Is Malcolm Farr being inconsistent in the way he treated John Howard and Mark Latham when they spread rumours about themselves. Political gossip Jannette Hazel examines the issues.

Journalistic hypocrisy over those Howard rumours

From the first July 14 sealed section

The leader was deeply concerned about the rumours concerning his private life and decided he would put an end to the gossip by broadcasting it himself!

It was a masterstroke, Malcolm Farr declared: “It was the man himself who in early August told The Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine of dark chatter about him and top women’s bureaucrat Pru Goward.

“The false rumour was tatty, but the Prime Minister’s guiltless acknowledgement of it was refreshing.”

Pru Goward? Prime Minister? Yes, friends, what we are talking about here is not Mark Latham 2004, but John Howard 1998!

“Howard does volunteer, with twinkling eyes, that there have been rumours circulating Canberra he is having an affair with Pru Goward” (Daily Telegraph – 10/8/1998)

And what was the answer? Well, either Miranda never asked, or she didn’t think the answer worth reporting, but it was not the first time Howard had tried this bizarre tactic.

A few months before he had told another newspaper feature writer “Ask me about the rumours about Pru Goward”. So this was not, as Malcolm asserted, a clever move by Howard to put to bed a “tatty rumour”. According to Miranda he told her the story “with twinkling eyes”. Rather, it was a move by Howard to make himself seem a little less dull and boring by hinting he may be desirable to a powerful attractive woman.

Louise Dodson has not railed against his refusal to respond to the revelations, Glenn Milne’s column on how this could lose Howard the election is still to appear and Samantha Maiden is yet to ask him about his views on the sanctity of marriage.

The Malcolm Farr defence

Malcolm Farr has not held back in getting stuck into Mark Latham for supposedly spreading rumours about himself so we asked him if he was being inconsistent and he replied as follows:”Crikey, thanks for reminding me of that piece. It was a ripper and still stands nicely.

I don’t see any inconsistency. What Mark Latham did last week, when he knew two Sydney-based SMH reporters had submitted written questions, has no resemblance to what John Howard said in an aside in 1998.

I didn’t like politically motivated gossip then — Keating or Howard — and still don’t.


The articles in question

Here are the two stories from The Daily Telegraph in 1998 that deal with the rumours.


By Kim Sweetman and Kate Meikle

PRIME Minister John Howard recently quashed a bizzare rumour of an alleged affair with the Head of the Office of the Status of Women, Pru Goward, but the absurd tale has evolved into “Lettergate”. Goward’s husband and Howard biographer David Barnett allegedly threatened to put his concerns about the laughable rumour in a letter and leak it to the press.

According to some whispers in the nation’s capital, the longterm friendship between the three was under threat because of the PM’s light hearted bantering reference to the matter.

A happily married Barnett s about to celebrate his wedding anniversary with Goward.

In a good humoured reply to Thirteen’s inquiries yesterday, Barnett denied raising the issue with Howard, and says he is bored with all the variations on the story and attempts to make it a political scandal.

“This was started by the ABC weeks ago and got recycled,” he said, referring to questions which never made the news.

“It’s like when you write down a joke, it never translates.

“I have not raised it with him [Howard] despite opportunities to do so.”

Barnett said he was referring inquiries on the matter back to the PM’s office.

A Howard spokesman confirmed there was no complaint and the issue was of very little concern to anyone involved.

When this journal’s columnist Miranda Devine interviewed Howard earlier this month, the PM brought up the subject of the original rumour of an affair and laughed about it.

And the last word goes to Barnett of his long, happy marriage: “It’s our 14th or 15th or 13th or something -I really must check”. Flowers, maybe?

* * * * * * * * * *


October 26, 1998

By Malcolm Farr

THE only person who has gone public with scurrilous gossip about John Howard has been that well-known blabbermouth, John Howard.

It was the man himself who in early August told The Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine of dark chatter about him and top women’s bureaucrat Pru Goward.

The false rumour was tatty, but the Prime Minister’s guiltless acknowledgement of it was refreshing. It was even Mr Howard who recently forcefully quashed a suggestion that he didn’t take alcohol on board. At his October 14 news conference a reporter joked that it was well known the Prime Minister didn’t drink.

“No, I’ve never claimed to be abstemious,” he replied soberly, setting the record straight in favour of Howard the tippler.

It is a remarkable feature of John Howard’s career that he has had to be his own worst enemy when it comes to gossip. Nobody has been able to mount a sustainable whispering campaign against the carriage of his private life over nearly 25 years of public life.

Plenty of nasty things have been said about his policies and relations with Liberal colleagues, but nothing of embarrassment about his after-hours behaviour. What is particularly extraordinary is that Mr Howard comes from Sydney.

In this city, gossip is a religion with vigorous chapels operating within its newsrooms, the offices of State and federal MPs, club bars, barristers’ chambers and restaurants. It has a cathedral, which also houses the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Often it is harmless, part of the activity of an open city where much of business involves being a busybody. But politicians in particular know how dangerous Sydney can be for career-lethal corridor talk, frequently without basis.

It can be catty, such as a story a Liberal aspirant told of how his victorious party opponent spent so much money buying into a “decent” suburb he couldn’t afford furniture. Any politician knows it can also be hurtful and the more outrageous the story the more likely it has been concocted to meet a political purpose.

Last week, Treasurer Peter Costello, a Victorian, told a court that he believed discredited comments about him and his wife by Sydney writer Bob Ellis were aimed at him politically. In another instance, a bunch of outlandish rumours was manufactured and fired off to damage Paul Keating’s standing, even after he lost office.

John Howard has stayed immune from this type of assault, perhaps because his enemies have so many other things to say about him. It could also be that a man who glares angrily should anyone swear in front of a woman just doesn’t have the lifestyle for gossip. He doesn’t travel in the eastern suburbs circles where rumours abound and are reinforced.

Once he turned up at the Network TEN studios early on a Sunday morning for Meet The Press looking quite fuzzy around the edges. Journalists there to interview him leaned forward to gain an insight into some top-level debauchery, and the Prime Minister confessed.

He had hosted his son’s 18th birthday party and hadn’t gone to bed until 1am, and wouldn’t mind if we reported that sizzling depravity.

Further, there might not be the motive of retaliation. Mr Howard doesn’t have a reputation as a regular purveyor of gossip and perhaps not enough people want to get square in kind. He would rather talk about Mark Taylor’s triple century than off-field coupling, although he and Janette might occasionally swap stories.

This doesn’t mean those who have been the victims of gossip have deserved to be verballed, or that facts played a role in stories told against them. It’s just that John Howard seems singular in keeping his private life untouched by some of the most brutal storytellers in Australia.