The idea that News Ltd tabloids have state Labor ministers over a barrel is hardly a blazing political insight, but the Herald Sun’s relentless campaign to force Victorian Transport Minister Lynne Kosky from office must surely set a new standard for tabloid bullying.

Last Wednesday, after a spate of heat-related train cancellations, the Herald Sun demanded Kosky abandon her “chauffeur-driven limousine” and take public transport to expose the hypocrisy allegedly at work (see the story’s remarkable progression here, here, here, here and here).

Kosky had begun last week with some low level meetings, but when Wednesday’s 39 degree temperatures struck, causing the cancellation of 32 services, the Herald Sun was quick to pounce, enlisting online hack Shannon Deery to the cause of peeved commuters. Deery went straight for the jugular — accusing Kosky of double-standards because she only sometimes commuted by train. But the paper failed to mention the crucial fact that Kosky rides the rails two or three times a week.

It then launched the following online poll, which allowed it to claim “90 per cent of Victorians” supported its stance:

Should Transport Minister Lynne Kosky catch the train home?

Yes, she should experience the day of other Melbourne commuters

No, she should go home in her air-conditioned chauffeur-driven car

After following up on Thursday with a nasty page five splash of Kosky blinking (she’s got her eyes closed, geddit?) and another online poll calling for her head (88 per cent in favour), Kosky’s office capitulated, instructing the minister to board that night’s 5:40pm Williamstown train with Herald Sun transport reporter Ashley Gardner and a photographer in tow to capture the “gotcha” moment.

But it was this morning’s op-ed by family reporter Susie O’Brien that has taken the cake. O’Brien repeats the erroneous claim that Kosky is an irregular train passenger and then recalls seeing the minister drinking a glass of wine at 4:45pm last Thursday at Southgate’s EQ Bar, the same afternoon, coincidentally, that Kosky had agreed to catch the train with the Herald Sun — a fact O’Brien conveniently omits:

There she was sitting — her back to Flinders St station — chatting, smiling and sipping a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, 100m or so across the river, thousands of commuters were entering the moving hell that is getting home on Victoria’s public transport system.

What O’Brien fails to mention is that Kosky was actually sitting at EQ with O’Brien’s newsroom colleague Gardner, waiting to be escorted across the Yarra to Flinders St. The bar is conveniently located just metres from the Hun’s Southbank offices. Within the hour Kosky was on the train with Gardner bound for Williamstown.

Crikey put this directly to O’Brien on the Herald Sun‘s “live blog” early this afternoon:

I saw her when she was waiting, apparently for our reporter…she didn’t seem particularly worried about anything and got a nice seat on her train for her ride home…

I didnt say Kosky wasn’t working – I just said she was sitting in the sun having a wine…

Earlier in the blog transcript, O’Brien admits she was actually at EQ bar at a table next to Kosky’s, having “knocked off for the day”.

O’Brien’s amazing spray dovetails nicely with a similar Herald Sun attack in December, when Kosky referred commuter’s complaints to Connex — the firm that actually operates Melbourne’s trains. Over both periods, articles in that morning’s Herald Sun were followed up by splashes in News’ afternoon throwaway MX.

It also fits a pattern that has seized the other Labor states. A senior ALP minister has commented to Crikey that the acute sensitivity to the front page of the Daily Telegraph has resulted in farcical scenarios when complex policy proposals had to pass the “Tele test”. In NSW, theoretical front-pages are mulled over for days and government reports routinely emaciated to skirt controversy.

It’s worth remembering that when Melbourne’s public transport system was privatised in 1999 under the reign of one Jeff Kennett the Herald Sun prosecuted the push relentlessly — which some might suggest is the root cause of the chaos currently engulfing the network.