Remember “Utegate”? The Prime Minister had been corrupted by the provision of a car. The Treasurer had provided special treatment for the PM’s mate. The media, and particularly News Limited, went into meltdown. The whole thing turned out to be the concoction of an embittered Liberal Party supporter inside Treasury.

Then there’s the Heiner Affair, a long-running claim that Kevin Rudd covered up child abuse in 1990. Angry right-wing bloggers continue to push this, with support from a News Ltd columnist.

And there was the Mark Latham “sex video” rumour in 2004, born on talkback radio and then given a solid boost by those noted pugilists Glenn Milne of News Ltd and Crikey’s own Stephen Mayne.

And there was Paul Keating’s corruption, supposedly over a piggery (Mayne was still running with that in 2008). Alan Ramsey gave some history about Keating and that “unrelenting and effective political grub” Tony Staley many years ago. And the incessant claims that either Keating was having an affair with a female journalist or a prominent businesswoman, or that he was gay (having been “spotted in Paris with an attractive young man” who inconveniently turned out to be his son, Patrick).

Not to mention Andrew Peacock calling Bob Hawke “a little crook” in Parliament.

Now, it’s unclear exactly what Julia Gillard is being accused of having done when she worked for Slater and Gordon (beyond having bad taste in men, which is something she admits). The firm has stated that she wasn’t sacked, and that there was no evidence that she’d benefited from Bruce Wilson’s actions. But they would say that, wouldn’t they, insisted a News Ltd journalist today, because Slater and Gordon “needs the continuing work that comes from a healthy caseload”.

What that even means isn’t clear — maybe Hedley Thomas thinks Julia Gillard will personally direct Commonwealth agencies to give the firm work. It’s the sort of tenuous, join-the-dots-and-hope logic that pervades these smears.

But if the actual allegation isn’t clear, yesterday provided some in the media with an altogether more serious charge than benefiting from dirty money or being sacked by a law firm: that of upsetting a journalist. And not just any journalist, but a senior journalist, a doyen of the gallery, Paul Kelly. “One of the nation’s most credible political commentators,” thundered The Australian Financial Review. Gillard had “sealed her own fate” thought Neil Mitchell, when she “personally attacked one of the most respected and experienced political journalists”.

An outrage, we can all agree — and, surely, another attack on News Ltd’s freedom of speech too?

Perhaps Gillard shouldn’t have pointed out with annoyance that Kelly was simply recycling old stories without putting any specific allegation to her. Perhaps the appropriate response was sympathy that Kelly, once a credible journalist and keen observer of Australian political history, had been reduced to yet another cog in News Ltd’s smear machine. “There’s no one asking me to ask questions,” Kelly insisted. No, he was merely rehashing the same vague claims that his newspaper, of which he is “editor-at-large”, whatever that is, recycled from right-wing hate blogs.

What are some of the sources for this stuff? Well there’s the website of ’70s Australian cartoonist Larry Pickering, whose misogynist drawings portray the Prime Minister as a dildo-wearing r-pist. Pickering was, many years ago, a Liberal Party candidate, but his main public profile in recent years has been in relation to a fraud probe. And there’s John Pasquarelli, best known for his role with Pauline Hanson (something The Oz has overlooked when it runs op-eds by him), but in the 1980s the Liberal candidate for Jagajaga, and who later worked for Nationals senator John Stone.

My point? Well, “I’m just asking questions”.

This is what the Right does. The Left has its own habits of misconduct, blind spots and hypocrisies, of course. But the Right specialises in smearing its opponents, particularly from opposition, and it finds a willing amplifier in News Ltd.

What’s changed, though, is that whereas muckraking and smearing used to be more difficult when there was only a limited number of media outlets, now anyone can do it. The mainstream media still likes to distinguish itself from bloggers and social media. News Ltd’s stout defender Mark Day once declared that blogging had the intellectual value of graffiti on a toilet door. The Oz used an editorial on the Queensland floods in early 2011 to attack social media for spreading incorrect information.

Apparently, however, new media has undergone a credibility rebirth in the eyes of Holt Street.

Perhaps that’s why, last time we looked at how much trust Australians had in their media outlets, The Australian had fallen nine points and News Ltd newspapers were the least trusted metro titles. News Ltd ought to be careful. Eventually its trustworthiness will be down with commercial radio. Or, even worse, with the blogs that it now apparently trawls for material with which to attack the Prime Minister.

And all for what? As if there aren’t enough valid grounds for critical analysis of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership on policy and political grounds alone.

Peter Fray

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