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Aug 20, 2012

This is what the Right is expert at: smearing

It's unclear exactly what Julia Gillard is being accused of having done when she worked for Slater and Gordon. But smears of the Prime Minister are part of a long tradition from the Right in Australia.

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Remember “Utegate”? The Prime Minister had been corrupted by the provision of a car. The Treasurer had provided special treatment for the PM’s mate. The media, and particularly News Limited, went into meltdown. The whole thing turned out to be the concoction of an embittered Liberal Party supporter inside Treasury.

Then there’s the Heiner Affair, a long-running claim that Kevin Rudd covered up child abuse in 1990. Angry right-wing bloggers continue to push this, with support from a News Ltd columnist.

And there was the Mark Latham “sex video” rumour in 2004, born on talkback radio and then given a solid boost by those noted pugilists Glenn Milne of News Ltd and Crikey’s own Stephen Mayne.

And there was Paul Keating’s corruption, supposedly over a piggery (Mayne was still running with that in 2008). Alan Ramsey gave some history about Keating and that “unrelenting and effective political grub” Tony Staley many years ago. And the incessant claims that either Keating was having an affair with a female journalist or a prominent businesswoman, or that he was gay (having been “spotted in Paris with an attractive young man” who inconveniently turned out to be his son, Patrick).

Not to mention Andrew Peacock calling Bob Hawke “a little crook” in Parliament.

Now, it’s unclear exactly what Julia Gillard is being accused of having done when she worked for Slater and Gordon (beyond having bad taste in men, which is something she admits). The firm has stated that she wasn’t sacked, and that there was no evidence that she’d benefited from Bruce Wilson’s actions. But they would say that, wouldn’t they, insisted a News Ltd journalist today, because Slater and Gordon “needs the continuing work that comes from a healthy caseload”.

What that even means isn’t clear — maybe Hedley Thomas thinks Julia Gillard will personally direct Commonwealth agencies to give the firm work. It’s the sort of tenuous, join-the-dots-and-hope logic that pervades these smears.

But if the actual allegation isn’t clear, yesterday provided some in the media with an altogether more serious charge than benefiting from dirty money or being sacked by a law firm: that of upsetting a journalist. And not just any journalist, but a senior journalist, a doyen of the gallery, Paul Kelly. “One of the nation’s most credible political commentators,” thundered The Australian Financial Review. Gillard had “sealed her own fate” thought Neil Mitchell, when she “personally attacked one of the most respected and experienced political journalists”.

An outrage, we can all agree — and, surely, another attack on News Ltd’s freedom of speech too?

Perhaps Gillard shouldn’t have pointed out with annoyance that Kelly was simply recycling old stories without putting any specific allegation to her. Perhaps the appropriate response was sympathy that Kelly, once a credible journalist and keen observer of Australian political history, had been reduced to yet another cog in News Ltd’s smear machine. “There’s no one asking me to ask questions,” Kelly insisted. No, he was merely rehashing the same vague claims that his newspaper, of which he is “editor-at-large”, whatever that is, recycled from right-wing hate blogs.

What are some of the sources for this stuff? Well there’s the website of ’70s Australian cartoonist Larry Pickering, whose misogynist drawings portray the Prime Minister as a dildo-wearing r-pist. Pickering was, many years ago, a Liberal Party candidate, but his main public profile in recent years has been in relation to a fraud probe. And there’s John Pasquarelli, best known for his role with Pauline Hanson (something The Oz has overlooked when it runs op-eds by him), but in the 1980s the Liberal candidate for Jagajaga, and who later worked for Nationals senator John Stone.

My point? Well, “I’m just asking questions”.

This is what the Right does. The Left has its own habits of misconduct, blind spots and hypocrisies, of course. But the Right specialises in smearing its opponents, particularly from opposition, and it finds a willing amplifier in News Ltd.

What’s changed, though, is that whereas muckraking and smearing used to be more difficult when there was only a limited number of media outlets, now anyone can do it. The mainstream media still likes to distinguish itself from bloggers and social media. News Ltd’s stout defender Mark Day once declared that blogging had the intellectual value of graffiti on a toilet door. The Oz used an editorial on the Queensland floods in early 2011 to attack social media for spreading incorrect information.

Apparently, however, new media has undergone a credibility rebirth in the eyes of Holt Street.

Perhaps that’s why, last time we looked at how much trust Australians had in their media outlets, The Australian had fallen nine points and News Ltd newspapers were the least trusted metro titles. News Ltd ought to be careful. Eventually its trustworthiness will be down with commercial radio. Or, even worse, with the blogs that it now apparently trawls for material with which to attack the Prime Minister.

And all for what? As if there aren’t enough valid grounds for critical analysis of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership on policy and political grounds alone.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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99 thoughts on “This is what the Right is expert at: smearing

  1. Warren Joffe

    I have come to this article and the discussion very late and I can’t see why the essence of the matter is that the PM is plausibly suspected (though certainly less than a prima facie case to be sent to trial on what we know at this stage) of having committed some seriously improper acts as a lawyer at Slater and Gordon.

    She has been referred to as a “young lawyer” but that is a misrepresentation of the facts and the point at issue. Perhaps a 23 year old in her first year of practice handling totally unfamiliar matters without adequate supervision might be excused unless she was deliberately dishonest and obtaining pecuniary advantage by fraud. But a late 20s or early 30s practitioner of several years experience in a substantial practice would have undoubtedly been struck off the roll of practitioners if she had been found to be in any way dishonestly involved in her boyfriend’s misdeeds, either to gain advantage for herself (other than trivially and more or less accidentally, at worst carelessly, as may well have been the case) or to facilitate or cover up misappropriation and embezzlement. Faced with her denial it obviously suited Slater and Gordon not to attempt to destroy her by proving what they obviously suspected might be true, not to advertise that such unsavoury happenings had occurred under their roof and, possibly, to earn credit for the future with an up and coming ALP politician (which, according to Gillard they have achieved). But they still sacked her (in substance, though she was allowed to resign).

    Richard Denis Meagher was struck off the roll of practitioners (Bar or Solicitors I don’t remember) about 1904 and, when a Labor MP refused readmission as a lawyer by the Supreme Court of NSW several times because (like Gillard) he refused to acknowledge that he had done wrong. The specially appalling Labor NSW governments of the years round 1920 (cf insider Vere Gordon Childe’s “How Labor Governs”) elected Meagher Speaker nonetheless and about 1921 in a late night sitting restored him to the roll of practitioners by legislation. The Courts are hard judges of character (ask Wendy Bacon if I haven’t got the name wrong) and a struck off Gillard would still be a struck off lawyer now if the events of the early 90s had been pursued vengefully by someone out to get her and her defence wasn’t adequate to prevent her being struck off. So…..

    Anyone who suspects that it suited both Gillard and Slater and Gordon to fudge the serious issues of criminality or lesser dishonesty – or carelessness amounting to professional misconduct – only has to be a sombre realist rather than a partisan political enemy. The suspicion that her foolishness or impropriety was a result of emotional attachment to an unworthy boyfriend could have benefitted too from the “There but for the Grace of God go I” thought.

    Personally I am disposed to be forgiving even if she overstepped the mark but in a world which tries to send 90 year olds to Hungary for trial (why not try him here?! ) over events said to have occurred 69 years ago of which there are no living witnesses it seems strange that we should be so ready to absolve the character of the PM, whose character is truly important, for a possibly disqualifying offence 17 years ago which she persists in denying (Catch 22 there I admit but try telling a judge you want him to recognise your remorse when you have persisted in pleading Not Guilty and denying the crime).

  2. Warren Joffe

    True Mike Smith but would you care to spell out your reasoning for what I logically infer to be your conclusion, namely, that attempting to send a 90 year old to Hungary to be tried for an offence (actually not an offence which existed at the time) supposed to have been committed in 1943/44 is a worthier endeavour than seeking to assess the character, truthfulness and judgement of our current PM based on her own past actions which plausibly show her honesty and judgement at age 35 to have been below acceptable professional standards.

    The governmental forces which surround and protect a PM with obfuscation, threats of counter-attack and so on were obviously not deployed in the case of Zentai [?spelling] or one would have expected half-decent level of intellect and crompetence to be applied. After all he was to be sent to Hungary to be tried in circumstances which would not have qualified as a fair trial in Australia for an offence which didn’t exist at the time as the High Court has affirmed. If the government that the PM leads was truly interested in justice it would have tried or facilitated the trial of Zentai in Australia for murder.

    Clearly the government (led by PM Gillard) didn’t regard it as important to Australia’s interests to do an even half competent job on the Zentai case. I would agree about the relative importance to Australia wouldn’t you? That is it does really matter if we have a dedicated opportunist politician as PM (I refer again to Lindsay Tanner’s opinion, one of the few from the Rudd cabinet to be valued) who seems to have behaved with at best gross negligence towards her partners and, again at best, aided the setting up of a “slush fund” [her own words] under cover of setting up a company with misleading objectives.

    Remember when the transparently honest Jim Short had to resign as a minister under John Howard because he had overlooked recording some trivial holding of bank shares which some third rate journalist who had never saved or invested a cent might have construed as involving a conflict of interest. Remember when Ian Sinclair, a very senior minister, had to stand down as a minister to defend a case, successfully, that he had done something wrong as an executor? And Gillard is our PM remember. Do you want one who is subject to pressure, maybe blackmail, from former Slate & Gordon people (and others)? Oh but that’s not the case at all!?! Well, wouldn’t it be nice if it was proven so all people of goodwill would acknowledge it? As I said above I am inclined to be forgiving in this imperfect world but let’s not use humbug for argument.

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