The Victorian Department of Human Services’ most senior spin doctor, Kevin Broadribb, vowed to sue Crikey in an extraordinary on-the-record phone call spray last night.

Broadribb, a former logging industry spokesperson, said he would “personally” fund a “Slater & Gordon” action against Crikey after we published an exclusive report revealing that DHS Director of Housing Margaret Crawford had been forced from her position following a series of gaffes by housing minister Wendy Lovell.

At a fiery Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing in May – attended by Crawford – the minister was unable to recall the Office of Housing’s rental operating deficit and stumbled over other questions on the proportion of state funding to be allocated to new public housing. In the lead-up to PAEC, ministers are usually provided with detailed briefing notes and Crikey understands that Lovell was aggrieved that she was unable to recall basic facts provided to her in good faith.

A war of words also erupted following the release of March quarter public housing waiting list data and Lovell’s disappointing performance in parliament in May when Labor claimed the minister couldn’t explain key clauses in the Residential Tenancies Act.

Broadribb seemed particularly aggrieved at a sentence in the Crikey exclusive referring to one of his colleagues, Brendan Ryan, who last week denied point blank that Crawford had left or was about to leave the department.

He said defamation action would be launched today on behalf of Ryan.

“Jesus Christ … you’re playing funny games sunshine and you’ve picked the wrong person to play games with,” Broadribb said, minutes after the story appeared.

“Good night … I’ll talk to a senior staff member tomorrow and we’ll begin the legal action,” he added, before hanging up.

Thirty seconds later he called back Crikey‘s receptionist and yelled “get stuffed” before hanging up again.

Last Friday, with talk swirling around the Department of Human Services of Crawford’s departure, Broadribb left a message on Crikey‘s voicemail stating that Crawford had “not left her position”, and specifically ruled out a move to the Department of Transport.

But yesterday, DHS staff received an email from secretary Gill Callister confirming that the well-regarded housing chief would indeed shift to DoT’s Strategic Transport Planning division on a secondment from July 11. She is not expected to return to her senior DHS role, for which she is paid more than $300,000 a year.

Crawford’s exit takes to three the number of senior statutory office holders edged out amid murky political circumstances in Victoria this year, alongside Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke and Victoria Police Commissioner Simon Overland.

It is nearly unheard of for a public servant to launch legal action against a journalist, with most spinners conceding their naming in relation to a negative story was part of the rough and tumble of media liaison.

Public Relations expert Noel Turnbull said Broadribb had “lost the plot”.

“In this game, you give it and you take it. Any PR person who resorts to lawyers to deal with a journalist has lost the plot. I would have thought that a government media unit, run in the past by fairly experienced ex-journalists, would have shared the philosophies that I do.”

Turnbull said Broadribb’s ongoing employment was a test for the Baillieu government: “This government has come to power on the promise of greater transparency. If departmental PR people are going to start suing journalists for pointing out that a story the PR people had tried to kill was actually right, where’s the transparency in that? It’s just sad.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Broadribb finished up as Ambulance Victoria’s communications tsar last October. He was employed by DHS in February and appears to be simultaneously running his own private communications outfit, Strategic Communications Solutions. He lists one of his specialities as “tackling ‘toxic’ management”.

A Slater & Gordon spokesperson declined to comment in relation to the matter this morning.

DECLARATION OF INTEREST- Noel Turnbull writes: In responding to Andrew Crook on PR people suing journalists (or vice versa) I omitted to mention that I had undertaken a consulting assignment for DHS earlier in the year. I misunderstood Andrew’s questions, entirely my fault and not his, and thought he was talking about the Department of Health. Under normal circumstances I would have either declined to comment or declared the interest – particularly as I was commenting on transparency issues. To complicate matters further I also did, more than a decade ago, consulting work for the Department of Health.

Nevertheless, I do not retreat from my comments. People in journalism, PR and politics ought not to sue each other – it is a principle best exemplified by John Howard’s admirably consistent attitude on the question. If you hand it out you should be able to take it. Moreover, the effect of defamation action can be to render a matter sub judice which is a form of censorship in cases such as these.

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Peter Fray
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