A fortnight ago senior journalists from the leading Fairfax newspapers, Michelle Grattan and Shaun Carney for The Age and Peter Hartcher from the Sydney Morning Herald, sat down as part of a contracted arrangement with Melbourne University Publishing to interview the former deputy leader of the Australian Liberal Party, Peter Costello. The interview was part of a negotiated package valued at between $50,000 and $100,000 that gave Fairfax lifting rights to extracts from the Costello biography and a face to face interview with the (co-)author. The interview was strictly embargoed, and nothing gleaned from it could be published in either paper before yesterday.  

Both interviews raised the burning issue that continues to bog down Australian conservative politics: leadership. Was Costello interested?

To The Age, Costello said: “I am not seeking the leadership. I am not organising a challenge. A separate question is, will you be staying as an MP? I’m not going to reveal here and now what I’m going to do as an MP.” To the Sydney Morning Herald he was even more adamant: “I think I’ve made it clear,” he said. “I’m not seeking the Liberal Party leadership. They say, ‘Oh, we’ve had a bad week, better bring Costello back.’ I think that’s basically what happened. And I said, ‘No, I’m not seeking the leadership, I don’t want the leadership’.”

And there we had it, the running sore was bandaged at last. The SMH ran it as a conclusive statement of non-intent and subsequently the leadership caravan has moved on.

The sequence of events raises several issues about the conduct of both public life and of serious journalism.

A pretty convincing argument can be made that Peter Costello has kept mum on his true leadership intentions — causing his party to turn itself all but inside out in combinations of eager aniticipation and fearful trepidation — in part because of his natural tendency to smug insouciance, but in part due to a desire to build tension ahead of a book publication that needs to recoup big money and make substantial sales. That may be true or not. Whichever, it’s a matter for Peter Costello’s conscience.

The other issue is for journalists and their readers. For the past two weeks three people could have stopped the speculation on Liberal leadership in its tracks. They did it because their newspapers had signed a deal that guaranteed their silence. The resulting “news” when it was finally authorised to appear, is tainted by the commercial calculations behind its timing. The stories become something close to advertorial, never mind that the subject matter is an issue of significance in Australian public and political life. That’s something to ponder.

Peter Fray

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