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Nov 26, 2012

The mechanics of how a smear campaign was legitimised

What began as a smear campaign against the Prime Minister became a major media story only a few days ago, when it stopped being merely a News Ltd smear campaign.

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Julia Gillard

In the last week the AWU story, such as it is, has leapt from being a confection pushed by the government’s opponents, to being a confection the Press Gallery has decided to take seriously.

This legitimization of the story has coincided with it becoming clearer just how little of substance there actually is to it. The best illustration of this was an intriguing interview on Friday by the ABC’s Jon Faine, who unlike his colleagues at Media Watch has kept his critical faculties intact about the story. Faine put the Prime Minister’s most ardent pursuer (after Larry Pickering, a former cartoonist at The Australian regularly criticised for being misogynist and an anti-semite), former shock jock Michael Smith, on the spot to outline a specific allegation of wrongdoing. The best Smith could do, the crime that he claimed “could cost the Prime Minister her liberty”, was falsely witnessing the date of a document, though he was unable to point to evidence to support this beyond the claims of Ralph Blewitt.

Until the story became legitimised, it was being driven primarily by one media company’s obsessive war with Labor, although Mark Baker’s enthusiasm at The Age, while not raising any new issues, gave some cover to News Limited. It wasn’t purely about Julia Gillard, although the smear campaign became ever more strident as she improved in the polls. But even if there’s no connection demonstrated with the Prime Minister, the incessant repetition of stories about union corruption serves a broader purpose of attacking the trade union movement. Union corruption is a convenient narrative, although by no means confined to News Ltd; most media outlets, and particularly The Australian Financial Review, find union corruption endlessly fascinating while remaining for the most part bored by business malfeasance (the splendid recent example is that of Hastie Group, where $20 million was stolen and sparked the collapse of the company, with barely a flicker of interest from the media beyond how many jobs would be lost).

At no stage was any rationale offered for how the story related to the public interest or merited the significant devotion of resources made to it by media outlets under severe financial pressure. Not even the sole contemporary relevance of the story, that disgruntled Kevin Rudd supporter and sacked Attorney-General Robert McClelland appears to have been involved in perpetuating it, was discussed.

What was intriguing about the campaign at this stage was that it was strongly gender-based. The campaign was being run entirely by older white conservative males. The Australian is staffed and run almost entirely by such people. The shock jocks giving constant airtime to it are the same. The bloggers and net trolls obsessing about it online, too, are the same demographic. That, of course, is the same demographic and the same media figures that drove the anti-carbon price and climate denialist protests, as well as the debacle of the “convoy of no consequence” campaign.

Indeed there are strong themes running through all of these campaigns: Gillard is an illegitimate Prime Minister, she has no morality, and her lack of morality and incompetence is somehow linked to her gender — it’s an easy segue from “Bob Brown’s b-tch” to Bruce Wilson’s dupe, although of course her enemies have been anxious to suggest that Gillard may well have been even worse than a simple dupe.

Last week, however, the story stopped being merely a News Ltd smear campaign. Television and radio coverage surged massively. Media Monitors data shows that weekly television and radio mentions of the story were limited to several hundred in total in recent weeks. There were 110 television mentions of the story in the week beginning 29 October, no mentions at all the following week (Melbourne Cup week) and 446 in the week of 12 November.

Last week, however, there were over 2,200 mentions. Radio coverage followed a similar pattern, but TV coverage is the key: few voters read newspapers and none but the politically engaged would have read more than a few pars of the dense, pointless minutiae paraded by the likes of Baker and Hedley Thomas. Coverage on nightly news bulletins is many, many multiples of newspaper coverage in terms of impact on voters.

And in particular, TV coverage went off last Wednesday, with 224 mentions of the story, up from low double figures in the two days before. After that, the story received massive television coverage. To put it in context, the issue was the fourth most-discussed subject on television, behind Gaza, the cricket and asylum seekers, but ahead of the child abuse royal commission.

Wednesday was, coincidentally or not, the day after 7.30 aired its interview with Ralph Blewitt — an interview that displayed a peculiar lack of curiosity about Blewitt’s activities in South East Asia in recent years, but did yield one of the great moments in Australian interviewing, when Blewitt declared the Prime Minister had questions to answer, but then answered “no comment” when asked what the questions were. The next night 7.30 followed up with an interview with Nick Styant-Brown that, while labeled “exclusive”, didn’t appear to add anything to what he had already told newspaper journalists.

Blewitt’s return to Australia and 7.30’s embrace of him as newsworthy (possibly at the prompting of Media Watch, which devoted an episode to how the ABC wasn’t following The Australian’s lead) thus appears to have been critical to elevating what was (and remains) a smear campaign into a legitimate political story.

Since then, Press Gallery groupthink has taken over. It’s now a story because it’s a story. Outlets dare not fail to cover it. “The story won’t go away,” was Peter Hartcher’s line on the weekend; a journalist complaining that a story won’t go away being equivalent to an offensive drunk in a bar complaining about the obnoxious clientele present. Only a handful, such as Ten’s Paul Bongiorno, have bluntly called the story what it is.

Unlike the initial smear campaign, how much gender plays a role in this isn’t clear, but is worth some thought. The Press Gallery is just over two-thirds male, and the more senior you go, the fewer women there are. That’s not to suggest female journalists are going to give a female Prime Minister any sort of pass on alleged impropriety — far from it. But much of the Gallery spectacularly missed the significance of the Prime Minister’s misogyny speech, partly because they were doing their day job of analysing the tactical battle on the floor of Parliament, but also, one suspects, because they failed to understand how much it would resonate with women who routinely put up with s-xism in their working lives. Tribal behaviour is at work here on this story as well and that can’t be understood without reference to gender.

That sort of tactical analysis, focused purely on calling who’s winning particular political square-ups, will dominate coverage this week. The first round of that will be the Prime Minister’s press conference today at 1pm, as Crikey is issued, followed by Question Time. So many tactics, so little reflection on the actual merits of the story.

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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101 thoughts on “The mechanics of how a smear campaign was legitimised

  1. michael r james

    David Hand, who’s an “older white conservative male” now! It would be funny if it wasn’t so bloody annoying and destructive of our democracy. Please, with the greatest disrespect unless you have something actually material to relate, could you STFU.

    Meanwhile, at this morning’s long press conference the PM responded about another particularly repellent WCM:

    [‘‘Let me remind you who Mr Blewitt is. Mr Blewitt is a man who has publicly said he was involved in fraud. ‘‘Mr Blewitt is a man who has sought immunity from prosecution. ‘‘Mr Blewitt is a man who has fled Indonesia to avoid a police interview in relation to land fraud, although he denies wrongdoing in the case. ‘‘Mr Blewitt says he owes money on another Asian land deal. ‘‘Mr Blewitt admits to using the services of prostitutes in Asia.
    ‘‘Mr Blewitt has published lewd and degrading comments and accompanying photographs on his Facebook page. ‘‘Mr Blewitt, according to people who know him, has been described as a complete imbec ile, an id iot, a stooge, a se_ist pig, a l iar and his sister has said he’s a crook, and rotten to the core.
    ‘‘His word against mine: make your mind up.’’]

    Sounds about right.

    And QT is in the middle of total blather and nonsense by Julie Bishop (with Chrissie Pyne in his role as fluffer to help poor Julie keep it up). So far there is nothing but bluster and zero evidence, indeed no clear questions or claims of malfeance.

    At 3.12 pm it appears all over. But Chrissie & Julie, no money shot. And Mr Abbott, present for Question Time, didn’t ask a single question.
    The PM had the last line (and IMO the last laugh): “Nope. I didn’t fake the moon landing, I wasn’t responsible for the assassination of JFK, and I didn’t shove Harold Holt on a Chinese submarine before she gets to those questions.”

  2. Hunt Ian

    David Hand’s smug “calling it a smear campaign won’t make it go away” says it all. Bernard has given a good account of a story that has nothing to it, despite the persistence almost obsession of Julie Bishop. Hopefully what will make it go away is the boredom of innocdent citizens who have to put up with this and a continuing non-impact (reverse impact) in the polls would help. All the media fervour in the week of Newspoll has made no difference.

    Bernard is right about the bias of senior media figures in terms of gender but the campaigning is primarily to oblige private investors, who by now are appalled that Australia has not faced the austerity policies that will, according to the weekend AFR, more than double the number of billionaires in Europe by 2016.

    The reluctance of these same billionaires to pay tax is, of course, from a sense of public duty inspired by convenient economic modelling that shows they will be deterred if they are taxed as they were after World War II, or even at half the rate, despite their real incomes being so high today. The economic modelling is especially convenient since private investors failed to show their aversion to Keynesian policy when they rather surprisingly delivered a post-war boom, with a touch of Koran War inflation, that allowed countries to pay off their War debts of over 120% of GDP. Now, of course, the generations that were so let down by massive World War II debt and high levels of taxation, seem doubly averse to paying reasonable levels of tax and no doubt will embrace Coalition policies of dismantling the welfare state, which is not to be confused with reducing middle class welfare, as the Treasury does so wilfully, when it does not see this as “incentives” for the well to do to pay for their own, hopefully better, medical cover. They will embrace Coalition policies sight unseen because they cannot stand the sight of 10% of GDP nett national debt, even though Australia somehow managed 127% of GDP national debt after World War II.

    No doubt also the media pack last week hoped that Blewitt could become another Kemlani, who so conveniently flew back into Australia to give Malcolm Fraser the excuse he needed to pull the plug on the Labor government in the upper house. Mr Blewitt’s mission is more tricky, it is to convince the independents that they should pull the plug on Labor if Tony thinks move a vote of no confidence in Gillard due to her crime of failing to recollect absolutely everything in accordance with documents that the Coalition dribbles out. It is unlikely, though, that Blewitt will stand up as a Kemlani, Although Kemlani might have flown back with the prompting of the CIA, his credibility was not tarnished by sisters and former colleagues, who said he was not be trusted, and his own reports designed to minimise any involvement he might have had.

    The hope of us all is that Blewitt will fail in his Kemlani mission and Tony will draw back from moving a vote of no confidence. Then the smear campaign might go away.

  3. Edward James

    I just don’t trust our Prime Minister. She called this on. When we the people know the RC will not on its own help and protect us The Royal Commission is looking more and more like a knee jerk reaction the closer we get to the 26 of November. Called by Prime Minister Gillard without any planning. It certainly served to diffuse the way the grass roots community of victims and their supporters were rising up, against irresponsible government. After the suicide of Mr John Pirona, yet another in a long line of child abuse victims who could not bear the pain any longer. The cause of which is still being hidden away by a dysfunctional system. Those of us with little or no understanding of the way our constitution and laws are meant to work and protect us. Are beginning to understand nowhere near enough of our politicians Federal, State and Local want to overtly support their constituents by voting for effective action on this issue. Our politicians are not yet willing to do whatever it takes to provide justice for all the victims. In fact some states are flat refusing to support the national call to correct a problem almost 200 years old. In time we expect closure by the regulation of legislation. So that the entities responsible for harboring such abuse will never be able to cover up and protect their particular monsters from the rule of law again. I am becoming angry after listening to the attached pod cast link in which a Mr Paul Kelly points out that the Royal Commission alone without the full support from all the States and Territories, which are the governments with the laws and the power to prosecute identified offenders get on board. Because it is looking like people at the grass roots in our community will once again be short changed by so many politicians are too scared to insist on national action supported by the states and territories.

    This podcast link http://2gb.com.au/audioplayer/5989

    helps the listener understand why the Royal commission without 100% support from every politician and their constituents will come up short. The long suffering vctims of child abuse will continue to carry their burdens. Edward James

  4. David Hand

    This is great entertainment. I haven’t seen such a fun thread for some time. I couldn’t make up the bile and vitriol expressed here. I thought call_ing Jul_ie Bishop a Barbie doll was a particularl_y topical example of the genre – a s*xist and misogynistic put-down tailor made for this period in our national discourse.
    The whole AWU question has oxygen because it is just one of the events of substance that have broken out around the widespread perception of the union movement’s antidemocratic, self-serving, el_itist practices. Deals are done behind closed doors, members’ money is misappropriated, rank and file members are done over and Labor MPs have masters other than their constituents. Allegedl_y.
    Here we have a real issue; maybe minor compared to Eddie Obeid or Craig Thompson, that directl_y involves the prime minister.
    I don’t have a problem with people defending her from the legal point of view. “I did nothing wrong” is such a convenient lawyer’s l_ine, probabl_y technicall_y true but completel_y unsatisfying. It sounds more like Nixon’s “I am not a crook” statement or Clinton’s “I did not have s*xual relations with that woman”. The questions circling about her have effect because they touch the undemocratic nepotistic union cult. Shorten understands this and is creating a bit of distance between him and her – to Julia’s disadvantage.
    The “nothing to see here, move along” campaigning from Julia’s front bench and Crikey has the look and feel of the phone hacking scandal before Millie Dowler.

  5. klewso

    Here in the gall bladder of the body politick, bilirubin is bilirubin – it doesn’t matter from which side of the liver it’s secreted. When you think of it we’re all pretty much the same, we just see things differently – by choice too often – some of us can see fault on both sides of that great portal vein of politics – some can’t.
    Where I come from you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – unless you want a lift in an ambulance.
    During “the pink batt debacle” I remember Abbott using parliament as his stage, for his histrionics, to accuse Garrett of being guilty of industrial manslaughter (“… you show no remorse, no concern, no urgency about anything except saving your own hide … ”). I’m not the one (leading a parliamentary party) with image problems (and ventriloquist dolls, when you get down to it, are of indeterminate sex, being pieces of inanimate material for whom others must make up their lines – you might say they’re plagiarists too, like Bishop) – using Bishop to prosecute “such an important issue”, because “she’s a woman”.
    With his image problems/poll figures he has to back off, he could have tuned Pyne up and set him on the government as he usually does, in some hypocritical tizz – but Gillard is a woman and he doesn’t want to be labelled misogynist any more – he’s done that to within an inch of the death of his public image. So it’s down to that “Paragon of Plagiarism” to come to the aid of the party.

  6. Warren Joffe

    Apart from the silly gibes which constitute 90 per cent of comments there are curious evidences of brains switched off by those who seem to be trying. E.g. both Ian Hunt and Hugh McColl refer to “legal advice” from Gillard (and suggest that it was the only way she was involved).

    I wonder what they think the “legal advice” was, and if they have considered what it ought to be. I can well remember a new member of parliament showing me the advice he had just given as a barrister to a well known charity which said 1. yes the scheme may well work legally but 2. it might be a very bad idea for your relations with government/ATO if you go ahead with your part of it and that is without considering the ethical issues you might wish to consider.

    In fact it doesn’t appear that Gillard gave any significant legal advice. (What was the question on which she was asked to advise if you doubt that?). She simply helped use her firm’s services for putting filling in and lodging forms, paying fees etc. However, she must have known that she was helping her lover to set up a body which misappropriated the name of her firm’s major client the AWU so what did she say about that? She must have known that since it was a “slush fund” for helping her lover keep control of the levers of power and money in the AWU neither the name nor the objects registered were honest. So why didn’t she give either “legal” or just plain moral advice against that? Not to mention refraining from her part in deceiving the WA licensing or registration body.

    The more you think about it she was behaving like a sleazy crook or gangster’s moll and yet we have her as PM without her even claiming that she once was a sinner but now is saved!

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