Gerard Henderson dissection of the Canberra Press Gallery’s performance in 2004 has generated plenty of media interest. This is how it has unfolded in the Crikey sealed sections, including a new response from Henderson himself.

From the December 14 subscriber email

Our man in the press gallery, Hugo Kelly, writes:

Sydney commentator Gerard Henderson’s got a great gig. He goes on Radio National of a morning and talks politics and meeeja with Peter Thompson. Then he recycles his stuff weekly in the Fairfax broadsheets.

Today, he regurgitated his chat last week agout how the press gallery got it wrong about Biff Latham – Predictions that missed their Mark

Your correspondent cops the following spray: “As late as September, Hugo Kelly ( reported in all seriousness that “hard-headed political observers are now speculating that a Labor mini-landslide is not out of the question”. Which suggests that his readers might have been better served by being advised what soft-headed observers were saying about the likely election outcome.”

Fair cop, guvn’r. Sadly, The Agedeleted the Crikey reference.

The Melbourne paper apparently even went to the trouble of inserting an error into Henderson’s copy: “In December 2004, Paul Kelly wrote – “The battle for the Latham story has commenced – it will be the greatest contest in Australian politics.”

No, no. That would be December 2003, when Latham had just seized the leadership, not this month, when he started to lose it.

Still, we won’t quibble with Gerard. We’ll just even the score. The Henderson technique consists of trawling through the archives and pouncing on anything that proves to be wrong sometime down the line. It’s cheap, easy stuff and saves the trouble of contributing your own views to the body politic.

Watch out Gerard, we’re starting to trawl…

Henderson vs The Meeja
December 24 subscriber email

The latest edition of Gerard Henderson’s ‘Sydney Institute Quarterly’ has arrived on our desk and, as promised, Henderson has devoted several thousand words to skewering sections of the media over its election coverage.

Using his honed technique of quoting commentators after the event, Henderson lands some big fish. Some of his victims include:

Geoffrey Barker: “Latham will be a towering figure in Australian politics of the 21st Centrury” (in the AFR on election day).

Glenn “hung jury” Milne: “What does the Greens’ decision to preference the ALP ahead of the Coalition mean for the outcome at the ballot box on October 9? For starters, it makes the already strong likelihood of a hung parliament even likelier.” The Oz, 20 September.

And Denis Atkins: “Pauline Hanson is a good chance to return to Federal parliament. She’s a much better chance of winning a Senate seat in 2004 than she was in 2001. She’s back all right.” Courier Mail, 17 September 2004.

Crikey’s political bureau, which cops some flak from Henderson, will settle back and have a read of the essay in the lunch break of the Boxing Day Test match, and report back after Christmas.

Charles Richardson on Gerard Henderson
December 29 subscriber email

By Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson

Crikey’s writers occupy only a minor place in Gerard Henderson’s roll of hapless election commentary. Your psephologist is represented by only one quote, from a piece published 7 months before the election, which simply reported (accurately) what the opinion polls were saying at that time.

Many other commentators emerge less unscathed. Rightly so, at least in some cases: it is frustrating when people refuse to acknowledge (much less explain) their errors but just carry on as if nothing had happened. Henderson has made it his mission to offer up a reality check.

But hindsight is a harsh judge. Far too many of Henderson’s barbs are directed at those whose statements were perfectly reasonable in light of the evidence at the time, but turned out to be wrong. That is a hazard of prediction, in any field. Surely we do not want public affairs commentary to be any more bland and cautious than it is?

Commentators should venture their opinions – that is what they are paid for – even at the risk that some of them will look silly months or years later.

It is also unfortunate that Henderson only gives one side of the story: he records failures, but not successes. One gets no sense of the important and enduring work done by people like Paul Kelly, David Marr, Michelle Grattan and Malcolm Mackerras. They are indiscriminately targets for his ridicule.

Nor is it that Henderson is unworthy of being seen in this company, like a pygmy shooting at giants. On the contrary, his Sydney Institute has greatly enriched Australia’s public discourse, and his Menzies’ Child is the best modern book yet written on the Liberal Party. He is still one of our most interesting political commentators.

But he would be a better read if he put a bit less effort into belittling his rivals.

Piers Akerman’s subs for mentions

The big toad mentioned the Henderson piece in passing this week and we cracked a mention in this paragraph, although the punk reference is puzzling:

Among those singled out for a session in tart-tongued Henderson’s arse-kicking machine are The Financial Review’s Laura Tingle, John Hewson and Geoffrey Barker, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Ramsey, Robert Manne, Margo Kingston and Mike Seccombe, The Age’s Michelle Grattan, The Australian’s Matt Price and Paul Kelly, the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien, Maxine McKew, Tony Jones and Terry Lane, Channel 10’s Paul Bongiorno and biographers including our own Michael Duffy, cyber punk politics site Crikey and Labor barrackers Barry Donovan, Craig McGregor and Margaret Simons.

Read the full Akerman column here.

The debate continues….
December 30 subscriber email

Peter Brent from Mumble Politics writes:

Dear Crikey,

Re Charles Richardson on Gerard Henderson’s media critique.

Henderson’s critique – both the several Fairfax columns and the full enchilada in the December issue of his Sydney Institute mag – is a good read marred by out of context misrepresentations. Charles’s is but one: plotting the current opinion polls against the pendulum was a perfectly reasonable thing to do at the time.

Another: Gerard has Malcolm Mackerras writing that Kerry’s win was a ‘landslide certainty’. Not true, MM used those words in describing how the US Electoral College system almost guarantees a ‘landslide’ result one way or the other. (Malcolm did predict a Kerry win in that column, in and in a later one predicted a ‘landslide’, but not with the words ‘landslide certainty’.)

He has fun pretending that Matt Price’s assertion that Latham’s ‘troops home by Xmas’ announcement was a shocker can’t be reconciled with Price’s own views against the Iraq War or his feeling that it might be a negative for the Howard government. But of course none of these things contradicts the others.

Henderson’s valid points – media infatuation with Latham; the lack of self-reflection in scribblers who on the morning of Saturday October 9 thought Latham the bees knees, but by Monday knew why he’d done so poorly; Alan Ramsey’s loopy Latham adoration; Glenn Milne’s repeated beating up of the hung parliament scenario (with the Greens calling the shots! – better vote Liberal!) – are diluted in all the nit-picking and selective quotes.

And poking fun at people who thought Labor would do well under Latham is a bit rich – where did Henderson write that Labor would go backwards? In fact, Gerard has been known to write after elections that he had privately predicted just this result.

Enough said; if someone had time they could surely pick through other of Gerard’s misrepresentations. They might also have fun with his writings over the years, eg the more strident aspersions on others’ patriotism in the leadup to the Iraq war last year.



Henderson hits back

From the 6 January subscriber email.

Peter Brent, proprietor of the Mumble elections website, recently had a go at Sydney Institute executive director Gerard Henderson. Henderson responds as follows:

Dear Crikey

I refer to Peter Brent’s piece in Crikey on 30 December 2004 concerning my critique of the coverage of Latham Labor by some journalists/commentators in the lead-up to the 2004 Federal election.

Mr Brent seems to believe that it is somehow improper to be involved in “poking fun” at journalists/commentators who make what turns out to be false predictions. Yet the media delights in reminding politicians about past statements which turn out to be incorrect. Why the double standard?

In my view, it is unwise to make predictions. After all, prophets tend to be of the failed genre. Peter Brent is not the worst offender here – but he is not without fault. Remember Mr Brent’s comment in the Canberra Times on 9 June 2003 that “John Howard…will almost certainly lose the next election”? Little wonder that he is sensitive at fun-pokers and the like.

Peter Brent asserts (without evidence) that I have “been known to write after elections” that I had “privately predicted” a particular result. This is not so. In any event, as readers of my syndicated column will be aware, as early as 3 February 2004 I cautioned about Mark Latham’s ability to win votes from John Howard in suburban and regional Australia and I suggested that “quite a few members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery” would be well advised to temper their enthusiasm for Mr Latham. This caution raised the ire of Alan Ramsey at the time.

Peter Brent also accuses me (again without evidence) of having made “strident aspersions on others’ patriotism in the lead-up to the Iraq war”. This is not true. Sure, I supported the decision of the Coalition of the Willing (the United States, Britain, Australia, Poland) to invade Iraq – and I opposed the stance of a few commentators who wanted Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime to win the war.

However, I always understood the mainstream case against the George W Bush/Tony Blair/John Howard position – and I did not cast aspersions on the patriotism of opponents of the Coalition of the Willing’s cause. I note, however, that many opponents of the Bush/Blair/Howard position were – and remain – unable to understand why many of their fellow Australians supported the Coalition of the Willing and were – and remain – unable to accept that the leaders of the US, Britain and Australia acted in good faith.

If Mr Brent wishes to make assertions about me he should support his allegations with evidence.

Gerard Henderson

CRIKEY: Fair enough – we agree that more accountability for the media is a good thing. But we hope Henderson will also take some of our criticisms on board.