Chris Mitchell is out the door as editor-in-chief of The Australian, but his last big campaign — an attempt to destroy the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption — has today come under fire in a cracking Neil Chenoweth feature for The Australian Financial Review.
Media outlets are natural partners of crime-fighting bodies, as both have a common interest in catching crooks, serving in the public interest and telling the community what is really going on.
Therefore, when a powerful media empire launches an obsessive campaign against a body such as ICAC, you have to wonder about the motivations.
The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Clennell was quite open in this piece, which appeared in Wednesday’s paper, when he observed that “corruption watchdogs are more closely watched — and subject to attack — than ever before”.
So why is ICAC under assault, Clennell?
“They went after too many powerful people too quickly. This has created a loose alliance of influential, smart enemies under attack who can, behind the scenes, launch strong attacks against it.”
News Corp’s role as chief conductor of the “get ICAC” campaign is looking a little strange after NSW deputy senior Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC let fly with some colourful language in her exchanges with The Australian Financial Review’s Chenoweth.
Cunneen was quite open about her motivations to Chenoweth. She says ICAC is “out of control” and “a rogue agency” and therefore “has to be completely destroyed”.
She continued with this personal attack on one of the most respected former NSW Supreme Court judges: “Anthony Whealy is an old man with dyed hair trying to get back on TV.”
Whealy, the 74-year-old chairman of Transparency International Australia, told Crikey today that he wouldn’t be drawn into personal attacks but that his commentary about ICAC matters were “logical” and reflected the facts of the situation.
Cunneen’s campaign is being backed by Labor Party power broker and News Corp commentator Graham Richardson.
In fact, the campaign really fired up after this Richardson column in The Australian on January 23 last year, when he complained that ICAC routinely leaked details of its investigations to Fairfax’s Kate McClymont.
Richardson was most upset by this McClymont story from December 2014.
But does Graham Richardson have the power to co-ordinate a News Corp campaign, along with the likes of Margaret Cunneen? And does News Corp really want to associate with some of the positions being taken?
While the public was broadly appalled by the revelations about Cascade Coal, Cunneen now tells the AFR that ICAC is in “disgrace” for the way it treated the mining licence situation.
But why is News Corp so obsessed with ICAC, rather than taking on other governance issues such as Australia’s woefully weak political donations laws?
Australia wouldn’t have such weak federal laws if The Australian turned its mind to campaign finance. Instead, last year, Rupert’s Murdoch’s national flagship decided to produce 203 stories on ICAC, or some 124,000 words. This is nothing short of an obsession.
Chris Mitchell’s favourite attack dog, Sharri Markson, has been leading the charge in recent times, pushing to shut down ICAC in dozens of stories for The Australian, even though NSW Premier Mike Baird has shown no interest in doing anything of the sort.
When challenged recently about why The Australian wasn’t doing more stories on political donations, she claimed: “I’m sure there are hundreds of journalists and Greens politicians who will trawl through it. I do not need to join that group.”