Gerard Henderson is indeed, as Crikey said yesterday, “a pedant who does his homework,” and he deserves credit for it; you rarely catch Henderson out on a factual error. But yesterday’s Henderson column reveals at least two problems with pedantry.

The first is that substantive accuracy can take second place to literal accuracy. An example Henderson gives of “mythology” is (quoting The Economist) that “John Howard once agreed ‘with an interviewer that he was America’s deputy sheriff in the region’ (he didn’t).” Well, strictly speaking, that’s true, but he did make the remarks that invited that interpretation and, as Henderson himself put it in an earlier column (3 June 2003 ): “His office initially welcomed the Howard Doctrine piece and did not demur about the deputy sheriff references.” So The Economist’s writer got the detail wrong, but got the gist of the story correct. Which is more important?

The second problem is that a reputation for factual accuracy sometimes allows you to slip up in matters of opinion and have them treated with the same respect. Consider this passage from Henderson: “Then there is the prevailing mythology that the Howard government won the 2001 election on the asylum seekers/border protection/mandatory detention issue… It is true that the Coalition campaigned on border protection. However, it is likely that it would have won without this issue. Howard had a lot going for him in 2001 while Kim Beazley had an extremely difficult task.”

Now that’s not fact, it’s opinion. For what it’s worth, most observers (including this one) have come to the opposite opinion: based on the very sharp turnaround in the opinion polls at the time of Tampa, the very strong emphasis on the issue in the Coalition’s campaign, and the fact that the final margin was still quite narrow. It’s not something you can prove, and Henderson could possibly be right, but none of his research gives him the right to label the opposing view as “mythology.”