What a pack of clowns they are at The Weekend Australian.

In what amounted to one of the lamest efforts at spoiling ever seen in Australian media, The Oz countered Fairfax’s Costello extracts on the weekend with a two-year old Costello interview by Peter van Onselen (Associate Professor of Stating the Bloody Obvious at Edith Piaf University).

Bet that worked a treat. Across Australia on Saturday morning there would’ve resounded a deafening crescendo of forehead-smacks, “dohs” and “rotten mongrels!” as readers across the land realised they’d bought the wrong paper.

“I thought I was getting the Costello memoirs,” they would’ve chorused, “and all I got was some rubbish from 2006.”

Not, as it turned out, that the extracts told us anything more than what van Onselen and Errington got back then. The extracts had already been done to death in preceding days. And in fact they were much more entertaining when retold by Phil Coorey than in the original, and altogether uninspiring, Costelloese. Oops, I forgot — this is a sportsmen-style “as told to” memoir. It’s Peter Coleman’s less-than-breathless prose. Coleman is, by the way, the author of The Real Barry Humphries, which means this is the second overrated Victorian performer he has written about.

Boom boom. I’m here all the week. Try the veal. Or in Costello’s case, the ham. Or whatever else he was buying at the markets on 60 Minutes last night, in between bellowing an operatically fake laugh whenever a punter asked if he was leaving. The interview with Ray Martin — and it was bizarrely hard to distinguish Costello and Martin after a while — told us nothing, except that Tanya Costello has more substance and political nous than her husband.

But you can tell just how pained they were at News Ltd about Fairfax having the rights. The Weekend Australian’s editorials frequently appear to have been written by someone under the influence of particularly high-quality opiates, but Saturday’s effort was more than usually detached from reality, and extraordinarily bitchy too boot. It complained about how “naive” Fairfax journalists — specifically, Peter Hartcher and Michelle Grattan — had been about interpreting Costello’s remarks about the leadership. Presumably the editorial had been written before the author read their own journalists’ latest round of Costellogy, which contained the same “naivety” as that found at The Age and SMH.

The revealing line, though, was “Fairfax’s costly purchase of the interview and extracts did not buy a scoop”. A dead giveaway that they felt they had indeed been scooped at News. And worse, the scoop was directly contrary to the line so assiduously pushed by The Oz for months, that Peter Costello was preparing to assume the Liberal leadership.

Not that we should give up on that. Remember how Dennis Shanahan, almost up until the election, was finding in last year’s Newspolls evidence that John Howard was set for a comeback, based on ever-more obscure “key indicators”? Even when Costello leaves Parliament, Dennis will be probably still be explaining that the door is open for Hamlet Prince of Malvern to seize the leadership and destroy Kevin Rudd with his political genius.

“Agenda journalism is a dangerous pursuit,” wrote Frank Devine in The Oz last week, quoting John Hartigan.

“It makes newspapers tediously predictable at best and, at worst, cumulatively untrustworthy.”

It was good to see that old Frank is still capable of writing cogently, even if it is the same right-wing bile he’s been vomiting for decades. But his description of his own paper was spot on. Tediously predictable and untrustworthy — especially when it tries to play kingmaker.

Peter Fray

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