A low key Peter Costello fronted a doorstop outside the Ministerial Entrance at 8:40 this morning with a very important message: you can’t trust journalists. (Click here to listen to the audio.)
Those of us in the handful of hacks who were around at that time – and there were some senior people there, like Michelle Grattan, Paul Bongiorno, Fran Kelly and David Speers – got an ethics lessons from a liar.
Twice yesterday – in the morning, on Channel 9, and later in the day on Sky – the Treasurer was asked if he’d said of the Prime Minister and the government: “He can’t win; I can. We can, but he can’t.”
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Twice he denied it – but he was in trouble once he’d done it on Sky, because the interviewer countered with: “Because one of those who was there present has told me today there’s no question you did and there were others present.”
At the doorstop today he denied a charge that has not been made – “I have never urged supporters of mine to carp against the prime minister nor have I ever urged supporters of mine to do anything which would undermine the Liberal Party” – and then tried to turn the matter into an ethical issue.
Costello sought to cast doubt over the story as a whole by beginning with a refutation of the reported date of the dinner where he made his remarks – that it was in June, not March 2005.
He then raised the ethics angle: “In the course of this discussion, which, by the way, was an off the record discussion, I think that point ought to be made, because I think that’s an important point of journalistic ethics, there was a long discussion of politics…”
And he played coy over what’s attributable and what’s not. “Well I don’t know all of these rules,” he began. “According to me…”
“Mr Costello, of course you do,” Michelle Grattan slapped him down.
Still, he’s got away with it to some extent. There’s been serious discussions in the corridors of the Gallery today over the ethical dimension of the matter.
Perhaps the starkest thing to come out of this all is the deference to power shown by those in the Canberra Club.
In 2005, it was fine to defer to Costello’s morning after regrets at big noting himself the night before and not reporting the remarks then.
Costello’s power in 2007 is shakier – so the comments are now out.
From all of this, we should note one thing; that basic maxim all good spin doctors tell their masters: there is no such thing as off the record.
Everything you say gets noted and affects perceptions, one way or the other.
Sometimes more spectacularly than others.
Remember that and you won’t need ethics lessons from a liar.