Supercilious sexism, ‘fedoragate’ or something imminently more serious that goes to the heart of the relationship between democracy, the fourth estate, culture and society as we know it? Press gallery veterans weren’t holding back this morning over the prime minister’s barb at 2UE political reporter Latika Bourke’s Alicia Keys-aping threads at yesterday’s paid maternity leave announcement.

Surrounded by a clutch of proud Emily’s Listers from the Left including Tanya Plibersek and Sharan Burrow, Rudd, rather than responding to Bourke’s very reasonable question about why his leadership was “in crisis”, decided to comment instead on her get-up:

“Well, that’s a point of language which you have used … which is dramatically consistent with the dress which you have chosen today.”

After some nervous tittering, he quickly complimented the fedora, shirt and skinny tie ensemble also popularised by Diane Keaton in the 1977 Woody Allen classic Annie Hall and by Missy Elliott on the front cover of her 2005 smash The Cookbook and 1998’s Da Real World.

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The “scandal” engulfed the airwaves this morning with both Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne and Steve Price on Melbourne Talk Radio yapping at length and taking calls from listeners who didn’t seem to view the incident as much more than a pointless beat-up designed to capitalise on anti-RSPT sentiment propagated by billionaire miners and Tony Abbott.

NineMSN screamed that Rudd had launched a “fashion attack” on the popular 26-year-old Bourke, an Indian orphan who rose through the gallery to become the go-to reporter for Fairfax radio around Australia.

Crikey contacted some of Bourke’s gallery colleagues who suggested that if Laurie Oakes was asking the question the response would have been more anodyne.

Katharine Murphy, national affairs correspondent for The Age, said it was “brave” that the PM was “giving anyone fashion advice”.

“Kevin Rudd is under pressure, and his response to Latika reflected that pressure,” she said. “It was a knee-jerk response and it was silly.” Murphy added she hoped the reporter’s fedora “makes a comeback at the Midwinter Ball tonight”.

SBS chief political correspondent and former gallery chief Karen Middleton said she didn’t believe the comment was sexist, but it showed the Prime Minister was “under pressure and resorting to cheap shots”.

“What is increasingly happening is that journalists are getting attacked … he is particularly condescending to both men and women.”

“His chosen response off the top of his head is to put down the person asking the questions. It was particularly offensive [for him] because it was a young journalist who hadn’t been there that long. It gives you an idea about where the prime minister’s head is at.”

Crikey‘s Bernard Keane agreed: “This is a good example of how when you’re cold you’re cold. A comment like that from the PM would have barely been noticed a year ago, especially given he regularly mentions the ties of gallery journalists. But when the pressure’s on and he can’t do anything right, it gets turned into a spectacular own-goal.”

David Speers from Sky News was less convinced, saying Rudd “often commentates on men’s ties … so the idea that this is a sexism thing is a bit rich”.

This isn’t the first time Bourke, who wasn’t commenting this morning, has been embroiled in a clothes scandal of someone else’s making. In 2007, the then 23-year-old reporter was insulted by men outside a mosque in Sydney’s south-west who said she was “offensive” and “disrespectful” to the Muslim faith because she was wearing an insufficiently-thick overcoat.

Rudd has also previously commented on Bourke’s attire at press conferences, including once just weeks ago when the reporter apparently donned a Stephen Conroy-style Socceroos scarf.

Still, another gallery source was unmoved, preferring to focus on securing the next big scoop: “This is the kind of crap non-issue that stops us reporting actual news.”

And the prime minister’s office wasn’t having a bar of it. A spokesperson said:

“The prime minister said the journalist was wearing a great tie and a nice hat because he liked the tie and he liked the hat.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey