Loss of Trust

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It gives me a slight – and, yeah, sure, a slightly immature – frisson to recall August 29, the day John Brogden resigned from the leadership of the NSW Liberal Party, because it was also the day I caused the new Premier to break out in a cold sweat.

Morris Iemma had staged an oh-so-self-righteous press conference to gloat over Brogden’s fall from grace, after Brodgen admitted to a drunken incident at a July 29 party, during which he called Helena Carr, the Malaysian-born wife of Iemma’s predecessor Bob Carr, a ‘mail-order bride’, and pinched a female journalist’s bottom. Iemma was at the podium tut-tutting about Brogden’s behaviour and declaring that the only decent thing he had done in public life was to quit.

Frankly, it was too much to bear from a right-wing Labor politician. Even though Iemma had been imposed on the people of NSW by the party machine, which spent the 48 hours after Bob Carr’s resignation briefing journalists against Iemma’s only declared rival Carl Scully (don’t deny it boys because, under the new laissez faire rules, I’m willing to name names), I had been ready to cut him some slack.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Iemma was intellectually competent – although he did graduate in economics, truly the dismal science – and he seemed pleasant enough. But I was not going to cop a lecture on morality from someone tutored in politics by the infamous Graham Richardson, who wrote a book extolling the virtues of lying and who has been the subject of investigations by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

So I asked Iemma if he could guarantee the ‘moral probity’ and ‘marital fidelity’ of every one of his ministers and MPs. That was not the issue, he insisted. The issue was ‘appropriate behaviour’. If that were the case, I persisted, what if one of the assembled journalists in the room were to confront the Premier with a story – entirely hypothetical, of course – of a senior minister propositioning a lobbyist at a Christmas party. This was when he got that deer-in-the-headlights look. I wasn’t about to reveal any names in a filmed press conference – precisely because I didn’t have any – but Iemma did not want to be caught in the hypocrisy trap and moved quickly to another issue.

The Premier’s fretful face will live in my memory for several years to come, but the image was particularly powerful last week when I learned that Brogden, felled by chronic depression after attempting suicide just a day after his resignation, had decided to quit politics altogether.

Now, I’ll confess to having liked Brogden, to having liked him a lot. He knew I would never vote Liberal – I told him so, many times, mainly because he was too right-wing on economics and industrial relations and too left-wing on what I considered fashionable issues like drug injecting rooms – but it never seemed to matter.

He expected from me, then The Australian‘s NSW political correspondent, nothing more than fair treatment, which he got. He didn’t try to suck up to the press gallery, in the way that Carr admits, in his diaries, that he sucked up to various news editors, especially at The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. And unlike Carr, Brogden didn’t labour under the delusion that he was always the smartest man in the room. He probably wasn’t going to win the 2007 election, but he was going to run the Labor Government very close to the wire.

And then one night he made a bloody fool of himself.

In an interview I gave to ABC local radio in Canberra on August 29, I agreed that Brogden had no choice but to quit the leadership because of his comment about Helena Carr. But I also told Terry Lane on Radio National a few days later that Brogden, an exemplar of small-l liberalism, was not a racist. He was just a drunken party boy, who, imagining Bob Carr was standing before him, said the one thing that would hurt Carr more than anything else, much like Labor politicians attack Tories’ children, out of frustration that rational criticism of their performance never seems to hit the mark.

But what Brogden subsequently endured — the publication in The Daily Telegraph, two days after he resigned, of fictional and defamatory stories about his behaviour at a party in late 2003 – was nothing less than an act of hypocrisy on the part of the media and the Labor Party. The ‘charges’ against Brogden, of making a gauche pass at two female TV reporters – a pass they later denied to ABC TV’s Media Watch ever happened – represented the tabloid media at its worst. For my journalistic colleagues, of all people, to suddenly become moralistic about sex was, quite frankly, nauseating. The newsrooms of this country are littered with the wreckage of marriages torn apart by infidelity.

Several years ago, one Sydney journalist managed to suppress the news that he had been accused of rape. One high-profile female writer, is widely known as the mistress of a media executive. Journalists – male and female – who play around with people other than their spouses, like to adhere to the rule that ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’. How very convenient for them.

Last year, the News Limited papers revelled in the pain and humiliation of Jeff Shaw, former NSW Attorney-General and Supreme Court judge, and the finest Labor jurist since the late, great Lionel Murphy (I proudly declare that Jeff has been a close friend since 1989, before he entered parliament). Jeff had an alcohol-related medical condition, an affliction not unknown to many of the journalists in the employ of Rupert Murdoch. And yet these predators pursued him around Sydney and, somehow, managed to photograph him in a bar. As if this one, tragic fall should erase from memory a lifetime of service as a jurist and parliamentarian to the most vulnerable people in our community.

The Labor Party, which largely abandoned Jeff in his hour of need, is now the temporary beneficiary of the tragedy that has befallen John Brogden. But Mr Iemma is playing with fire if he thinks this kind of moral hypocrisy is acceptable. I know the Labor Party – know it very, very well – and it is a minefield of sexual indiscretion. What happened to Mr Brogden could have happened to any number of Labor MPs these past ten years, including clumsy sexual propositions and seemingly racial slurs.

But Mr Iemma, like all politicians, lives in fear of the media barons. Of course, the balance of power is not entirely lop-sided and predatory journalists – those who would rather concentrate on the irrelevant sex lives of public officials rather than true corruption and abuses of power – should remember that pissed-off politicians have something very handy at their disposal: parliamentary privilege. If this kind of reporting continues, I anticipate some very illuminating late-night adjournment speeches in the nation’s parliaments, the details trickling out of all manner of websites.

If the rules of engagement for politicians and the media have changed, I predict that we will live in interesting times. And remember, the Chinese meant that as a curse.

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