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January 19th 2013 print

Roger Franklin

All the news that’s fit to ignore

Fairfax columnist Richard Ackland has discovered a "smoking gun" linking Tony Abbott to James Ashby and what Labor sorts see as the dark campaign to ruin Peter Slipper. What a pity for his tale conspiracy that the weapon was dis-armed more than a month

Anyone who has endured a deathbed vigil will know it can prompt more than tears and hand-holding. As a loved one fades, shared memories might draw smiles, even laughter, as the monitor’s metronome beeps away those final hours. Reading the Fairfax press, terminally diseased and shrunken shadow of its former self, can produce similar outbursts of unlikely mirth, as Richard Ackland demonstrates in today’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

The veteran columnist’s topic is the Slipper scandal, most particularly former aide James Ashby’s part in it. His primary source is Mr Justice Rares’ scathing dismissal of the sexual harassment case, published on December 11 and given much media coverage at the time. It is the silly season and Sydney’s weather has been more than hot, so perhaps Ackland was just too worn out and weary to do even the most basic legwork – you know, get his facts right — which is what newspaper editors once expected of their star columnists.

Then again, he is a Fairfax columnist, so ticking boxes is generally enough, the chain’s editorial brass being these days a rather undemanding lot. Cast a column as one more indictment of Tony Abbott’s lack of fitness to become prime minister and that charge, even if recycled, would seem enough for any further and ill-considered thoughts to make it into print.

Start with the headline, which we can assume to have been the work of a sub-editor – or, more correctly, someone who occupies a desk where a professional sub-editor once sat.

Surely the Coalition smell hasn’t evaporated” wonders the 44-point type.

First, that headline could use a question mark. Second, smells don’t “evaporate”. As subs once knew, and chief subs most of all, smells “dissipate”, “fade”, “diminish” or even “waft away”. They don’t and never will evaporate.

But abuse of language is a minor grumble, because the real problem with Ackland’s handiwork comes at the end, after he has regurgitated all the same snatches and excerpts which figured so prominently in the blanket coverage of Rares’ ruling six weeks ago. As Ackland puts it with a dramatic and self-aggrandising flourish, this is the “smoking gun”:

The investigative plods in the media have been eerily shy about exploring the involvement of Abbott in this grubby legal set-up.

One of the smoking guns is Abbott’s press release that appeared in lock-step with the onset of the action.

There has been a tiny discussion about the timing of this release. The metadata on his statement, in which he insists Slipper step aside, says it was created at 11.08pm on Friday, April 20, before any of the News Ltd papers reported the originating application the following morning.

Abbott’s people explained that this was because the computer server timestamps were sometimes out by as much as 10 hours.

The online IT geek Sortius (sortius-is-a-geek.com) pointed out that separate reports put the creation of Abbott’s release at either 11.08pm or 11.32pm on April 20 and that it was sent at 9.17am the next day.

In the view of Sortius: ”If the clocks were 10 hours out, that would mean the documents were created, typed up and converted to PDF nine minutes before being sent out, or, it was created AFTER being sent. Something doesn’t match up here.”

Ackland owes those “investigative plods” a full-grovel apology. Far from being “eerily shy”, more dutiful members of the press did indeed look into the apparent discrepancies concerning the sequence of moments when the press release was drafted, saved, converted to pdf format, and released. Indeed, early on, those suggestions of a conspiracy received blanket coverage.

By December 18, however, the air was well and truly out of that bubble, the prick that deflated the story being no less an authority than the Department of Parliamentary Services, which administers the computer system on which the allegedly suspect Abbott press release was drafted. "The date stamp on the document in question is incorrect,” a DPS spokeswoman announced on December 18, after in-house IT techs investigated the press release’s chronological oddities. “The press release was created on April 21."

Here is the official geek-speak explanation, the one that would have disarmed Ackland’s “smoking gun” if only he had bothered to do the most basic of Google searches:

"The time on the date stamp is 10 hours behind AEST due to a technical problem," the spokeswoman said. "The Parliamentary Computing Network uses Coordinated Universal Time on its computers. Normally, the time stamp format for this is ‘UTC time + offset for local time zone’.

In this case, the local time information was replaced by a ‘z’. As a result, the offset for the local time zone wasn’t factored in."

All of the above explains why, as Ackland puts it, there has been only “a tiny discussion”: there is no timeline conspiracy to discuss.

That Ackland would have revived and re-broadcast a comprehensively refuted accusation against Abbott is bad enough, but his offence against known fact is not the worst of it. The greater sadness is his column’s proof that Fairfax has dismantled the most basic of journalistic safeguards – its cadre of competent editors and sub-editors.

Once, and not so long ago, Ackland could have expected his column to have been processed by professionals whose job it was to save him and every other of the paper’s writers from putting their ignorance on display. Old-school subs were an intelligent and well-read lot, making a point to keep up with the news in order to banish stupidity and bias from the pages for which they were responsible, expecially when the former served the purposes of the latter. Yet, somehow, Ackland’s piece not only failed to alarm the opinion-page editor, it evidently raised no questions among the lesser comma-crunchers who marked it up with fonts and typesizes and passed the column to the printer.

Fairfax is dying and this year will most likely see it carved up and sold off, the journalistic equivalent of the wheezing old gaffer whose few, still-useful organs will be available for transplant the moment that bedside monitor falls silent.

So cue that deathwatch laughter for Fairfax Media, silly old bugger. After all, if you can’ t snigger at its misadventures and self-inflicted ills, you would have to cry.

Roger Franklin, editor of Quadrant Online, often channels his inner sub