Why has Greens leader Bob Brown stopped the Senate Inquiry Senator Fielding proposed into the serious damage to our diplomatic relations caused by the leak of the telephone conversation between the US President and Prime Minister Rudd?

Why is Brown protecting the PM?

It was bad enough that there was a leak. It was worse that it was wrong. It is absolutely appalling that the PM — a former diplomat — knew all along that it was wrong and did not immediately denounce it.

The story grossly inflated the importance of the PM and seriously demeaned the President. Even the prompting of the US Ambassador was not enough to prompt the PM to denounce the story. He only admitted it was untrue after an exasperated White House took the highly unusual course of briefing a Washington newspaper about it.

The leak was in a report by Matthew Franklin in The Australian on 24 October “PM Kevin Rudd’s role in international crisis summit” that Mr. Rudd had, all by himself, persuaded President Bush to call a meeting of the G20 to deal with the international financial crisis. The story just did not ring true.

Bush was reported as asking “What’s the G20?”, never mind that he had already decided to refer the crisis to them.

The reporter denied the Prime Minister was the source for the leak. Mr Rudd was entertaining guests at Kirribilli House when the pre-arranged call came through. Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of The Australian, was among the guests.

This could be the first case of a journalist’s source being … his own editor. If so the journalist could hardly say he had to protect the confidentiality of his editor. This rule was devised to protect whistleblowers, not the media.

Whistleblowers risk their jobs, and the possibility of expensive litigation; editors don’t.

In the meantime The Australian is trying to distance itself from the real story — the damage which the leak did. They were of course absolutely right to publish the original story, although they could have invited a White House comment and publish that simultaneously. Now they must follow through with the resulting story which is bigger than the original one. And that made the front page.

Curiously, anything strongly critical of the role of the PM in this is not getting on to the opinion page. There were four letters published today, all attacking Turnbull. (One is from a “DJ Fraser” who seems to have a guaranteed place on the page.)

What happened to freedom to know? The Australian seems to be behaving like the very politicians it criticises. During the debate of a motion of no confidence moved by Malcolm Turnbull, the front bench looked very worried.

The Prime Minister studiously avoided denying he was the ultimate source of the story. His answer was an irrelevance — to point to a gaffe by John Howard about Barack Obama. Howard should not have said that, but it was made in public.

In the debate Rudd made the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith takes the brunt of Turnbull’s powerful onslaught. A Senate inquiry would have been exactly the right place to find out who caused this serious damage to our international relations. We are entitled to know this.

Franklin could hardly have pleaded a confidential source, if as everyone thinks, it was Mitchell. And it could have been that Mitchell overheard the conversation. He would hardly have invented such a silly story.

This is a matter of legitimate public interest. It is about our international relations.

So why did Brown squib the inquiry? Why is Brown protecting the Prime Minister? Has there been some deal?

And why is the national newspaper not applying to itself what it rightly lectures politicians about — the right of the public to know?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey