This is an enthralling book. It carries the telling subtitle: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister. For political tragics, it is a ‘must read’. For others who wonder what on earth goes on in the hallowed halls of Parliament House and the Canberra Press Gallery, it is a revealing exposé. It is literally a ‘page-turner’, one of the most illuminating books on Canberra politics that I have read.
Its author, Kerry-Anne Walsh, is a highly respected political journalist who spent twenty-five years in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, leaving it in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with political spin. She has been a columnist for several local and overseas papers, a producer of TV programs, and a panelist on the ABC’s Insiders and on Sky Agenda.
Ms Walsh kept a diary of the extraordinary time in federal politics from June 2011 to April 2013 during which the Gillard Government was in power. At the end there is a postscript in which 18 June is the date last mentioned, just two days before the two year campaign of sabotage of Julia Gillard and her government by what Walsh describes as ‘Team Rudd’ brought about her replacement by the one she had replaced three years and three days earlier.
Those who have followed federal politics closely will be familiar with every step of the stalking process. What Walsh does is to fill in for the reader the behind-the-scenes machinations in the hothouse that is Canberra politics. She exposes the complicity of the Press Gallery in every move made by Team Rudd. She names those who see themselves as influential ‘players’ in the process: insiders, confidants, king makers and destroyers, and documents their involvement. We know all those she names; the extent of their involvement though is a revelation.
It will not surprise you that Peter Hartcher emerges as perhaps the most determined Rudd supporter, one who despite his senior position as Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor, time and again seemingly discarded the tenets of balanced journalism to become a strident advocate for Rudd and ‘Team Rudd’, a would-be kingmaker who fashioned stories to be powerfully pro-Rudd, and who served as a conduit for every scrap of Team Rudd propaganda he was fed. It is my view that in doing so he damaged the principles of objective journalism, Fairfax media, and most of all himself. Walsh had this to say about Hartcher: “What now of journalists such as the Sydney Morning’ Herald’s Peter Hartcher, who promoted Rudd’s cause month after month? I emailed him questions about the ethics of his reportage and his commentary on the leadership issues, given his robust advocacy for Rudd. He responded that he ‘utterly’ rejected my premise that he had advocated for Rudd, ‘and, therefore, the questions predicated on it’.
There were some political journalists though that Walsh did not name: “…two of Aunty’s most respected political journalists were said to be privy to the inside running on Rudd’s battle plan for his February 2 challenge weeks before the leadership ballot, yet they chose to keep this to themselves.” I wonder who they were: Chris Uhlmann, Barrie Cassidy, Tony Jones, or someone else?
Writing about the never-ending succession of deadlines set by Team Rudd or media pundits by which Julia Gillard would be gone, Walsh says: ”When one deadline fails to eventuate, it should be an embarrassment for a gullible media; when dozens fail to materialize over two years, it’s been a massive, humiliating con…We in the Fourth Estate have much to answer for.” She goes on to write: “As the ABC’s political editor at 7.30, Chris Uhlmann, remarked frankly after the day of high farce: [the day of the aborted 2013 Rudd challenge] ‘The media has played a role in this, and it’s for others I guess to parse how well or how badly the media has done. There’s not a shadow of doubt that the media has been used to help build momentum, to help build a sense of chaos, particularly this week. And anytime it looked like it was falling off, there was someone else [from Team Rudd] out and about…There is absolutely no doubt the Rudd forces have been using the media quite cleverly for some time now.”
These are revealing admissions from an insider of a reality that those of us in the Fifth Estate suspected for a long while. Yet the wider electorate is likely still largely oblivious of the media’s grossly manipulative behaviour.
Walsh confirms what we have been saying here for ages when she writes: “The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself. Apart from attending the occasional press conference, Question Time or ministerial interview, gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other. But the competition is fierce for a headline story – to be the agenda-setting pundit, or to be the first online to repeat a whisper. The added dimension for journalists nowadays is the voracious appetite for novelty that the twenty-four-hour online story beast demands. Coupled with the sacking by newspapers of experienced sub-editors and fact-checkers, journalists find themselves in a dangerous new space of unvetted reporting. In this climate, the anonymous quote – once used only to protect legitimate deep throats or to give nuance to a story – became the most popular bedrock for Gillard-Rudd leadership stories that dominated headlines and threatened the PM and her government. Every rule in the handbook of good journalism was broken.”
Later Walsh writes: “Over the last few years there have been serious reporting mistakes, gross errors of judgements, biased commentary and empowering of Team Rudd’s agenda. When the house of cards collapsed – twice – those journalists remained at their desks. And they all pull handsome salaries; they are paid more than a backbencher in many cases, and among the upper echelons as much as ministers. But while ministers are forced into abject mea culpas and apologies for mistakes, we in the fourth estate simply waltz on to the next project without acknowledging our errors. The media holds politicians up to the highest possible standards of behaviour. Not even human error or a slight slip of the tongue escapes our harsh judgements; the echo of ridicule about Gillard’s mispronunciation in April 2011 of ‘hyperbole’, for instance, still reverberates. Something has to give.”
Indeed, something ought to give. But will it, given the dilapidated and steadily collapsing state of the Fourth Estate, its degraded state of journalism, its clearly partisan orientation, and the political and commercial intent of its owners? Sadly, the answer seems to be NO!
Let’s now see what Walsh has to say about the polls: “The fortnightly Newspoll published by The Australian, the monthly AC Nielsen poll published in Fairfax newspapers, and the ad hoc Galaxy polls published in News Limited tabloids are treated by journalists as more important when assessing the government’s performance than its achievements or policies. Yet these polls are at best arbitrary snapshots of the public’s mood, tiny random samples of a voter’s reflexive reaction to events of the day – reactions that are strongly influenced by the media’s portrayal of the way the government is faring. And the way the media interprets the polls influences the next poll – constant cries that the government is wretched and doomed, is led by a wretched and doomed leader, affect the perception the voting public has of the government and its prime minister. Journalists who habitually ply statistics to promote the case that a government or its leader is terminal when there are months, even years, before an election are engaging in fraudulent misrepresentation. They are conning the public.”
Continuing with her appraisal of polls, Walsh writes: “These days the regular published newspaper polls concentrate on voting intentions alone, and reporters simply look back at political events of the previous fortnight and draw conclusions about the issues that have affected the public mood – even if there is no proven connection. They then peer into their crystal balls and declare that, based on their deductions and the numbers in front of them, it spells doom or success at an election that can be the political equivalent of light years away. Yet the future is full of events, circumstances, people, twists and turns that will affect and maybe change voters’ opinions of their elected representatives. Because the headline results are circulated the night before, so as to maximize a particular newspaper’s bang for its bucks, the polls are absorbed and spat out by television and radio from dawn the next day. The conclusions of those journalists and commentators who interpret the polls frame the political discourse for the day, sometimes for forty-eight hours, and are echoed in the news analyses from other media outlets.
“Independent polling analyst Andrew Catsaras is appalled by how the polls are often interpreted, and that the interpretation is then mimicked elsewhere. Even polls that show no change, or changes within the 3 per cent margin of error are splashed around by the commissioning organization. The Australian, for example, is brilliant at prominently running reams of copy on polls that haven’t shifted, or only shifted slightly, setting an artificial news agenda for the day. ‘The papers that spend money on these polls need to make news stories out of them, even if there’s nothing to report’, Catsaras tells me. ‘The interpretation is often distorted – if they want to promote a leadership story, they can do it. What is a statistical variation can be interpreted or spun around something that has occurred in the political world in the previous fortnight, even if there is no connection at all.’”
Her final words on polls are these: “Many senior politicians privately anguish over the influence Newspoll and The Australian have on power plays and the standing and conduct of governments and opposition, but they feel helpless to take on what is now treated as an omniscient part of the political infrastructure. They also need to keep News Limited onside; over the years The Australian’s editors, using polls as its principle weapon, have worked deftly to erode the standing of governments or leaders they don’t like or don’t deem fit to govern.”
There you have it, from an experienced insider. There you have what we have been saying here for years about political journalists, polls, the media owners, indeed about the whole Fourth Estate. A truly satisfying aspect of Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book is the confirmation of so much of what we have known or suspected and written about for so long.
It is to be hoped that in the next edition she adds an afterword that covers the final two days of the Gillard government, how Team Rudd finally succeeded, and how we lost an outstanding leader, Julia Gillard.
Seldom have I read a political exposition so revealing, so informative, so full of insights, so readable, so lucidly written. This review can but touch upon some of its highlights; the book itself needs to be read to unearth its treasure trove. Anyone interested in federal politics that buys a copy, or downloads the E-book version onto a reader, will not be disappointed.
The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister, Kerry-Anne Walsh, Allen & Unwin, 2013, RRP$29.99.