News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt has returned from self-imposed exile to launch a frenzied defence of free speech — using his regular Herald Sun column and his radio slot on low-rating Melbourne station MTR to attack the prime minister for complaining about a false and defamatory column filed by disgraced Australian scribbler Glenn Milne.

In his regular Wednesday spray under the anodyne headline “Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s hand overplayed”, Bolt — who went on strike yesterday to protest the deletion of two of his blog posts by News Limited management — was in crusading form, lambasting the PM for calling News CEO John Hartigan about his company’s coordinated Bruce Wilson hatchet.

“What are you so afraid of? What else would you stoop to in order to cling to power? I was considering resigning as a News Limited columnist,” an incredulous Bolt stormed.

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“I thought this company that I love, that I have long admired for its defence of free speech, had caved in to pressure from a Prime Minister to close down reporting of a matter of public interest.”

After Milne’s column wading back into tired 16-year-old claims over Gillard’s former partner was yanked from The Oz’s website and a grovelling apology issued on Monday morning, the incorrect line over the PM’s living arrangements that drew her ire remained on Bolt’s blog.

The post and a previous entry warning the scandal could topple the government was deleted later that afternoon, prompting Bolt to chuck a midnight hissy fit declaring “no politics until further notice”. The next morning he went on 2GB with Ben Fordham and got all sarcastic in the style of a wounded schoolboy.

After long discussions with News management yesterday, the “associate editor” finally felt up to again hitting the keyboard. But the issues he raises over the Wilson saga still don’t stack up.

According the Bolt, “the matter was Gillard’s former relationship, professional and romantic, with union official Bruce Wilson who, unknown to her, was ripping off employers and members of the Australian Workers Union, of which he was state secretary” [emphasis added]. “But”, Bolt wrote, “questions are raised about Gillard’s judgment in having had this relationship.”

The logic seems to be that the ex-Slater and Gordon partner was supposed to avoid her boyfriend because of issues she had  no knowledge about.

He was at it again this morning on 2GB’s Melbourne sister station MTR. In a discussion with co-host Steve Price, Bolt said that if you couldn’t tell “the full truth about the political situation I think you’re defrauding, you’re conning listeners, viewers, readers … and I couldn’t be part of that”. He went on, suggesting that Milne’s column was mostly right:

“But what I find really bad about this is, one, the number of really amped up phone calls from the prime minister to demand the retraction entirely of a story that was 95% correct … the normal procedure would be to apologise for or remove only those bits that were incorrect, not the whole lot.”

What gives him comfort, Price asked? “The fact they ran my column today.”

In the Hez, Bolt also launched a faux-sledge at his own employer, perhaps to restore his credibility in the eyes of his readers, some of whom thought he’d developed weak knees.

“I thank News Limited for defying the Prime Minister and letting me write as I have above. I apologise for doubting its commitment to free speech. But be aware how endangered is our freedom to speak as we find, especially of this Prime Minister.”

But Bolt was hardly alone at News. This morning, his associates also hit back in loss-making national broadsheet The Australian, with CEO John Hartigan claiming he was “disappointed” at Gillard’s statement yesterday that the paper had breached “all known standards of journalism”.

On MTR Bolt reckoned The Australian‘s correction was overdone and the company regretted it.

“I’ve said that I thought News Limited overreacted and I see comments today from John Hartigan and the editor of The Australian to suggest they believe that too in that there seems to be a repudiation or at least a clarification in some of the things that were said in an apology to the prime minister printed by The Australian in place of where the column written by Glenn Milne used to be.

“They pulled the column and put an apology and said things they now perhaps regret.”

The backstory to the fracas was very important, Bolt mused:

“People have got to understand why News Limited overreacted and it is forgivable to some extent, and that is the government has been for a long time … claiming that News Limited is on a campaign to get rid of Julia Gillard … this is the whole back story. And they have been looking for ways to intimidate and shut down News Limited. They know the ABC is in their pocket, they know that Fairfax is generally very supportive, but some News Limited papers are not. They wanted to shut that down.”

He then suggested, with nothing much to go on, that Gillard had issued an “implied threat” to News that the government would proceed with an inquiry into media ownership mooted by the Greens.

If the scandal has any further to run, it might come via an extension of Stephen Conroy’s freezing out of News when it comes to briefing journalists. But there’s also a commercial angle. Laura Tingle’s Australian Financial Review piece this morning suggested ministers were considering withdrawing government advertising from The Oz, with potentially devastating consequences for its already severely eroded bottom line.

As Crikey revealed last year, around $8-10 million of taxpayer cash ends up each year in the paper’s coffers from Australian Government job ads, concentrated for the most part in its 300,000-selling weekend edition. Before he resigned, finance minister Lindsay Tanner often aired the strong view that the massive spend should be heavily pared back.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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