If a politician or bureaucrat wants to gain some publicity for a rumour, some gossip, or a little dirt on an opponent, or wants to make a damaging leak or insert an uncomfortable wedge, to whom would he or she go? High on the list would be Glenn Milne, the mischievous maestro of scuttlebutt and ‘inside information’. Presumably that is why Paul Keating was known to refer to him as ‘The Poison Dwarf’, a nickname that has stuck. Milne is a Canberra journalist and political commentator with News Ltd, political editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and a columnist for The Australian. He appears regularly on the ABC’s Insiders. Formerly he was chief political correspondent for the Seven Network and political editor of The Australian. He is vice president of the National Press Club, and is currently a candidate for the presidency.
Look at recent Milne articles. They’re an unusual mixture.
Rudd rides high but wears out weary staffers – another piece on Milne’s well-worn theme that Kevin Rudd is overworking his staff. This article and its scuttlebutt are explored below.
Anger at Rudd's leaked Bush call – Milne’s account of the “ongoing consequences for relationships between the two countries”.
Pragmatic Abbott heeds lessons of Coalition's fourth term – some timely advice to Tony Abbott and the Coalition on how to regain government.
Hairy-chested PM bids up Turnbull – an article that depicts Kevin Rudd and Turnbull as participants in some crazy poker game, trying to outbid each other, but Rudd of course is more ‘hairy-chested’.
New class warfare – a piece that focuses on class warfare in education, wanders around other topics, but concludes with ‘the Opposition can win’ theme.
Malcolm Turnbull's chance - sage advice to Turnbull arising from the Henson affair and some timely political philosophy for the Coalition.
Market injection well planned – an article that lauds Wayne Swans’ $4 billion injection “of confidence boosting taxpayers' money into the non-bank mortgage lending sector”.
Writing material such as Milne’s effort of 3 November in The Australian – Rudd rides high but wears out weary staffers demands some skill and well-tried techniques, which are elaborated upon below
First say something positive, something that even adversaries can scarcely deny, then follow with the all-powerful qualifier – but. Milne’s piece begins: “On the basis of all recent published polls, voters are very happy with the Government, rating Kevin Rudd as the most popular prime minister. But there is another set of numbers that suggests there is deep unhappiness, if not dysfunction, within the Government.”
When stating the qualification, use words like suggest. Such words don’t pin the writer down irretrievably as would words like show or demonstrate or prove. So Milne says “But there is another set of numbers that suggests there is deep unhappiness...”
Then add a more sinister rider, usefully preceded by if not. So Milne adds “..., if not dysfunction, within the Government.”
Now you’ve set up an enticing morsel of intrigue. [more]
Then provide the supporting evidence. There has to be some, but it need not be substantial or even correct; it needs only to be superficially plausible. So referring to “...another set of numbers...” Milne writes “These figures relate to staff in ministerial offices, the people who actually make the Government work. You can track the movements of these staff by comparing the regularly published internal staff directories, which are confidential.”
Note the last word confidential. That Milne has somehow gained access to a confidential internal document makes the story juicy, points to a leak from restive staff, and shows how influential Milne is in attracting such a leak.
Next, before documenting the evidence, make a general statement with a pejorative ring to it to heighten the reader’s anticipation and presage the sinister message to follow. So Milne continues “A comparison of the January document with the latest in August tells a story in numbers and names that reveals much about the character of the Government and its lack of policy cohesiveness.” Note the words character and lack of policy cohesiveness. In this context character is not being used in a complimentary way, and by throwing in lack of policy cohesiveness he has pointed to one of his conclusions, although he makes no attempt to show the relationship between staff movement and ‘policy cohesiveness’. He assumes this will be swallowed as a self-evident truth, which of course it is not. But why worry about veracity.
When revealing the evidence, it need not be absorbing, just convincing enough. So Milne begins a tedious recital of staff increases and changes, which are too boring to repeat. They are all in the article if you have the stomach. He then says “But despite the rise in numbers, it's the change in faces that's interesting. In the seven months from January to August, the Government lost 63 personal staff and 27 DLOs (departmental liaison officers). Since January, the administration has cast off five chiefs of staff, all from critically important portfolios.”
Note the words cast off. Not ‘changed’ or ‘replaced’, or that the individuals had decided on a change of job, as many people do. So the pejorative tone heightens. He lists the staff changes but knowing his argument might be challenged he makes a qualification using the well-worn words to be fair – of course Milne would want to be seen as being ‘fair’. “To be fair, Fredericks is now deputy chief of staff to the PM, and Grigson, a career Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer, never wanted the job of chief of staff to Stephen Smith.” Having been ‘fair’ he then drives home his point “Nevertheless, this does not detract from the bigger picture: five cabinet ministers have been disrupted by the departure of a chief of staff.” Note the word disrupted. No possibility that the ministers might have welcomed the changes or adapted easily to them is countenanced. He then gives a long list of the changes, concluding “The point here is that the Government is obviously no bunch of happy campers. To the contrary. The relentless pace at which Rudd is driving his team is also clearly driving key people away. And in the medium to long term, this is not a good thing for the Government or the country.” The conclusions are all Milne’s; none follow logically from the evidence.
The next step in the process is to quote inner sources to give the story a degree of authenticity, and reinforce the writer’s access to important contacts. ‘Key Labor figures’ or ‘senior figures’ will do. So Milne says “Key Labor figures are alarmed. One told me he had spoken to one of Rudd's staffers after they had departed and asked why. He told the person to whom I spoke that at one stage he had not seen - that's right, physically not seen - his children for a month. He described the routine: in the office at 5am, out at midnight, day in, day out.” A dose of personal anecdote always goes down well.
Then toss in another conclusion. Milne concludes “Apart from the loss of valuable corporate memory, the thing about this killer pace is that it does not lead to good decision-making. Witness the bank deposits guarantee, which has run off the rails for want of thinking through the implications for other financial institutions.” So corporate memory and decision-making are impaired, as evidenced, spuriously, by the deposits guarantee “running off the rails”. Apparently no proof of this assertion is needed.
Having made a hit with one conclusion, quickly land another punch. Milne continues “It also leads to another inevitable conclusion: that the Government is being run at the level of officials by a bunch of 20-somethings who don't have families and can sustain the energy needed to keep up with Rudd. But, with all due respect, what good are childless 20-somethings when it comes to real-world political judgments about what are for them the otherworldly lives of ordinary Australians? Not to mention the work-family balance Rudd promised to deliver when he was campaigning against John Howard.” Since the conclusion is ‘inevitable’, no further proof is required. 'Childless 20-somethings' obviously need not apply to Mr Milne for a job, nor should they show their inexperienced faces at an interview for a key Government position. Presumably they’ll qualify once they’re over 30 and have some kids.
Just in case readers had missed the point, Milne adds “The senior Labor figure told me that dealing with the PM's office meant trying to reason with a bunch of cranky, sleep-deprived individuals.” and concludes “Hardly the context for reasoned decision-making.” Note his use of the word bunch in case the reader thought he was referring to isolated cases. No, there’s a ‘bunch’ of them.
To finish such a piece a flourish is needed, but before the coda, a little sotto voce. So drawing towards the final curtain, Milne says “I interviewed Rudd a few weeks back. It was a generally gregarious affair. But I could not help but take note of the number of times he referred details of questions I'd put to him to his staff for further checking with ministers. It's not that I didn't appreciate the attention to detail and accuracy. But as I walked out of the PM's office at 8pm that day, it struck me how many staffers and ministers would be chasing up Rudd's requirements in order to get back to me when I would have been satisfied with broadly political answers.” So even Rudd’s desire to give Milne accurate and complete information is turned back on him to reinforce Milne’s ‘weary staffers’ theme. Rudd should have known that Milne would want only “broadly political answers”.
Then the final flourish. It doesn’t have to be a summary or even an inescapable conclusion from the presented facts. But if does have to deliver, if not a knock-out blow, a king hit that sends the object of the story reeling. So Milne finishes “In Canberra, bureaucrats are amazed at the disconnect between Rudd's poll figures and what they see as a largely dysfunctional Government. The breakdown of staff turnover suggests it's the bureaucrats who have got it right.” So for the first time he quotes ‘bureaucrats’ who presumably are not the Labor figures to whom he referred earlier. Out of the blue it’s bureaucrats who say the Government is dysfunctional, no doubt the very same ones who are the worn-out weary staffers. Of course that’s good enough for Milne. That reinforces his earlier but unsupported assertion that the Government is dysfunctional, a theme he’s pushed in other pieces he’s authored. Like a dog with a tasty bone, he just won’t let it go. Even if the Government were to be re-elected in 2010 with an increased majority, don’t be surprised to read his opinion piece: Even dysfunctional governments can be re-elected.
So there it is. If you want to write Milnesque articles there are just a few rules:
First attract some scuttlebutt or ‘inside information’.
Next, be prepared to exploit it.
Then follow the simple rules outlined above.
You’ll annoy clear thinking people who like evidence-based conclusions, who eschew this type of story, but you’ll please those who enjoy reading something adverse to Rudd or his Government, or who just love a little tittle-tattle.