My advice to readers reeling from Monday night’s Four Corners exposÃ© on rorting and branch-stacking inside the NSW Liberal Party is to have the proverbial Bex, a cup of tea and a good lie down. The program was great journalism, especially getting former rorters to spill their guts on camera.
But in a sense, they ‘blew the lid off nookie,’ to quote the 1987 movie Broadcast News. That is, they revealed the obvious in a political system where Parties are haemorrhaging genuine members, they become vulnerable to anti-democratic practices. Just as the political scientist Max Weber predicted, a small motivated group can easily seize power in a sclerotic organisation.
More insidious is and I may as well say it the vast conspiracy involving the Liberal Right and much of the News Limited press to keep Labor out of office federally and destroy an already weakened labour movement.
Hillary Clinton drew derision back in 1998 when she referred to the ‘vast Right-wing conspiracy’ in the United States dedicated to bringing down her husband, the twice democratically (and convincingly) elected President of the United States. Even Bill Clinton rebuked her, saying that it was not a conspiracy in the sense of being clandestine the participants were out in the open, funded by the reactionary billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, operating through an ‘Arkansas Project’ aimed at crippling Clinton with baseless allegations of sexual and financial impropriety, which were frequently ventilated on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News cable network.
But a conspiracy defined as ‘any concurrence in action [or]combination in bringing about a given result’ need not be furtive, and such is the situation we have in Australia. Not only do Murdoch’s newspapers barrack unstintingly for Howard at election time, between polls they keep readers on a drip-feed of Government propaganda.
The ideological lockstep indeed the almost beautiful synchronicity of Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Andrew Bolt in Melbourne’s Herald Sun and the Prime Minister’s office is well documented, although it reached new heights these past 10 days, as Peter Costello made his most forceful claim yet on Howard’s job. In perfect harmony, Bolt and Akerman denounced Costello in their columns on July 12, 14 and 16 both of them, ever reliable courtiers.
Clockwise from top right: John Howard, Paddy
Akerman and Bolt may be experienced journalists but they do not consider themselves independent commentators. They consider themselves part of the ‘movement’ whose duty it is to echo, through (very skilful) populist repackaging, the official line of the current Federal Government, be it on industrial relations, the Iraq war, or national security laws. (I note their thundering silence in recent days on the Federal Government’s new media laws, which their boss opposes.)
This form of ‘movement’ commentary/activism is lifted straight from the playbook of American conservatism, which has worked so well for its practitioners. You disperse your supporters throughout the media and think tanks and make sure they all parrot the same line. As David Brock, a former ‘movement’ journalist in Washington who was responsible for airing the early allegations against Clinton, revealed in his 2002 mea culpa, Blinded by the Right, this chorus helps build a momentum, a feeling of inevitability and unanimity for certain policies.
Often, ‘movement’ activism infects the news pages. It is widely known inside News Limited that one of the reasons behind its mastheads’ predatory coverage of former NSW Attorney-General Jeff Shaw who resigned from the Supreme Court suffering alcoholism was to discredit the State Government’s High Court case against Canberra’s industrial relations laws. Once Shaw had quit the bench, Unions NSW engaged him having been one of this country’s most distinguished labour lawyers to help draft the case.
Both the Daily Telegraph and The Australian stalked Shaw, photographing him drinking in bars around the city and telling readers he was the architect of the challenge a challenge they considered impudent. (I should mention that Shaw is a close and long-time friend of mine, although this is hardly a revelation, given that in November 2004 we both appeared in the Daily Telegraph‘s gossip page, pictured having lunch together. The ham-fisted photographer thought he would spring us boozing. Alas, it was only mineral water although it was fizzy!)
Back in the early 1990s, John Howard complained that Labor had established a nomenklatura of supporters throughout the media many of them ex-staffers ready to be recalled to service in their new roles. He was thinking primarily of ex-Keating adviser Anne Summers, then running The Good Weekend, and he stills obsesses about ex-Whitlam staffer Kerry O’Brien, fronting ABC TV’s 7.30 Report. (Indeed, in 1995 a Sydney newspaper editor told me the only reason he couldn’t give me a modestly paying job as a mere reporter was because my brief and entirely undistinguished service as a Labor Government press secretary would feed this paranoia.)
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.
Today, however, the media is honeycombed with Howard barrackers. The Sydney Morning Herald columnist and ABC presenter Michael Duffy turns much of his airtime over to the Right-wing Centre for Independent Studies. The Australian‘s op-ed page, run by former American Enterprise Institute (AEI) staffer Tom Switzer, offers a frequent pulpit to former Howard Government staffer Kevin Donnelly to promote free market policies in education. Switzer himself wrote glowingly in the AEI journal last year about Howard, calling him the ‘antipodal offspring of his hero Ronald Reagan.’
But, of course, all this is on the record. What is less well known are the extensive social networks connecting the Right-wing activists and columnists. Akerman attends the PM’s invitation-only Christmas cocktail party at Kirribilli House. Malcolm Farr, the DailyTelegraph’s Canberra political correspondent (and a supposedly neutral member of the ABC’s Insiders panel) was one of only three media people invited to a 2003 barbecue at The Lodge for visiting US President George W Bush. The other two were Melbourne broadcaster Neil Mitchell and Sydney broadcaster (and former Liberal Party candidate) Alan Belford Jones.
I once found myself the distinctly odd man out in a gathering that included Akerman, the SMH‘s Paul Sheehan, the revisionist historian and new ABC Director Keith Windschuttle, The Bulletin‘s Tim Blair, The Australian columnist Frank Devine and Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness. There is also a regular dinner party salon of activists that, for a while last year, included Switzer and Alex Hawke, the secretive Federal President of the Young Liberals who featured so prominently in Monday night’s Four Corners program.
Is there anything wrong with any of this? No, except when ‘movement’ activism infiltrates the news coverage.
Nor are the social networks necessarily troubling or surprising. People find themselves in natural communities of interest and those of similar worldview will alw
ays gravitate towards each other.
But when strategically placed commentators dutifully echo the party line to achieve a common aim the perpetuation of the Howard Government let’s call it what it is: a Right-wing conspiracy. It’s not in the shadows, but it’s a conspiracy nonetheless.
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