Journalism As Blood Sport


Readers of Sydney newspapers and listeners to Sydney commercial radio are growing used to a diet of reports rubbishing the State’s fledging premier, Nathan Rees. Increasingly, even if Rees’s office categorically denies an allegation put by the media, the allegation will still appear in headlines the next day — with the denial tucked into one sentence at the end of the story.

All the newspapers are participants and the John Singleton/Alan Jones radio station 2GB leads the wireless pack. They are being fed every day by disgruntled members of the Labor Caucus — mainly right-wing time-servers who have been overlooked for Cabinet positions or other perks — and Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal Opposition. Disgruntled state bureaucrats are leaking to the Liberal Party and so are senior public servants who want to earn a promotion if the Coalition comes to power in March 2011.

Leaks that embarrass the Premier are a passport to a top job in any future O’Farrell administration: welcome to Scoundrel Time in the hierarchy of the NSW public service.

Rees was appointed unanimously by the Labor caucus last September when the former premier, Morris Iemma, fell on his sword after failing to achieve the privatisation of the power industry and failing to win the support of his dominant right-wing faction, Centre Unity, for a Cabinet reshuffle.

The Right pulled the rug from under Iemma and then rolled out the red carpet for Rees, the first left-winger to become Labor Premier of NSW since Neville Wran QC, who quit the Left faction to join the Right and the rest is history.

Since taking the helm just over six months ago, Rees has been mired in Cabinet scandals. He lost two ministers (Police Minister Matt Brown and Science Minister Tony Stewart, who is now taking Supreme Court action claiming unfair dismissal), has overseen a shockingly mismanaged mini-budget in November, and seen a steady stream of incompetent mishaps by his ministers.

In other words, great fodder for the hacks and commentators.

But there is a difference.

Whereas the Sydney media were highly critical of Iemma, particularly in his final year in office, there was also favorable editorial opinion in support of his pro-business electricity privatisation project and his decency under pressure, Rees has not received any bouquets at all. He’s become a moving target and we’ve reached the point where journalism becomes blood sport.

At the end of last year, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was undergoing similar treatment at the hands of Brisbane’s sole daily newspaper, the Courier-Mail, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. The orgy of anti-Bligh propaganda (it couldn’t be described as news) became so fierce that government press secretaries requested that all "Curious-Mail" questions be emailed in writing and the answers would be emailed back. This afforded protection for the minders who were being either misquoted or had their responses ignored.

Rees is not planning to retaliate in the same way, although he must be sorely tempted.

Some of the best examples of the media’s campaign were the headlines about a $500,000 new office on level 35 of Governor Macquarie Tower for the newly appointed Corrective Services Minister John Robertson. "Robbo" has never been forgiven by the Sydney media for leading the ALP-trade union-community alliance which helped oust the Howard government in 2007 and which then wrecked Iemma’s power sell-off in 2008.

On 19 February, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Andrew Clennell and Alexandra Smith wrote: "The new prisons minister, John Robertson, will not be slumming it in any old office in Government Macquarie Tower, with the State Government planning to splash out as much as $500,000 on new office space for the former union boss."

On the same day in the Daily Telegraph, Simon Benson wrote: "Former trade unionist and working class hero John Robertson has joined the official Government gravy train with a taxpayer-funded $500,000 refurbishment for a new office."

Facts: At the time, not a cent had been spent on the refit. The project had been put out to tender but no contractor had even been appointed let alone a price agreed. Robertson had not sought the refit nor taken part in any of the arrangements for his proposed office space.

In response to the articles — which had been fed to the media by Brad Burden, senior media adviser to O’Farrell — Rees said he wanted any renovations to be minimalist and economical. This produced another set of headlines: "Rees unhappy with cost of office for ‘Donald Trump of NSW politics’" (Fairfax Digital) and "Robbo’s Trump-like spending annoys Rees" (ninemsn).

The pack was still baying so loudly that few noticed Robertson’s own comments on the "gravy train" on ABC TV’s Stateline. When asked about the refit at the end of a substantial interview about the NSW Government’s plans to privatise two of the state’s prisons, he replied: "I’m not into the size of the office and how flash it is. I started my working life on building sites as an electrician. I’ve worked out of the boot of a car. I don’t want and I will not have a half-a-million-dollar office fit-out. It is absurd and obscene, and all the comments I’ve heard people on talkback radio make are justified."

At which point the story died and Virginia Judge, MP for Strathfield and Minister for Fair Trading, became the next target. This time it was over allegations that she received donations from local business people who subsequently won approval for developments in the electorate — even though Judge was not actually involved in granting that approval.

Judge immediately invited the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to investigate the media allegations but she was slammed for not using the correct form of words in making the referral and then for having Rees’s mother, Fran, as her electorate secretary. Get it? The Press Gallery Clouseaus are on the case — Judge, political donations, the Premier, his mother. QED.

While the regime-changers are howling for the Premier’s blood, his polling is improving, albeit marginally. Asked by Newspoll in the latest survey "Who do you think would make the better premier?" 34 per cent said Rees (up from 30 per cent in November-December) while 29 per cent said Barry O’Farrell (down from 33 per cent in the same period).

And asked if they were satisfied with Rees’s performance, 37 per cent said "yes" which was up from 34 per cent at the end of last year. In other words, Rees is cutting through with the public while the media hacks appear to be conducting a private vendetta in which few people are interested. The biggest casualty is political journalism.

The media is working in tandem with a handful of Labor right-wingers and an even smaller number of "exes" — ex-prime minister Paul Keating, ex-premiers Bob Carr and Morris Iemma and ex-Olympics minister Michael Knight — who want Frank Sartor to take the premiership.

Sartor is another "ex" — a former independent who joined Labor in 2003, a former Sydney lord mayor and former planning minister, dropped from Cabinet by Rees who regarded Sartor as a divisive and disruptive influence.

The aim of the media campaign and the political sniping against Rees is to create a mid-year stampede in the Caucus against Rees and replace him with Sartor. To succeed, the Sartorites will have to knock off Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt as well because if regime change does come about, she is the front-runner.

There will be blood.


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