The Herald Sun triumphantly poached gold Walkley winner Andrew Rule from The Age late last year, but that doesn’t mean it should thoughtlessly put every story he presents on the front page. So it was last Friday when the Herald Sun splashed with Rule’s beat-up about Andrew Wilkie’s behaviour at Duntroon 28 years ago.

The Saturday Herald Sun was even more sanctimonious, producing this long editorial and claiming there were “five questions that Wilkie must answer”. The last two were as follows:

4. Can you provide any evidence that Mr Etches, reporter Andrew Rule or the Herald Sun are part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the pokies lobby?

5. If you can’t provide any evidence, will you withdraw those imputations and apologise?

Exhibit A, of course, is the fact that the pokies industry has just signed contracts to spend millions of dollars in News Ltd papers on paid advertising demonising pokies reform. The timing looks awful.

Big advertising contracts often generate positive editorial coverage. I well remember then Daily Telegraph editor Col Allan asking me to do a soft feature on Aussie Home Loans boss John Symond in 1998.

Symond was spending up big on advertising at the time and when I called, he dropped out that he had requested some editorial coverage from then Daily Telegraph CEO Malcolm Noad. Noad called Allan who was happy to oblige and a 700-word puff piece duly appeared on the opinion page the following day.

Not everyone is suggesting Wilkie’s alleged Hitler salute in 1983 isn’t a story. But it never merited the huge page one splash in Australia’s biggest-selling paper last Friday.

If the pokies industry hadn’t agreed to pay News Ltd millions of dollars, this would not have happened.

Can you imagine the Herald Sun doing that to Wilkie if he had just signed some huge advertising contacts to attack the pokies industry? It is also a bit troubling that Wilkie doesn’t even recall the incident.

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have the best record when it comes to events involving Hitler in 1983 as that was the year The Sunday Times paid $US400,000 for the rights to Hitler’s so-called diaries. Turns out they were fake and The Sunday Times is still remembered to this day for one of the most embarrassing gaffes in the history of journalism.

The other problem with having Andrew Rule beat up on Wilkie is that his wife, Di Rule, is a two-time unsuccessful Victorian Liberal candidate. The Liberals have played a cynical game with the pokies, ignoring the policy debate and focusing entirely on attempting to bring down the Gillard government.

Even worse, Rule is now admitting that he is related to Brendan Etches, the former cadet making the allegations against Wilkie. Given all this, surely it would have been sensible for Herald Sun editor-in-chief Phil Gardner to assign the story to a different reporter, or at least ensure the coverage wasn’t so hysterical.

Gardner also potentially has an interest in the first of the five questions that his paper declared “Andrew Wilkie must answer”. It read as follows:

1.   Will you ask the defence force to waive your privacy rights and release your personal Duntroon punishment records so the public can judge what happened at Duntroon.

Gardner himself spent some time in the South African army and used to regale the Herald Sun sports desk with hair-raising tales of those colourful times.

Here’s a suggestion for Wilkie: he should agree to release his private records on the condition that Gardner also releases his complete disciplinary record whilst serving during the apartheid era. And while he’s at it, perhaps Wilkie should also ask Herald Sun managing director Peter Blunden to release his complete driving record.

At least Wilkie originally outed himself for poor behaviour at Duntroon. When Blunden was pulled over for drink diving in 2002, he waited for the court case before the Herald Sun reported the incident, but the paper failed to note he claimed that asthma prevented him from blowing properly into the bag.

Anyone who has heard the voluble Blunden ranting and raving would be surprised to know that he doesn’t have the lung capacity to satisfy a standard breath test.

Finally, it should be clearly stated that Crikey has received no paid advertising from the anti-pokies lobby before running this piece.

Peter Fray

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