Friday, November 14

Federal politics, media beatups, and other circus acts

Merry picked it straight off. "That picture's been posed". I lean over the breakfast table. "Well, of course it's been posed" – I peer at the tiny credit line in The Australian – "and photographer David Crosling has done it quite nicely."

"No, not that. It's that they're not really bowling. Where's the mat?"

She's right, you know. But I hadn't spotted it because I was still bemused by a story about Matt. Or more specifically, by the third par of this story about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's finding the time to launch an anthology of the late Matt Price's satirical political columns from The Australian.

Just in case you can't read the adjacent image, here what the third par said:

By attending the launch, Mr Rudd showed his affection for Price and The Australian despite the furore over reporting of details of his recent telephone conversation with US President George W. Bush.

". . . affection for . . . The Australian . . . " An interesting choice of word, affection. Is it some sort of coded message?

It's hard to believe the paragraph would have run without the approval of the Oz's editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell. Had Mitchell gone further, and "suggested" reporter Nicola Berkovic note Rudd's "affection" for his newspaper?

Unless you've been switched off for the past few weeks, you'll know "the furore" followed a report in The Australian four weeks ago which said Rudd had spoken by phone to soon-to-be-ex-President George W. Bush. Rudd had suggested a proposal for the G20 meeting, and Bush had asked, "What's that?"

What an opportunity! Malcolm Turnbull, exercising the prerogative of the opposition leader through the ages, went for the throat. An insult to our great friend. Putting the US alliance at risk. World leaders will never speak to Rudd again. Diplomatic blunder.

Okay, so your grumpy old blogger has taken some liberties here, and he certainly doesn't suggest Turnbull is a harlot. The phrase – "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages" – was uttered by British Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, and back in 1931 he was speaking of Fleet Street newspaper proprietors, Lord Beaverbrook in particular. It's said Rudyard Kipling suggested the phrase to Baldwin, his cousin.

And for opposition leaders today, a more apt phrase might be impotence without responsibility. They can jeer, they can pontificate, they can offer bipartisan support – but the skilled media advisers in prime ministerial and state premiers' offices will plot to keep them on the sidelines and irrelevant.

Still, it was great while it lasted. When Rudd retorted that Turnbull should apologise for John Howard's remark that Osama bin Laden would be praying for a victory for Barack Obama, Turnbull seized the opportunity to distance himself from the former prime minister (read on for a little more on that theme).

Turnbull came close to disaster, however, when Family First Senator Steve Fielding said he would move for a Senate inquiry. What a dilemma for Turnbull! If his senators voted against an inquiry, he'd lose credibility. But if they set one up, look at the problems he would face:

  • The Senate committee of inquiry could not compel Rudd or his staff to give evidence.
  • Surely it would have to call Chris Mitchell, one of the guests at the dinner party in Kirribilli House in Sydney when Rudd spoke with Bush – and if Mitchell knew the source of the "leak" to his reporter, as one would expect, professional ethics would oblige him to refuse to answer. What then? Would the Liberal senators vote to throw the editor-in-chief of The Australian into jail?
  • If the senators baulked at jailing Mitchell, how could they require other witnesses to answer?
  • On top of that, could Turnbull rein in his more rabid senators – especially as they're from the hard right and don't want him as Opposition Leader anyway. It may be okay to call the Secretary of the Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, a liar. But to do it to the editor-in-chief of The Australian? Unthinkable.

Turnbull was lucky the Green senators refused to support an inquiry. When ABC radio's AM show reported their decision, it said the Greens had thrown Rudd a lifetime. But when you think about it, it must be Turnbull who was glad to receive the lifeline.

At this time, Turnbull seems to be ready to further dissociate himself from John Howard. I've already noted his repudiating Howard's criticism of Barack Obama.

Journalist and political commentator Christian Kerr wrote in The Australian on Friday that "this week Malcolm Turnbull irrevocably started to remake the Liberal Party in his own image."

Turnbull is thinking the same way [as Obama], Kerr wrote. Kerr quoted Turnbull's words and made a telling comment:

"There is no person who can look into the mirror and say 'That is an Australian face' or 'That is an American face'. The United States is a nation of choice, a nation of immigration – just as our nation is. It is in diversity that we find our strength."

You couldn't get much further from John Howard and the white picket fence.

Curiouser and curiouser. This note has been added to GOJ after reading the second editorial in The Weekend Australian , "Digging Up Old News", and subtitled "Media obsession with a mythical dinner party is peculiar".

First, your grumpy old blogger must acknowledge Chris Mitchell's insistence – one assumes he wrote or guided the editorial – that the Kirribilli guests were not at a dinner party. Kevin Rudd was entertaining guests (including Mitchell) in the lounge room, and Rudd was still in the dinner suit he had worn to a business dinner in the city. So we'll get that correction out of the way.

Beyond that, the editorial has one puzzling sub-text overlaid on another and then over another and another. If anyone can understand what it all means, please post a comment to GOJ.

Perhaps it explains Rudd's "affection" for The Australian, like, thanks for not dobbing me in.

In any event, did Chris Mitchell believe the conversation at Kirribilli House came under the Chatham House rule? As the Chatham House website explains (insisting there is only one rule, not rules as commonly written):

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

It's an interesting speculation. When Rudd joined his guests in the lounge room after talking with Bush, did he say Bush had asked "what's that" about the G20? Was it a serious comment (which would confirm most people's belief that the current Leader of the Free World is a simpleton). Or was the comment just some light-hearted banter?

And did Mitchell arrange to steer the story's author, chief political correspondent Matthew Franklin, in the right direction, making sure his newspaper got a great story while he complied with the Chatham House Rule?

Another note, added after reading commentary by political editor Dennis Shanahan in the Weekend Australian's Inquirer section. As Shanahan wrote:

. . . reporting on a political story that involves your boss, your colleague, the Prime Minister, the US President, the press gallery, the Opposition Leader, the Senate and the Australian Federal
Police can be a daunting task . . .

Undaunted, however, Shanahan presses on to deliver his trademark blend of well-informed conservative sources and visceral disdain for non-conservative views.

Rudd has said, and the White House backed him up, that Bush did not make the comment. One assumes that Mitchell, who was present but is not commenting, believes Rudd did make the comment to the guests in his lounge room. If everyone involved is to be trusted, it means Bush did not make the "what's that" comment, and Rudd spoke in jest.

It's all been a great circus act, but like all entertaining acts, there comes a time to wind it up.

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