Unlike the Americans with Richard Nixon, Australia doesn’t have a contemporary history which has involved the media producing a scandal of such enormity that it forced the resignation of a prime minister.

But according to the biggest name and the most widely read commentator for the biggest media company in the country, that was seriously in prospect on Saturday when Andrew Bolt wrote on his blog that a story was coming “that may force Gillard to resign”.

“It could be the last straw for Gillard’s leadership,” he said.

They don’t come any bigger than this. Clearly Bolt had been briefed by his “friend” Mike Smith, 2UE’s afternoon presenter in Sydney who had seen a fresh affidavit and recorded a half hour interview with former AWU state president Bob Kernohan.

After discussions with Smith, Bolt was clearly saying that he believed Gillard was so implicated in Bruce Wilson’s AWU financial irregularities from the early 1990s, that her resignation was in prospect.

This was clearly endorsing and validating all the coming allegations from Bob Kernohan, even though they’d been trotted out several times before and hadn’t gone anywhere over the previous 16 years.

Wild claims are often made in democracies and the media’s job is to sift and sort through all the allegations which fly around and then decide what has credibility and what should be discarded.

Newspapers have editorial and legal systems around what appears in print, but there was clearly no controls around what Andrew Bolt could say on his News Ltd published blog whilst sitting at home last  Saturday.

The biggest media mistakes are often made when feverish expectation is created and journalists become desperate to get ahead of each other. Bolt’s Gillard resignation prediction will go down as a classic of the genre.

Glenn Milne got done over by Media Watch in 2004 when he produced the following in most of the News Ltd Sunday papers on the morning of the much-hyped Channel Nine profile on Mark Latham produced by John Lyons for the now-defunct Sunday program:

“Allegations about Mark Latham’s treatment of his first wife, Gabrielle, threaten to derail the Labor Leader’s run for The Lodge … And over the past 48 hours, there’s been fevered speculation in Canberra about the existence of a raunchy ‘bucks night’ video involving Latham — and whether that was the smoking gun about to be fired by Sunday.”

It was all rubbish and Milne’s reputation took a significant hit. Since being dropped by News Ltd two years ago, Milne has struggled to eke out a decent living as a freelance writer and commentator.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures and having invested all that time in the Bruce Wilson saga back in 2007, Milne felt he was well placed to gazump whatever it was that Smith and Bolt were conspiring about.

The Australian, which is always keen to shaft the PM, was happy to oblige but Milne made so many errors and exaggerations that it left News Ltd with little room to move once the legal threats started flying.

Milne’s biggest problem was that staying over in a house owned by your boyfriend which was partly funded by the inappropriate siphoning of union funds is very different from living permanently in a jointly owned home whilst in a de facto relationship.

To restore some credibility to themselves and their employers, Bolt and Smith need to say very precisely what are the devastating facts which warrant Gillard’s resignation.

News Ltd happily created and profited from Bolt but he has now turned into an unhinged loose cannon who has damaged News Ltd and its leadership.

For instance, today Bolt claimed that Milne’s column was “95% correct”.

He is now effectively defaming the News Ltd lawyers and management team, accusing them of being weak and protecting the Prime Minister from the release of facts which would trigger her resignation.

And rather than focusing on the credibility of Kernohan’s new information, Bolt is now claiming Gillard made “implied threats” of a media inquiry to force Hartigan to back off. This is pretty funny given that News Corp’s newspaper business has always been the business of making implied threats which are all too often then carried out.

Bolt himself was making actual threats yesterday — that if he wasn’t able to sledge all and sundry in today’s News Ltd papers, he would resign.

Hartigan relented yesterday afternoon and is much diminished by the whole exercise.

Meanwhile, Hartigan and The Australian’s Chris Mitchell have never really got on and you can only imagine the tension in that relationship now after Milne’s column was so comprehensively disowned.

All this at a time when perceived threats to The Australian’s future from the hacking crisis are lifting factional tensions inside News Ltd to fever pitch.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey