The Australian's political editor Sharri Markson (Image: Sky News/YouTube)

You’ve probably never heard of Nicholas Smith. But yesterday the hitherto unknown Melbourne blogger became suddenly and briefly famous, thrust into the national spotlight via a hit piece in The Australian on the record-breaking Rudd/Turnbull-backed petition for a royal commission into the power of the Murdoch media.

Yesterday Sharri Markson published an exclusive “investigation” which claimed there was “foreign interference” in the royal commission petition, with over 1000 fake names on the petition “paid for and generated” overseas. The information had come from a “whistleblower”, and there would be an “official investigation”.

Coming from News Corp, the story was extraordinarily self-serving — not to mention a demonstration of the very media power which had made the petition so popular with the public in the first place.

As it turns out, Markson’s “exclusive” was drawn from Smith’s Facebook page. It’s there, in between the diatribes against Victoria’s lockdown and Black Lives Matter, and rants about the stolen US election and the fake media, that you find a video posted on October 28 in which Smith outlines a plan to test the security of the federal government’s petition website.

To do so, Smith says, he will pay “Mr Wang from Beijing” to get 1000 false signatures on the petition in the space of 12 hours — all for $35. It worked, except that the job was actually done by a man from Bangladesh.

This was the “foreign influence” operation as reported by The Australian, arranged and paid for by a rolled-gold Trump-supporting Aussie patriot from Melbourne.

As Smith tells his loyal audience of 2000 or so: “they [Sky commentators] were criticising the petition by saying ‘oh well, anyone can just sign using different email addresses, multiple times’. And they used an example of a person on Twitter who’s using the name Daffy Duck.”

And with that, Smith’s mission was set. Convinced that there weren’t sufficient deterrents in place, and concerned that the government might be wrongly convinced to hold an expensive royal commission, he put his plan into action.

Precisely how a three-week-old post from an obscure right-wing blogger made it to the front page of The Australian is a mystery.

It’s a mystery, too, as to how the newspaper somehow contrived the headline “Kevin Rudd’s Bangladeshi ‘bots’ in media royal commission petition” given there is nothing at all to link Rudd to a Bangladeshi freelancer hired at an hourly rate of $3 over the internet.

Turnbull and Rudd are going hard on how any of the story adds up to “foreign influence”. Or how the headline can be even remotely true.

And not being churlish, but it’s hard to see how a piecemeal labourer from one of the poorest countries on earth rivals the News Corp juggernaut when it comes to foreign influence.

But being The Australian means never saying sorry. Swaggering with the power of an international organisation that last week dispensed with the services of a dud US president, The Australian’s editor Christopher Dore laid into the two former Australian prime ministers.

“It is reassuring that Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull, both of whom so vociferously urged their Twitter fans to sign up to their campaign, are jointly calling for a police investigation into the Rudd petition, which has led to foreign interference of the workings of the Senate, and has compromised parliament generally by the widespread use of fake identities in such an important area of public policy,” Dore said yesterday.

Today the paper followed with an “agent of foreign influence” attack on Rudd.

Inspired by Sky. Cooked in a dark room. Delivered by the Oz.

This is how a News Corp exclusive is made — and a campaign hatched — when two former prime ministers lead the call for change, backed by a petition signed by 501,876 members of the Australian public.

Sorry, make that 500,876.

It is, at the very least, a prime example of what the coming Senate inquiry might examine when it turns its attention to what happens when one media company has so much power.

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Peter Fray

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