The Victorian Labor government is known for employing ballooning numbers of political fixers, or “Minstaff”, as they call themselves, but there’s one key adviser missing from the payroll.
Each night before bedtime, senior ministers get paranoid over which beat-up the Herald Sun’s editor might choose to elevate to the next day’s front page. The yarn will then dominate the next morning’s talkback, simply because so many people have seen it (or “read it”, if you believe the official “readership” stats).
But if the first six months of new editor Simon Pristel’s reign is any indication, the former “news pictorial” could be about to cut out the middle man. Where once the Herald Sun kept a semi-respectful distance, leaving its readers to take the bait, the paper (and its Sunday sister, overseen by new HWT editor-in-chief Phil Gardner), has recently started telling the government, and everyone else, exactly what to do.
Recent splashes have included instructions to “Make Banks Pay Up” (8 April), “Give It Up Now” (12 March), “Pay for My Pain” (17 February) and “Salute Our Heroes” (15 February). But Crikey’s favourite is the Sunday HeraldSun’s 8 March imperative to “Make Lou a Legend Now”, in reference to the ageing Collingwood rover’s failed bid to be accorded special status in the AFL Hall of Fame.
Since his ascension to the corner office, Pristel appears to have abandoned the more measured tone of his predecessor Bruce Guthrie, preferring instead to issue advice in the manner pioneered by the paper’s far-left doppelganger Green Left Weekly.
This year, GLW has run its own campaigns on public transport (“Make it free, make it frequent”) against free enterprise (“Nationalise Pacific Brands”) and in favour of natural monopolies (“Restore Public Services”).
Meanwhile, in the political pages of the Herald Sun, there’s been a distinct whiff of a State Government ‘clean out the dead wood’ campaign. Glaring examples include a week-long call for Transport Minister Lynne Kosky’s head over late trains (she stayed on) and last week’s demands that Planning Minister Justin Madden resign over the Brimbank Council affair.
The poisonous climate reminds Crikey of an earlier era in Herald Sun history — the notorious Piers Akerman reign of terror during the early 1990s. Classic Piers hits and memories include his successful 1990 pitch to oust Premier John Cain (a “stinking corpse” that had to be “dragged off”), his unsuccessful May 1991 phone poll calling on Opposition Leader Jeff Kennett to block Supply (“Kennett coup poll”), his June 1991 splash calling for Premier Joan Kirner to sack herself (“Kirner Admits Failure”), and an unprecedented June 1992 front page editorial (“Enough is enough, is enough!”) demanding the same outcome. Kirner eventually departed four months later, in October 1992, after she was rolled at the polls on Piers’ watch.
But perhaps Akerman was just reading from Herald Sun predecessor The Sun’s rap sheet. The tabloid’s December 1986 plan to oust Transport Minister Tom Roper (“Sack Roper Call”) ultimately fell on deaf ears, but set the tone for an era of angst.
The temperature cooled somewhat during the 1990s, with the paper shunning Akerman’s anti-ALP obsession in favour of an attempt to define a new political and moral centre, usually by counterposing “battlers” against inner city “elites”.
This approach reached its nadir in 2000, with Peter Blunden’s memorable “Radicals Lure Kids” banner in lead-up to the S11 WEF protests, and the follow-up “Shameful”. The paper’s protest coverage became the subject of a complaint to the Press Council. Four years later, Blunden and chief reporter Gerard McManus were at it again, running a sustained campaign that claimed the Greens wanted to distribute over-the-counter ecstasy to ravers.
Of course, the British red-tops have been doing this kind of thing for years. In 1995, Britpop outfit Pulp released its Sorted for Es and Wizz single, that included scandalous instructions on how to construct a drugs pouch. “Ban This Sick Stunt”, The Mirror memorably screamed, leading to a mass of publicity for the band’s lanky frontman Jarvis Cocker. Somewhat more mild was The Guardian’s 2000 challenge to the British Royals to “change”. Or, at the other end of the scale, there’s the Daily Star’s 2001 bid to turn itself into the actual government, when it demanded Jeffery Archer “Pay us £2.2m”.
For the Herald Sun and Pristel, there’s a whole galaxy of front page possibilities to try out on the paper’s 1 million readers. Like the state government’s harried Minstaff, we will await each day’s gripping instalment with interest.