How To Bury A Scandal


Many rash things have been said about factual accuracy and telling lies in recent times — not just about Alan Jones, and not just in Australia. A Romney campaign public relations pollster by the name of Neil Newhouse, for example, reportedly told a room full of journalists, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers".

Shameless disdain for the truth of that magnitude might imply that people who work in PR and journalism are complicit in the dark arts of concealment, spin and deception in which facts are mere playthings.

But to tell a lie requires the liar to intend to deceive. So when in 1995 the then Australian Opposition Leader John Howard said he would "never, ever" introduce a GST, he was not lying. He later changed his mind.

Similarly, when in 2010 Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there would be "no carbon tax" under a Government she led, she had in mind leading a majority Government. That did not eventuate and a change of mind was required. To form a government from a minority position she had to change some policies and compete with Tony Abbott to win the trust of conservative-leaning independents and a Green. She was successful in doing that, and such personal one-to-one trust is not usually built on the foundation of a lie.

That said, rational analysis tends to play second fiddle to perception in politics and it's now been repeated too often by Jones and others that the Prime Minister is a liar on the basis of the carbon price broken promise, and that perception is now a reality.

In 2010 I attended the annual Media Alliance public affairs conference. That year a working journalist gave the keynote speech. At the time he had moved from journalism to a PR job with a big Queensland power company. A high-level executive from the company had been dismissed for a serious fraud and the press had to be told. The speaker's advice as the new PR boss was to tell all.

His advice was accepted and a lengthy press release was issued, fat with facts. As the speaker predicted, there was barely a murmur in the papers. Working journalists and their editors saw no cover-up. There was no story. Objective achieved. Stephen Mayne was a conference participant that year and asked, on cue, how much the speaker was earning in his new PR role. The reluctant answer was "a number with a two in front of it".

That PR practitioner was the celebrated Hedley Thomas, whose incisive and relentless reporting of the Dr Haneef case in The Australian some years earlier brought into sharp focus some of the perils in the application of Australia's counter-terrorism strategy**.

Thomas has since returned to The Australian and has recently been the lead investigator on the Slater and Gordon story. He has shed much light on the events of 17 years ago when Julia Gillard was a 34 year old lawyer. We now know a great deal about the details of the renovation of her former Abbotsford house and the grilling by her managing partners on how and who paid for the renovations. And we know about her role in advising on what she called a "slush fund" for a former boyfriend from the Australian Workers' Union.

Thomas's Slater and Gordon reporting tells all, including why the young Gillard didn't open a file on the AWU account. It was not the most clean-cut explanation, as she admitted, and for many observers that has been enough. For them, the truthfulness of the Prime Minister's account lay in her admission of its inadequacy. A liar would have put together a better story.

But that hasn't prevented Thomas, as the bloodhound forensic journalist, further pursuing the facts behind the slush fund story. He once again is revealing himself as a searcher for factual accuracy and a shedder of light. One hopes he's still getting a salary with a two in front of it.

Questions are now being asked in the Parliament on the back of his reporting about the slush fund. Even though the questions have not amounted to an accusation, each time Julia Gillard brushes one aside or claims to have answered it before, the perception that something is being covered up grows incrementally.

To put a stop to the quest of Hedley Thomas the journalist, the Prime Minister could do worse than emulate the advice of Hedley Thomas the PR operator. It's now time to inundate the Slater and Gordon matter with a flood of facts, and those facts need to be published and include the unequivocal admission that everything was not done by the book if that were the case, and that the young Julia Gillard would not have gone about it the same way had she the benefit of hindsight and a less undeserving boyfriend.

There are risks in the Hedley Thomas PR method but there are bigger risks in going into 2013 with another cloud of perceived untrustworthiness hanging over the Prime Minister's head. She hardly needs further fishing expeditions and cursory character assassination taking the place of policy debate in the interests of the nation.

**This has been corrected from the original, which wrongly stated Hedley Thomas was behind the AWB scoop.

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