27 Nov 2012

Gillard Puts The Press To Shame

By Ben Eltham
Journalists must ask questions, but they also need to produce evidence. When will the press gallery admit that they're wasting our time with the AWU scandal, asks Ben Eltham
So, can we put the AWU non-scandal to rest now?

Today in New Matilda we've published our summary of the claims made against the Prime Minister, and the evidence on the public record to support them.

But let's ask ourselves: why is this even news?

The nation's political media has become increasingly occupied with the minutiae of Julia Gillard's involvement in a union fraud 17 years ago. Acres of newsprint and server farms worth of web space have been devoted to the issue. The key protagonists have all been located and interviewed, their accounts cross-checked with those of the Prime Minister.

And what have we found out? Nothing of consequence. The current controversy about Julia Gillard's role in a scandal in the AWU in the early 1990s has little relevance to her fitness for office, and no relevance at all to public policy.

It's not even new. All of these events have been raked over by the national media on many previous occasions. Each time these allegations have been raised, Gillard has dealt with them. Each time, the media has failed to uncover a smoking gun that can conclusively link Gillard to the affair. Each time, interest in the controversy has largely returned to the dark recesses of the right wing blogosphere, where it bubbles away indefinitely, driven by the hatred and the obsessions of the Michael Smiths and Larry Pickerings of this world.

Bernard Keane had a fine article in Crikey yesterday in which he drew some conclusions about the way in which the feverish musings of right-wing hate blogs have moved to the centre of the national political debate, thanks to the groupthink of journalists.

Yesterday's media conference was a telling example of the dire state of political journalism in this country. The nation's assembled media corps fired increasingly fitful questions at a Prime Minister in complete command of the detail on this issue, and determined to put the matter to rest once and for all. One by one, she demolished the flimsy and unsubstantiated accusations put to her.

It was a convincing performance. Questions asked many times before were patiently and thoroughly answered. An interrupting Sid Maher was slapped down with a curt "don't hector me, Sid". Michelle Grattan asked a nonsensical question, which got an appropriately brief response. The West Australian's Andrew Probyn, who got bogged down with an increasingly threadbare line of questioning, found himself a particular target of the Prime Minister's ire.

"If indeed you did know of the mortgage and you'd just forgotten, what would be the big deal in him being given a mortgage through Slater & Gordon?" Probyn asked.

"Couldn't have put it better myself," Gillard replied. "Thank you, Andrew. What is the big deal? Anybody got any contention about how Ralph Blewitt getting a Slater & Gordon mortgage goes to any conduct by me, or any assertions of wrongdoing? What is the big deal?"

It's a fair point, and one reflected in the sniffy opinion pieces published by News Limited journalists today. After all the effort expended on this exceedingly arcane episode in union history two decades ago, there remains no substantiated claim of wrong-doing, illegality or misconduct against the Prime Minister regarding her role in the affair.

The Daily Telegraph's Simon Benson today pathetically argued that "the Prime Minister gave an adequate account of herself yesterday ... but at times she appeared nervous". Well, she must be guilty then!

Also in the Telegraph, Gemma Jones put the maximum spin possible on Gillard's detailed explanation of the alleged $5000 gift from Bruce Wilson to Gillard, reporting that she was "unable to categorically deny" it.

The best that The Australian's gun investigator Hedley Thomas could come up with today was a mealy mouthed argument that "it was the role of the union's solicitor and her firm — Ms Gillard and Slater & Gordon — to give the AWU a heads-up about the Workplace Reform slush fund's very existence".

Leaving aside thorny issues of client confidentiality, it's an exceedingly minor point. Thomas appears to be suggesting that Gillard should have been more suspicious. The Prime Minister dealt with that accusation yesterday anyway, arguing that she had no knowledge of any wrong-doing, and hence had nothing to report.

Throughout the coverage of this affair, the onus of proof has consistently been placed on the Prime Minister by the media. The common line has been that she has "questions to answer". That argument is dead in the water, given that the Prime Minister has twice answered all the questions the media has put, at considerable length.

In fact, the onus of proof in investigative reporting should run the other way. The role of journalists is not simply to ask questions. It is to uncover evidence and to substantiate and corroborate serious allegations. The argument that the Prime Minister owes the public an explanation of her actions 17 years ago is valid. But she has provided an explanation, many times.

Perhaps its time we asked some questions of journalists like Hedley Thomas and Mark Baker. Some questions that come to my mind are: when does an investigation become a giant fishing expedition? What responsibilities do journalists have to back up their claims?
And if you have evidence to support your leading questions, why won't you release it?

Most importantly, in a week in which legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme will be introduced to Parliament, we need to ask: why is this even news?

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Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 13:58

Here's another question for Baker: when was he going to disclose his close personal relationship with Styant-Browne? Surely the fact he was Styant-Browne's best man may have affected his objectivity a little bit?

Dr Dog
Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 14:11

Happily I can categorically deny that anyone at Newsltd or in the Federal Opposition has a fully functioning brain.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. RossC
Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 14:46

Message for the Liberal Party: I object to my taxes, and supposedly important 'question time' in parliament being wasted in the endless pursuit of this tripe.

Grow up, get over the fact that you lost the last election, get over the fact that a woman - one who on her own has your collective full measure without even half trying - is PM, and maybe even try to come up with a few credible alternative policies of your own (hint: "No" or "We don't like it" is not policy).

While you goons are dilly-dallying around with trivia, the government has run rings around you delivering loads of policies that will actually make quite an impressive list as the next election looms - not bad when you consider the difficult minority balancing act that has been needed to achieve this.

Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 15:13

Based on the evidence so far the PM is guilty of but two things. Firstly, not reporting a non existent crime of which she had no knowledge, and secondly not being either Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull, both of whom the press seem totally enamoured with, for reasons that escape me.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Venise Alstergren
Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 16:00

BEN ELTHAM: Once again your article is a triumph of logic and excellent journalism. Pressed for time I am merely going to repeat what I've already said in your previous comment.

BEN ELTHAM: Thank you for a first class, dispassionate, and even handed summation of the tawdry efforts by the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and his ankle biting little deputy, Julie Bishop, to turn this country’s parliament processes into a freak show. Taxpayers should be appalled at this outrageous squandering of our money.

Equally am I appalled by members of the Opposition such as Malcolm Turnbull who apparently endorses this squalid behaviour.""

Maggie Roberts
Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 16:07

Citizens of Australia are heartily sick of the low level of politics we have in this country. Largely the baying media is to blame, urged on by the r.w. blogosphere and mindless politicians, unhappy that the election turned up a hung parliament. Those who consider themselves 'born to rule' remain churlish, with the help of biased media, instead of working co-operatively to solve the country's problems - climate change, refugees, live exports, declining productivity, aging infrastructure. They demean us all by their harping behaviour.

Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 16:32

There is nothing more distasteful than watching a disparate party, desperate for power, dredging through the PMs past looking for weakness and faults.
The more the Opposition continues in this vein, the more they will empower the PM.
Julia Gillard was obviously deceived into setting up an AWU 'slush fund' for her then boyfriend Wilson and his partner in crime Blewett (both members of the AWU) and therefore has nothing to hide.
And as the house mortgage was set up before she was aware of the deception and there are no record of any funds received by Gillard, and no charges laid against Gillard, the matter should be closed.
This means any questions in Parliament on this matter should now be 'out of order'!

K Brown
Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 17:16

Hedlay Thomas's recent Australian article about Wayne Hem's claim he deposited $5,000 from Bruce Wilson's casino winnings into Julia Gillard's account has to be the most excruciating report I have read in the downward spiral of that newspaper. I read the front page and thought that must be it but no, page two was was chock full of absolutely inane minutae that would have made even rabid LNP supporters squirm.

I regret that I read the full article because I kept thinking "Surely there has to be a smoking gun at the end of this tortuous refrain". But what was delivered? 56 front page column inches of nutt'in, zip, zilch! The only thing that was blown apart was Hedley Thomas's journalistic reputation.

News Ltd's latest reporting on the matter appears to be a scramble to distance themselves from the smear and sleaze campaign against the PM and get on the right side of history. Good luck, but people aren't that stupid!

Posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 21:20

The raising of this issue was initiated by Labor. The Coalition are only responding to Maclelland initially raising it and subsequent media reports. The creation of the 'slush' fund was inappropriate by any standard.

The smearing of Tony Abbott continues.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 03:07

I am on record elsewhere on these boards as saying all Julia Gillard is probably guilty of here is naiveté and borderline impropriety as a junior partner in a law firm, so Ben and I agree there.

I am also on record as saying I believe Downer <i>et al </i> are guilty at the very least of turning a blind eye to the AWB's bribery of Iraqi officials, and Ben has said the same, many, many times. Neither of us have a skerrick of evidence to back up that allegation – in fact, there have been <i>two </i>police investigations neither of which has been able to uncover anything – but that does not stop us smelling a rat, and nor should it. Perhaps Ben is better disposed towards <i>The Australian</i>'s prosecution of the AWB case because they broke the story, rather than recycling the rabid paranoia of the blogosphere, but the double standard is there nonetheless.

Woodward and Bernstein spent more than a year asking questions about Watergate, in the face of near unanimity from the rest of the US media that they should shut up and accept they had no evidence for the wrongdoing they were suggesting. Fortunately they didn't listen to America's many Ben Elthams, otherwise Nixon and his whole criminal crew would have gotten away with it.

If the roles in this "scandal" were reversed, if this were <i>really </i>about Julie Bishop's time as a lawyer acting for CSR, can you doubt that Ben would be bellowing from the rooftops that not only should the Australian media be asking <i>more </i>questions, but that the questions they were asking were insufficiently incisive?

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 05:24

very good points. I always said you got brains.
But I'm sure Ben will take your comment to improve his skills and hone his talents instead of taking them as vindictive criticisms, which they were not. Good. Truth, is the only way.

Can you be sure that the Libs are not guilty of what they stand accused of. Which is the better of the 2 evils.

To allow a Prime Minister to Govern or to bring a Government down and to what end. What benefit. Allow the other idiots back in at great cost to the Tax Purse and to do what hand Tax money to you this time/ next time as opposed to someone else as it is now. The fight over Government Money and which sector of the economy to waste it in goes on.

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 09:02

'Michelle Grattan asked a nonsensical question'

I'm shocked.

No, honestly, I'm shocked.

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 12:27

@Candoh: She was probably prompted to ask it by her editors, if Fairfax have any left. &lt;snark&gt; Otherwise, yes, it is a shocking thought.

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 12:57

If the raising of this issue was by Labor, then it can only mean one thing. These are the Labor discontent, Kevin Rudd supporters, those few Labor politicians who are still upset over the change in leadership.
Most of his supporters seem more interested in dwelling in the past with nostalgia, conveniently forgetting his drop in the polls.
They also seem to forget what a sick man Rudd was as during the preceding weeks of the change in ALP leadership, as he went in for a heart operation soon afterwards.
And as for the decline in decent reporting and analysis, since George Meglomanis left NewsLtd., sadly (for them) they are now left with a handful of right-wingers who are not even worth reading!

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 19:22

Let me also state I think its a case of Trail by Lynch Mob.

If a Police Officer Investigates a Crime hey silently investigate until they have sufficiant evidence, they then present it to the Police Prosecutor and he decides whether it needs more facts etc. or to present it to the Courts.

Detectives don't have trails by Media where they cheekily present some rubbish every day to keep the Media Circus Employed and give Boofhead a few minutes of fame.

Now their is either a law that has found something or an Investigative Journey whop spends a life time researching until he can break the story to the Public for some common good.

You either investigate something to its full conclusion or you a Media Circus. I don't need a Daily Media circus giving me dribble about he said she said, we think, now the Public can be the Lynch Mob.

Our Democracy went to hell a long time ago and its only now beginning to smell.

Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - 20:26

"If the raising of this issue was by Labor, then it can only mean one thing."

That some in the Labor Party still believe in stamping out corruption in unions.

Posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - 13:09

Homerjunior There is very little corruption in unions and I would bet my bottom dollar that there's a darn sight more corruption and cooking of the books in multi-national corporations, financial institutions and big business of any description especially the utility providers.
People seem to conveniently forget who actually created the GFC in the first place!

Posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - 14:24

I agree, Denise. But I do think the motivation of the Labor members prosecuting the case are genuine.