There’s more than a little history behind The Daily Telegraph’s attack yesterday on ambassador to France Stephen Brady, as payback for embarrassing Tony Abbott after someone in Abbott’s office demanded Brady’s partner “wait in the car” rather than be present on the tarmac when Abbott arrived in France.

Tele attack dog Simon Benson put together a hatchet job on Brady yesterday, claiming that the ambassador “contravened a longstanding protocol by insisting his partner be present” when Abbott arrived. Brady, Benson reckoned, was guilty of a “tarmac tantrum” when one of Abbott’s staff had merely “explained the protocol”. And Benson’s source for this authoritative statement? Abbott’s own department.

Plainly Abbott’s defenders, who were circling the wagons within hours of Fairfax reporting the story earlier in the week, are mortified at the suggestion the Prime Minister might be homophobic — a suggestion made all the more potent by Abbott’s history of homophobic remarks: in 2010 he said he felt “threatened” by homosexuality and that “it challenges orthodox notions of the right order of things”.

In the rush to defend Abbott, however, News Corp cheerleaders appear to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, who exactly Brady is: he’s a long-standing Liberal staffer as well as a career DFAT officer: he was seconded from DFAT to be an adviser to opposition leader John Howard during the 1980s and then, within weeks of Howard being elected in 1996, he was summoned by the new prime minister to be a senior adviser in the PMO. In 1998, Alexander Downer appointed him ambassador to Sweden, as well as non-resident ambassador to a number of other European countries such as Denmark. Downer moved him to the Netherlands in 2004. Brady is, in short, a well-regarded member of the Liberal tribe.

But back to the Telegraph. When Brady was appointed ambassador to Sweden et al, it led to an historic moment: Brady and his partner, Peter Stephens, were presented to Queen Margrethe II of Denmark in on February 15 1999, the first time an ambassadorial same-sex couple was officially recognised. The Danes were fine with it, with a government official saying it was “neither problematic nor a sensational event for us” — Denmark was the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage in 1989.

And back home, well, you’d think such a moment would be a cause for pride for Australia, particularly given the Howard government was otherwise not known for its generosity of spirit toward same-sex couples. Not so at the Telegraph, however, then edited by Murdoch favourite Col Allan. Nearly two weeks after the event, journalist Ian McPhedran wrote up the historic meeting. His report was straight, and displayed prominently on page seven. But the headline from the Telegraph on a story that should have been a proud moment for Australia? Well, here it is …

Brady kept a dignified silence in the face of this homophobic slur at the time, though the Tele’s letter page a few days later had a reader panning the “offensive, puerile heading”. The paper that was embarrassingly behind the times in 1999 looks like it’s excusing similar behaviour today.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey