circumstances of her resignation in 1995. I do not intend to canvass the details here as they are well and truly on the public record. She has stated repeatedly that she was not responsible for any wrongdoing at S&G and left that firm on her own volition. But that has not stopped the matter being raised over and again, most recently over the last week in The Australian.

She has repeatedly refused to dignify this scuttlebutt by addressing it in public. She refused most recently on Sky’s Agenda when questioned by Paul Kelly, but yesterday words published in The Australian precipitated her holding a press conference that followed her announcement, with Chris Bowen, of an increased asylum seeker intake. Here is how she began:

“However, this morning something changed on that. The Australian newspaper republished a false and highly defamatory claim about my conduct in relation to these matters 17 years ago. It is a claim about me setting up a trust fund.

“A claim was first published by News Limited in relation to me and funds during the election campaign in 2007. On that occasion, the claim was retracted and apologised for. The claim was made again by Glenn Milne, a then columnist with the Australian newspaper, such a dim view was taken of his conduct in relation to that matter his employment was terminated.

“Despite these events, a similar claim has been recirculated by The Australian newspaper today. People may have already seen that the claim has been retracted and apologised for and that retraction and apology appears on the Australian web site and as I understand it on all News Limited web sites.”

She had decided that ‘enough was enough’ and allowed journalists to subject her to fifty minutes of questioning until literally they had ‘exhausted’ their questions. Senior journalists such Sid Maher from The Australian, Malcolm Farr from The Daily Telegraph, Michelle Grattan and Phil Coorey from Fairfax, Chris Uhlmann from the ABC, Karen Middleton from SBS, Paul Bongiorno from Channel Ten and Mark Riley from Channel Seven were there amongst many others.

She kept going even as the time for QT approached, until there was not one more question that escaped their mouths. Only then did she go onto unrelated questions.

In my opinion she answered all their questions without obfuscation. Whenever a journalist asked for clarification, she gave it. Her answers were straightforward and convincing, even to most, if not all of the journalists present.

You can view her press conference here. It is worth a look.

So how did the media react? The ABC had Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 who explained: “This rebooting of ancient charges began as an Internet campaign and one of its torchbearers is cartoonist Larry Pickering. His base attacks on the Prime Minister are among the many reasons why much of mainstream media hasn't revisited this story. But The Australian's recent investigation did raise new information and new questions, like why Julia Gillard never opened a file on the association. She says it was routine to provide free advice.”

Later he added: “Malicious motivations aren’t confined to the Internet and Julia Gillard's hope that this marks the end of the matter might be optimistic. But the Prime Minister was challenged to answer lingering questions and she did that today and she did it well. She has, in the estimation of her former law firm and its former senior partner, done no wrong and her performance today was one of the best she's given in a long time.

“But the rise of the embittered citizen journalist raises other questions for those who would seek to serve as politicians.”
Then 7.30 played this clip:

“JULIA GILLARD: Yes, it does worry me that that's where politics has got to. That things that are demonstrably untrue, indeed, absurd, are circulated and re-circulated and re-circulated and somehow, at least in some section of the population, manage to worm their way in to become the orthodoxy.

“CHRIS UHLMANN: The Prime Minister has good reason to worry.”

He seemed to give a reasonable account of the press conference, but why end with that cryptic comment – who knows what he meant?

Then on Lateline there was Tony Jones. Beginning with a report by Tom Iggulden, Jones then interviewed Sid Maher and Phil Coorey – journalist interviewing journalists – a format that has become emblematic of so many political TV shows. They behave as if they are the ‘experts’, the ‘insiders’, privy to information denied less privileged others, whose opinions by definition must be superior to the man in the street. I suppose we ought to have expected that the ABC would want to analyse the PM’s press conference in tedious detail, but it really was a tiresome event. You can view it here if you have the inclination and the stomach.

Of course Sid Maher felt is necessary to defend The Australian, insisting that its coverage was “based on primary sources, not something that's circulated on the Internet”, in effect denying that it was Larry Pickering’s ravings that precipitated it. Pressed on whether the matter was now closed, Maher, who reminded me of the ‘smiling assassin’, said: “I think she's answered a lot of questions…one can never really know what this issue will throw up. Certainly, Julia Gillard - there's no evidence that she had any - did anything wrong. But, as I say, this matter is not closed and so one can't know what can come in the future.” I got the impression that Maher did not want the matter closed, and feel certain that even on the flimsiest pretense, The Australian will reopen it. Not immediately, but when it wants to inflict further damage on the PM, especially if she is having a good run, or if Newpoll is in the field.

Phil Coorey looked a little uncomfortable, blinking a lot. Asked his view, he said: “Look, there are people still digging on this…But I just get the impression by listening to Gillard today that she seems fairly confident there's no smoking gun there…She doesn't seem like she's hiding or worried about something else that's going to come out now.” Like most journalists, Phil seemed unwilling to commit himself confidently. Groupthink, which was the subject of my first piece in June 2008 in the days of Possum Box, is alive and well. No journo wants to be wrong, to be caught out, as they have been embarrassingly over the years.

Finally, asked if this was a defining moment for the PM, Coorey referred to a John Howard interview many years ago when Howard said: "Hit me with everything you can," exhausted the questions, when he was absolutely on his knees in early '01, 11 years ago, and this reminded me of that. And that was a turning point for Howard. Too early to tell with this. She's got a lot - the Prime Minister's got a lot bigger problems than John Howard did in 2001, I would say.” So Phil, with his awkward words, covers his back, just in case.

I found the interview distasteful. There were three journalists dissecting what the PM said, how she handled the press conference, prognosticating on how it would be received, and how it would affect her future. I asked myself how the opinions of these people, so close to the action that they might not be able to see the woods for the trees, so incestuous that independence of opinion requires unusual courage, were better qualified to opine than we are, who study politics from a distance, day after day.

On ABC 774 Radio this morning Jon Faine, an ex-solicitor who knows how legal offices work, was insistent that the pursuit of Julia Gillard was ‘completely wrong’, and akin to the way Simon Overland, previous Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria, was relentlessly pursued by The Australian and his career destroyed. The Australian has form.

How did The Australian treat the matter this morning? Hedley Thomas, extravagantly described in an editorial as a “…forensic, determined and dispassionate…award-winning journalist”, tediously describes the situation again, I suppose for those just returning to Planet Earth.

He was not going to let go something he has been trawling through for ages. In Looking for answers, start with the ‘slush fund’, after going over the well-tilled ground again, commented as he ploughed on: “In her answers yesterday, the Prime Minister deftly moved the goalposts. It was a legalistic answer, a duck-and-weave that takes a minute or two to see as such.” And: “Gillard's explanations on this will raise more questions about trust, integrity and professionalism.”

There is no joy there for Julia Gillard from Thomas; he didn’t give her an inch. He is on her case and will never let go.

Although his headline Julia Gillard declares file closed on union scandal allegations suggested closure, Sid Maher went over the ground again adding: “Ms Gillard dismissed the issue as a 17-year-old story and declared she had been the victim of a "sexist" internet campaign. She did not expect the "misogynists and the nut jobs on the internet" to stop circulating claims against her and lamented the entry of "an eccentric lunar right Tea Party-style" Americanisation of Australian politics. But she ruled out legal action as "dignifying them with a status they don't deserve". Ms Gillard said she did not believe it necessary to make a statement to parliament after a press conference lasting more than an hour.”

Nothing encouraging for the PM there.

Dennis Shanahan had this to say in Frankly, delay only undermines trust: ”Julia Gillard is right - she will never satisfy the nuts and conspiracists lurking in the blogosphere about her suitability to be Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was also right to front a press conference yesterday and answer relevant questions about her professional conduct, judgment and the manner of her departure after years as a partner at Slater & Gordon.”

“However, she was wrong in political and media terms to delay frankly answering those relevant questions about her character until there was an irresistible tide of opinion that she should do so. In the end, she acquitted herself well - as she always does when she assumes the authority of Prime Minister after deciding on a course of action.”

He ended with his archetypical judgement: “Political damage to Gillard and Labor has again been compounded by a stubborn refusal to frankly deal with difficult issues when they arise, which only serves to undermine public trust in the Prime Minister's judgment and preparedness to be frank.”

The editorial in The Australian: Prime Minister finally confronts AWU questions begins: “Julia Gillard's strong performance yesterday was a belated attempt to address questions surrounding the conclusion of her legal career at Melbourne firm Slater & Gordon in 1995.” It proceeds to describe the press conference, trying all the while to use pejorative words and paint the PM in a poor light.

The conclusion: “The broader political impact of this saga goes to trust in the Prime Minister. Following her broken carbon tax promise and other backflips, it is an area of acute political vulnerability, and the way she has avoided transparency on this issue has not helped”, leaves little doubt about The Australian’s attitude to our PM, and that it will be after her again, given half a chance. The final sentence is a very small concession: “Still, at the end of a difficult week the Prime Minister and her party look to be in their strongest position for well over a year. There can be no doubt she did the right thing facing her questioners.”

The Australian, still struggling to justify News Limited’s foray once more into this ancient matter, is going to say all the things it has in its set pieces and its editorial. It will step back a while, trawl some more, set Thomas, its ‘forensic, determined and dispassionate award-winning journalist’ on the scent with the hope he can unearth even a smidgen of ‘dirt’, mud that it can hurl at the PM at a propitious moment when it can do most harm. Make no mistake News Limited is vicious and determined. It will never give up, no matter how distant and irrelevant the S&G story becomes.

It has already been prosecutor, judge and jury, and has found our PM guilty; now it awaits the opportunity to be executioner.

Let’s look at what Fairfax said. Take a look at the video with Tim Lester at the top of this piece by Michelle Grattan Misogynists, nutjobs and falsehoods: PM hits back. He interviews Michelle Grattan, Phil Coorey and Jacqueline Maley. Do play it. It will reassure you that at least some sections of our MSM are not as condemnatory and venomous as is News Limited.

You will see a much more positive Phil Coorey, now among his colleagues who are more supportive of the PM. Groupthink again. ‘Sensible’, ‘convincing’, ‘lets move on’, are words Michelle Grattan used. Jacqueline was very positive: ‘really, really strong’, ‘really convincing’, and she has ‘fight in her’.

Peter Hartcher is his usual pessimistic self in Top effort but it's not likely to work.  He says: “Yesterday Gillard decided it was time to confront the issue. Why? Because The Australian had overstepped the mark on one detail and was forced to publish an online correction. The Prime Minister struck. She would answer all reporters' questions, but only on this one occasion. It was an effort to kill the issue.

“So why won't it work? For three reasons. First, she has now elevated it by her own treatment. She has made it a legitimate issue for prime ministerial cross-examination.

“Second, because you cannot clear the air when the skies are swarming with enemy attack forces. There is a small industry of feverish Gillard haters who inhabit the nether realm of the internet, people she called misogynists and nutjobs. And there is The Australian, dedicated to the destruction of the Labor government. But there are also her enemies in caucus, who are aiding and encouraging the campaign.
(My bolding). “And third is that a political scandal, once launched, is an unguided missile that can take unexpected turns.

“If Gillard wants clear air and blue skies, she'll need to go to the beach on a sunny day because she will not find them in Parliament.”

In Fifty minutes of rolled-gold high dudgeon, Tony Wright, in a more optimistic mood, concluded: “Gillard, magnificent in her dudgeon, assured everyone that she would answer every question they had. She had retained her silence for days, despite being defamed and hounded by an appalling and sexist campaign - including shock-horror circulated on the internet by old cartoonist and conspiracy theorist Larry Pickering - and she wasn't going to take it any more. Here she was, promising to respond to everything. And so she did, for close to 50 minutes, until the interrogation melted to an impotent silence. What a defence lawyer she might have been.”

Quite an endorsement!

Of course Tony Abbott and Christoper Pyne have been on the airwaves today insisting Julia Gillard still has ‘questions to answer’. Despite having had four QTs to ask them, it has not had the guts, or perhaps the good sense, to do so. Still, by saying she still has questions to answer they hope to gain some mileage without taking the risk of actually asking her. Opportunistic wimps!

I trust that this post mortem has given you enough information to be able to judge what is happening. News Limited, particularly via its flagship, is and will continue to pursue this old, old story, squeeze more from it if it can, as long as it believes it can inflict even one more tiny paroxysm of pain on our PM. As prosecutor of this matter for years, as judge and jury with a guilty verdict, it remains malevolently determined to be the executioner, dedicated as it is to ‘the destruction of the Labor Government’ as Peter Hartcher affirms.

It is of some comfort that the Fairfax Media is not as malevolent.

So folks, expect more of the same from News Limited. It’s executioner axe is poised, waiting for its opportunity to decapitate our PM and her Government. No matter what its troops write, that is its intention. No one gave them that right – they just took it.

Is it right that News Limited, or for that matter any part of the MSM, should be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner?

What do you think?