It’s time for Chris Mitchell, The Australian’s Editor in Chief, either to p-ss or get off the pot.

For weeks now his paper has been beating the hell out of what it describes variously as a gaffe, a blunder and a major security leak, which, it claims, has destabilised the Australian government, irrevocably damaged its relationship with the United States and generally rendered Kevin Rudd unfit to conduct international diplomacy.

Yet Mitchell himself, a key witness in the event which led to these charges, resolutely refuses to testify. Well, he can’t have it both ways. If the situation is even half as serious as he claims, then he owes it to the Australian public to tell them the truth. Unfortunately this may get in the way of a good beat up, but that’s journalism. Or it used to be when I worked for The Australian.

The facts of the matter are that on October 10 Rudd hosted a dinner at Kirribilli House for a number of guests, one of whom was Mitchell. Sometime in the course of the evening he left his guests in the drawing room to take a phone call from George Bush in the adjacent study. A fortnight later The Weekend Australian ran a story by-lined Matthew Franklin saying Rudd had been astonished to find that Bush apparently did not know what the G20 group of countries was.

The story was immediately proclaimed as a major embarrassment not for Bush, but for Rudd, who was accused by the opposition of deliberately leaking it for his own self-aggrandisement. In spite of denials, both from Bush’s office and from Rudd’s office, that the reported exchange had ever taken place, the accusations got shriller, culminating in a demand for a senate inquiry, thankfully vetoed by the Greens.

And at the weekend, a month after the alleged offence took place, the papers splashed photograph of Rudd shaking Bush’s hand — at the G20. The fact that it was not the kind of homoerotic embrace regularly accorded to Howard, meant, declared the pundits, that the lame duck president was deeply annoyed with our leader. And through it all, Chris Mitchell, well he lays low and sez nuffin.

Quite early in the saga it was suggested that if Rudd was using a speaker phone and if the door to the study was open, his guests may well have overheard at least part of the conversation; in spite of Malcolm Turnbull’s certainty, the leak may have come from somewhere other than Rudd’s office. Franklin has correctly refused to divulge his sources, as is his right and duty as a journalist. But Mitchell enjoys no such protection: he was present as a guest, not as a journalist, and he did not write the story (well, did he?).

It is perfectly legitimate to ask him, or any of the other guests, whether the conversation was overheard, whether it was discussed, whether Rudd mentioned it later. Mitchell is entitled to remain silent, but when he does so the rest of us are free to speculate as to his role in his paper’s scoop. The opposition, of course, has not done so; Mitchell is after all one of their most valued political assets, an important agent of influence. But it is a pity the rest of the mainstream media have also largely let him off the hook. When journalists become involved in politics they should not be immune to the scrutiny they demand of others, especially if their involvement seems to work to their advantage.

News Limited Boss John Hartigan is leading the campaign for more transparency and disclosure by governments. Perhaps someone should point out to him the very black pot named Mitchell sitting in his own kitchen.

And speaking of pots and kettles, last week I received a personal (well, personalised) email from our beloved Prime Minister which opened with the sentence:

“Dear Mungo, As a supporter of the Kevin07 campaign, I wanted you to be the first to hear about my new website:”

It was hardly surprising to learn that Mr Rudd was a supporter of the Kevin07 campaign; indeed I was myself, which is I think what he was trying to say. English usage 101: Adjectival phrases should be placed adjacent to the noun or pronoun which they qualify.

Correction: “Dear Mungo, I wanted you, as a supporter of the Kevin 07 campaign, to be the first to hear…” If required, your schoolmistressly Education Minister Julia Gillard will elaborate. Roll on the education revolution.

And I have spent most of the last week on my knees, praying for the strength to watch The Howard Years on the ABC. We had to live through the bloody things; do we really need to have them regurgitated in our living rooms?

The only people apparently looking forward to the experience are the unreconstructed Howard-huggers in the media, who are already opining that the filthy socialist ABC will use the opportunity to traduce their hero’s impeccable record. And they may well be right: from the teasers broadcast it would appear that quite a few of Howard’s former colleagues are lining up to claim that there were times during those 12 years when they themselves had their doubts.

Of course, in the interests of party loyalty, cabinet solidarity and the continuing good of the nation they said and did nothing at the time, but, well, they would now like to put on the record that they were not quite the cowards, sycophants, and a-selickers that they appeared at the time. Well, maybe not, but they were certainly willing accomplices.

Perhaps the main interest in the series will be in seeing how many now plead the Nuremberg defence — we were only obeying orders — and how many fall back on the streaker’s defence: it seemed a good idea at the time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey