The suspicion that they just make stuff up at The Australian has been reinforced over recent days with Saturday’s claim that the Government asked Ken Henry’s tax review to model a capital gains tax on the family home with the aim of, in The Australian’s words, “slapping” such a tax on homes worth more than $2m.
Wayne Swan issued a short statement on Saturday morning saying there had been no request, there was no modelling and there would be no recommendation to that effect. Ken Henry went further yesterday and said it was a “fiction”.
Of course it was Henry last October who described as “wrong. That’s W-R-O-N-G, exclamation mark” an Australian article claiming the Reserve Bank had advised against the Government’s bank guarantee before the Prime Minister took the decision to guarantee deposits and borrowings. Back then, The Oz scrambled to try to claim that discussions between RBA and Treasury officials several days afterward somehow justified the story, which was purportedly based on a leaked email from Treasury.
The AFP, apparently, suspected Godwin Grech of being the source of the leak, which suggests Malcolm Turnbull may not have been the first victim of faked emails.
Then there was The Oz’s campaign against the education component of the Government’s stimulus package, which centred on a number of half-baked claims that were demolished by Julia Gillard in Parliament. The campaign eventually morphed into claims that the package was pork-barrelling designed to shore up the Government’s support in crucial seats by attracting the support of tradesmen.
It’s clear that The Australian’s campaign against the Government isn’t slowing — even as it keeps trying to cause trouble for Malcolm Turnbull.
Crikey understands that senior ministers have been trying to patch over what has become straight-out feud between the Prime Minister and erstwhile friend and Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell.
Rudd of course is godfather to Mitchell’s son Riley. The Australian last year announced that Mitchell had separated from Riley’s mother, journalist Christine Jackman, who knew Rudd before he entered politics (to the extent, of course, that Rudd has not been in politics since he left Nambour).
Mitchell copped stick for having such a close relationship with Rudd — especially from Crikey. But the suggestion that Mitchell would take it easy on Rudd because of the relationship has never been borne out. Indeed, The Oz was the last rat to leave the sinking ship that was the Howard Government, spruiking the chances of a Liberal comeback almost until the end of the election campaign.
But according to Government sources the estrangement between Rudd and The Oz really began in October last year, when Matt Franklin of The Australian ran the now-famous account of a conversation between Rudd and George W. Bush in which Bush is alleged to have not known what the G20 was. Mitchell — who declined to return Crikey’s calls for this story — was present at Kirribilli House when Rudd took the call, although not in the room where Rudd spoke to Bush. Rudd, who was deeply embarrassed by the ensuing controversy, was very unhappy about Mitchell’s role.
But it was the faked email affair in June that particularly infuriated the Prime Minister and turned it personal. Rudd is said to believe that News Ltd acted “unconscionably” in its coverage — although it was the News Ltd tabloids, not The Oz, that mocked up the faked email as though it was real.
In response, Rudd and Julia Gillard specifically began attacking News Ltd. And The Australian, which had launched its assault on Julia Gillard a couple of weeks before, was taken off “the drip”, with stories now being conspicuously placed with other outlets.
Mitchell — no shrinking violet either — hasn’t taken a backward step. Journalists and commentators have fallen into line and ramped up the normally anti-ALP tone of much of their coverage, despite the complete hash the Coalition is making of Opposition.
“It’s like two pugilists letting rip”, one insider said. A number of senior ALP figures are known to be concerned about the feud, figuring there is nothing to be gained from a brawl with News Ltd, and that Rudd should put his personal feelings aside.
The broader context to the feud, however, is that this is a Government which has learnt from and gone well beyond the example John Howard set in his media communication. Howard, who was burnt by the incessantly negative coverage he received from the Press Gallery in his first stint as Opposition Leader, refined the art of going over the heads of the Press Gallery and communicating directly with voters, primarily via AM radio.
Rudd has gone much further, embracing any medium that allows him an unfiltered opportunity to convey a tightly-constructed, and highly repetitive, message. FM radio, long essays and light entertainment programs, as well as regular appearances on AM radio programs like Neil Mitchell, are favoured by Rudd. Rudd and his team are focussed on ensuring they control the content of the handful of seconds’ attention most voters give to politics each day — and shape events when voters are fully tuned in.
There’s also the basic media reality that newspapers carry only a fraction of the significance of commercial television news. The Australian sells around 140,000 copies each weekday. The Seven, Nine and Ten network news bulletins, which all use the same Canberra-generated political content no matter where the licensee is located, can offer audiences many multiples of that each night; in Seven’s case, up to 1.4m people on a weeknight.
It was instructive that on the night of Monday 22 June, after the Grech email had been revealed as a fake, Rudd went live on Nine News, and then Today Tonight — another million-plus audience. It gave him a mass audience platform to get out an unfiltered message attacking Turnbull.
Newspapers are influential with other journalists and “inside the beltway” but are no longer a viable means of mass communication for politicians even if they were disposed to use them. They’re a wide-scale boutique media form, a relic from a more literate and less visually-oriented society.
One of the traditional roles of the media in political journalism — in some ways, the entire raison d’etre of the Press Gallery — is to act as intermediaries between politicians and voters. That role is being rendered irrelevant as this Government, even more than its predecessor, pursues a communication strategy in which the Press Gallery is only one of many communication tools and, having a mind of its own, generally not the preferred one.
In that mix, newspapers can offer specific benefits — they can run long-form essays, for example — but don’t even provide a mass audience anymore. Moreover, the audience they deliver, being better-educated and better-informed than most voters, are far less susceptible to spin and propagandising.
It may be that Rudd shares the view of Jeff Blodgett, the Obama campaign director who visited Australia to speak at the ALP National Conference at the end of July. I asked Blodgett about the impact of conservative media. His view was that they simply fulfil their business model, which is to serve a conservative base, and have minimal impact beyond that.
Blodgett had in mind Fox News, but the same reality check applies to The Australian, whose readership is smaller, older, richer, more white-collar and more male than even other newspapers. The Prime Minister may feel having an ongoing feud with a media outlet like that is never going to hurt him.