Gillard Puts The Press To Shame


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?

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.