There is a certain irony in a Prime Minister who made an artform out of aggressive spin lecturing a group of wannabe hacks on the importance of a “sceptical” media, but this is exactly what transpired at Melbourne University last night, when John Howard AC took to the stage to deliver a homily to a forgotten age of traditional news gathering.

In a three-quarters full auditorium the soul of belligerent conservatism offered up less an obituary on the death of the mainstream media than a celebration of its continued relevance.

“It’s popular to say that newspapers are dying”, Howard said, but that sentiment, as always, was “out of touch”, both with reality and the preferences of middle Australia. The Internet was a sign of “diversity”, but was certainly no substitute.

If only traditional journalists would only try hard enough, Howard appeared to be saying, the rose-tinted past could be successfully recaptured with the UK Daily Telegraph‘s MP expenses expose (“Chinese water torture, complete with a moat”!) standing as a glowing example of a recent dead-tree triumph.

Before the speech even began, chatter had had centred on exactly why Howard had decided to front Melbourne Uni in the first place. The former PM admitted he had shunned the spotlight since his election defeat, preferring conservative think tanks to the glare of the parochial press.

The mystery was solved just seconds in, when Australia’s second longest serving PM singled out former-Age editor Michael Gawenda, the host of last night’s event, for defying his newsroom’s “left liberal” bias and editorialising in favour of the Coalition of the Willing just days before the US invasion of Iraq.

Crikey readers may recall a similar incident in 2004, when Gawenda and senior Fairfax management decided to editorialise on election eve for Howard against Mark Latham. It soon became clear that Gawenda and Howard, like Howard and George W Bush, shared a special relationship.

The familiar culture war tropes were scattered throughout the speech, with Howard revealing a penchant for the pillars of serious discourse, the AM and PM programs — both products of a national broadcaster defunded by his government. But the focus was squarely on Howard’s attempts to spin the news cycle, rather than any attempt at serious analysis.

Howard blamed the media’s continuing leftist “bias” on Vietnam war protesters who had infiltrated the country’s newsrooms, expressing a preference instead for a golden era of hard-headed hard news helmed by people like Max Walsh and Howard’s favourite journalist of all time, 48-year Gallery veteran Alan Reid.

Howard commended Reid tomes The Gorton Experiment and The Power Struggle as glowing pointers for young hacks on the make.

“The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” may have been the speech’s title, but Howard never got around to the ugly, praising instead the media’s (read Paul Kelly’s) backing of his economic reform agenda and the ABC’s stance on IR reform in the early 1990s (a record presumably traduced by last year’s Bastard Boys). Lateline‘s reporting of the Northern Territory Intervention also got a special mention.

In the “bad” camp was the media’s “character assassination” of former-Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, whom Howard appointed Governor General in 2001, and its analysis of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon, which Howard claimed went beyond race to encompass the frustrations of excluded Australians, a stance, interestingly, echoed by broad sections of the Left. Lateline host Tony Jones’ pronouncement that the opinions expressed in The Great Climate Change Swindle were “not the view of the ABC” was also singled out for criticism.

But it was talkback radio for which Howard reserved special praise. His weekly 30-minute slot on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW morning program emerged as a key forum to raise issues that would then appear in the Saturday papers. Mitchell knew how “to ask the right questions”, Howard said.

After 55 minutes last night it was all over, with the audience, dominated by proudly-besuited Young Liberals, private school girls, the University hierarchy and ABC Mornings host Jon Faine, stumbling into the sodden night, with a lonely AAP journalist hanging round to ask Howard’s views on man of the hour Godwin Grech.

A forum will be held next week to discuss issues raised in Mr Howard’s address. The panelists are ABC Lateline presenter Leigh Sales, the Australian’s Editor-at-Large, Paul Kelly, business commentator and former Editor of the Age and the Australian Financial Review, Alan Kohler and senior political writer and columnist George Megalogenis from the Australian. Michael Gawenda, a former Editor of the Age and now the Director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism will chair the panel discussion. It will be held next Tuesday 11 August, 6.00pm J.H. Michell Theatre, Richard Berry Building, Parkville. Admission is FREE. Bookings are required. To book, please email: [email protected].