With the political silly season ending, commentators are asking just one serious question: why is Gerard Henderson trying to do himself out of a job?
In his Sydney Morning Herald column on January 8, the great pedant took aim at Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion the ABC might establish a fact checking website to hold the rest of the media to account. Henderson despises the national broadcaster because it has repeatedly rejected his offer to be the official fact checker for ABC documentaries. Nice Mr Scott and his colleagues know Henderson to be error-prone, hence his unsuitability for the job.
Never one to be deterred by reality, Henderson let fly in his Herald column, declaring: “An organisation [like the ABC] that puts errors to air could not legitimately set itself up as an independent fact checker.” Let’s get that right: in Hendoland, a media outlet which publishes errors should not be allowed to fact check on others.
By this standard, Henderson (aged 67) should hang up his clippings file and video replay button and retire to a suitable (Democratic Labor Party-funded) nursing home for a life of carpet bowls, letter writing, parlour games, more letter writing, origami and even the odd spot of correspondence. Henderson is doing himself out of a job.
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Regular Henderson Watch readers will know of Gerard’s 47 factual mistakes recorded in this series. These were not typographical errors but significant howlers. For instance, he did not know the name of Tony Abbott’s electorate (Warringah, not Mackellar), nor the parliamentary chamber in which Barry O’Farrell sits (NSW Legislative Assembly, not Legislative Council). He also (falsely) implicated Malcolm Fraser (born 1930) in an (alleged) s-xual relationship between Betty Fairfax (born 1907) and Bob Menzies (born 1894).
All writers are entitled to an error or two; no one expects perfection in large bodies of work. But Henderson is different on two fronts. First, as Australia’s most notorious pedant, he has invited upon himself a higher standard of accountability. Second, far from the odd error, Henderson makes an avalanche of mistakes. I’d say not only is he a hypocrite, he is incompetent.
I do not have the time or resources to chronicle every Hendo Howler. There are too many. So Henderson Watch has turned to a case study approach, analysing a representative sample of Henderson’s ineptitude. In this edition, I have placed the spotlight on Henderson’s last Media Watch Dog for 2012 (No. 166 on December 7).
The most serious allegation an opposition leader can make against a prime minister is one of criminality. This is what Tony Abbott did on the Channel Nine Today program on Thursday, November 29. He accused Julia Gillard of having misled the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commissioner in the AWU matter in the early 1990s. “Plainly on the documented evidence of the unredacted transcript she gave false information to the West Australian authorities,” Abbott told Today. “Now for a legal partner, for a senior lawyer to make false claims to an important statutory body like this is a very, very serious matter. It’s in breach of the law.”
The following day, Abbott’s deputy Julie Bishop confirmed the gravity of the allegation in The Australian Financial Review:
“Bishop … [said] Abbott had relied on advice from her and Coalition legal spokesman George Brandis, not on media reports, when he said on television on Thursday morning that the Prime Minister had breached the law. ‘[Gillard] appears to be in breach of sections 170, 409 and 558 of the WA criminal code and she appears to be in breach of section 43 of the Associations Incorporation Act,’ she said. ‘They are indictable offences’ … The WA laws cited by Bishop concern false information to officials (section 170, with a maximum jail term of three years), fraud for benefit or detriment (409) conspiracy (558) and false or misleading statements (43).”
Yet in MWD 166 Henderson tried to defend Abbott from over-reaching and accusing Gillard of criminality:
“The Opposition leader did not accuse the Prime Minister of ‘criminality’. What Abbot [sic] said, during a ‘door-stop’ interview on the morning of Thursday 24 November, was that Gillard’s behaviour ‘would appear to be in breach of the law’. An allegation that someone had breached a law is not the same as an accusation of criminal behaviour. There are some breaches of law which do not amount to criminal behaviour.”
Can you bear it? In a single paragraph, Henderson made not one, not two, not three, not four, but five errors. He had the wrong date (November 24), the wrong interview (a “door-stop”), the wrong Tony (“Abbot”), the wrong quote (“would appear to be”) and the wrong conclusion (implying that Abbott’s accusation was the equivalent of a traffic infringement when, in fact, the alleged breach of the law was of a criminal nature). The only thing he got right was the Prime Minister’s surname — as the saying goes, a case of small mercies.
It is hard to imagine anything more embarrassing for a professional pedant. Unfortunately, it’s indicative of the quality of Henderson’s work. The evidence suggests his best days are behind him. If a left-of-centre politician made a similar sequence of mistakes, displaying a similar brand of incompetence, Henderson would be among those calling for their resignation.
But it gets worse. Having been wrong (five times) about a Liberal leader, for the sake of balance, Henderson moved onto former Labor Leaders. MWD 166 opined that: “Ben Chifley was always photographed with a pipe in his mouth.” Just one problem: David Day’s biography of Chifley (HarperCollins, 2001) contains no less than 19 photos of the great man without a pipe (in his mouth or anywhere else). So too, Finlay Crisp’s biography (Longmans, 1960) has six pictures of Chifley sans pipe.
For a self-proclaimed history expert, Henderson makes a lot of errors about Labor and Liberal Party history. Perhaps he should have taken Norm Henderson’s advice and stuck with the DLP.
At least Henderson’s bravery is beyond dispute (as in crazy-brave). Instead of engaging in reputable fact-checking, he regards wacky media personalities like Derryn Hinch as reliable sources of information. This was clear in MWD 166, when he gave his “Five Paws” award to Hinch.
And the Human Headline’s award-worthy achievement? On the Sky News Paul Murray Live program on December 3, Hinch (supposedly) corrected me by pointing out he had never used the expression “Shame, Shame, Shame”. Just one problem: on his website on January 6, 2012, Hinch admitted to saying “Shame, Shame, Shame” — in a motion picture, no less. As with most things Henderson, the Five Paws seems a fraud.
This brings the total of Hendo Howlers to 54. Eighteen months ago, in correspondence with Robert Manne, Henderson declared: “I always check my memory against the written record.” Yeah, sure, and I’m the Easter Bunny. Henderson’s problems turn on the fact that his memory is patchy and his fact checker is Derryn Hinch.
Until next time …