The weekend papers have furnished us with yet another episode in the Joel Fitzgibbon affair. On March 26 the Sydney Morning Herald splashed the headline Defence leaks dirt file on own minister’ The Age and The Canberra Times did similarly. The story, by Philip Dorling, Nick McKenzie, and Richard Baker, alleged that an officer from the Defence Signals Directorate had accessed Fitzgibbon’s IT system, a move that was said to have arisen from concerns about ‘possible security implications’ of Fitzgibbon’s friendship with a ‘Chinese-born businesswoman’ Helen Liu, a long-time friend of the Fitzgibbon family. The concerns were said to have been passed on to top Defence officials but had been ignored. The saga was commented upon on The Political Sword first in The China intrigue on March 28 and followed up with What has become of the Fitzgibbon affair? on April 27. [more]
On May 29 Defence Secretary Nick Warner reported that a Defence Department investigation that had involved more than 1700 people across the department, and had included 1300 statutory declarations and more than 600 interviews had shown that claims his officials spied on Fitzgibbon were "pure fiction" and that “...an exhaustive review of the claims, which were run in Fairfax newspapers, found no evidence to suggest anyone in Defence held any concerns about the minister's friendship with Chinese-Australian businesswoman Helen Liu.” Moreover Warner said “...Defence, intelligence and security databases revealed no reference to Ms Helen Liu.” He went on to say “It's extraordinary, actually, that spurious and unsubstantiated allegations of this sort could, for two months, be reported as fact." As indeed he’s entitled to do.
The Warner report was run in the SMH by Jonathan Pearlman in Defence staff cleared of spying on boss and in The Age by Brendan Nicholson in Fitzgibbon allegations 'without foundation'. The original authors were not used. Both stories seemed to be accurate and included reference to the fact that Fitzgibbon had been forced to reveal two undeclared trips to China sponsored by Liu, as if that revelation justified the papers’ actions. There was no apology. The story was also run in The Weekend Australian by Paul Maley Defence 'did not spy on Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon' together with the original SMH banner headline – News Limited papers never pass up an opportunity to sideswipe Fairfax outlets.
So this investigation by the Defence Department, on top of the original one and the statement from the Foreign Minister about Helen Liu not being a security risk, has still not turned up anything that supports the original allegations.
Can you imagine how much time has been expended on a process involving 1700 people, on 600 interviews, on the writing of 1300 statutory declarations, the time taken to prepare the report, the disruption this caused the Defence Department; and the anxiety it inflicted on its staff, leaving aside the embarrassment and stress suffered by Helen Liu, and the problem it created for Fitzgibbon himself, exposed as he was to Opposition attacks that questioned his competence and demanded his resignation? All because some journalists wrote a story that Fairfax papers ran, that so far has turned out to be false. And so far no apology has been forthcoming, or any redress. How can this be?
Is this simply incompetent journalism in that those involved did not check sufficiently the veracity of the supposed departmental ‘leak’? Or is it a flagging newspaper empire trying desperately to get a ‘scoop’, no matter how dodgy, to boost sales? Whatever it is, the journalists should get an editorial rap over the knuckles and the paper ought to apologize for all the unnecessary grief it has caused. But don’t hold your breath – Fairfax is probably hoping that the final inquiry by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security will turn up something the others have missed. We’ll see.
But in the meantime, in a piece in the SMH yesterday, Fitzgibbon faces new claims over China trip two of our original intrepid reporters, Richard Baker and Philip Dorling, are at it again. They tell a story, derived from those ubiquitous ‘sources’, about a 1993 trip to China by Fitzgibbon in which the ‘sources’ allege Chinese intelligence services asked Helen Liu to cultivate a relationship with Joel Fitzgibbon and his father, Eric Fitzgibbon, and that Chinese agents had electronically monitored the pair during their visit. In 1993, 16 years ago, Joel Fitzgibbon was not even in parliament. Click the link if you’ve got the stomach to read this tortured beat-up from these journalists whose egos seem to be seriously getting in the way of commonsense. Hell has no fury like a journalist (or perhaps a newspaper) proved to be making baseless claims – or as Warner puts it, perpetuating ‘pure fiction’. Being wrong simply evokes more venom.
The irony of Bolt
Did you see Andrew Bolt on Insiders this morning accusing Laurie Oakes of being partisan after Oakes’ encounter with Malcolm Turnbull over his appearance on the BRW Rich List? Oakes was indignant at the unwanted intrusion of Bill Heffernan, whose penchant for hijacking press interviews with others is legendary, because he challenged Oakes’ approach in confronting Turnbull with his wealth.
What was delectably ironic though was that Bolt felt entitled to chastise Oakes for bias, when Bolt runs neck and neck with Piers Akerman as Australia’s most partisan, biased journalist in print today. Poor old Laurie would be left gasping as Bolt streaked miles ahead in the ‘one-sided journalist stakes’.
But the paradoxical side of this piece of trivia is that Bolt thinks he’s not biased!
Turnbull can’t say 'billions' either
Asked today on Insiders by Barrie Cassidy what the debt would be under the Coalition given that the downturn has reduced revenue by over $200 billion, Turnbull was unable or unwilling to utter any number that had billions after it. He’s been consistent in refusing to say what the Coalition deficit would be, but today insisted it would be ‘less’, and after being confronted by Cassidy with Joe Hockey’s statement that it would be $25 billion less, he denied Hockey had said this, insisting instead that he said ‘to start with it would be $25 billion less’, and that the Coalition deficit would be ‘much less’. How much less is left to our imagination.
The media might as well give up asking the question as Turnbull will never answer it except in banal generalities. It serves his political purpose to be vague about his deficit while insisting that the Government be quite specific, even with projections a decade hence. He needs the Government deficit and debt story to boost his sorry approval ratings.
But don’t expect the media to pillory him about being unable to utter the deficit figure as they did the Government over its aversion to saying the words: recession, debt, deficit and billion. Instead there will be a defence of Turnbull, arguing that he should not be expected to state specifically how the GFC would be managed by a Coalition government because he’s in opposition, and that he doesn’t have the resources to do so anyway.
So it’s OK for the media to hammer the Government, which of course it is, and to allow unfettered criticism of its actions, but equally OK to spare the alternative government any reasonable scrutiny of its approach and any precision in its projections. Turnbull is hoping the deficit and debt line will give him traction, but may find that the ‘we won’t tell you what we would do except we’d be much better’ approach won’t cut much ice and will leave him spinning his melodramatic wheels. It sounds too much like “Interest rates will always be lower under a Coalition government.”