When the names of those quality journalists cutting themselves loose from Fairfax began to emerge it would be no exaggeration to say the news inspired a ripple of excitement. Could this be it, the moment when the sick man of publishing finally clears the decks of ninnies, smuggers and credulous children, tacitly acknowledging with its blizzard of pink slips the simple fact that a company’s stock price generally reflects the quality of the wares it vends?
At first that seemed very much the case, an impression bolstered by the news that the Silly Moaning Herald’s blonde economics writer, Jessica Irvine, was decamping to News Ltd, where she immediately celebrated Fathers Day by recycling a familiar Christmas theme. Alas, as the diaspora’s list of names grew ever longer, hope faded with first impressions.
Amongst the departing, for example, were few of the green-eyed warmists and eco zealots who have shaped and dominated Fairfax’s environmental reporting, such as it is. It appears there will be no end to the breathless reports forever linking the carbon curse to every bushfire, hot day, cool spell, cyclone, volcano and earthquake, undersize bird, sweaty coral polyp, or incidence of miscegenation amongst restless sharks.
On another front there were similar disappointments, with Fairfax’s Canberra press crew retaining most of those whose curiosity has seldom been tickled by even the most fleeting doubt about the competence and probity of the Gillardian dissemblers on the government benches. Take a good, hard look at the circumstances of our Prime Minister’s departure from Slater & Gordon? Don’t be silly! That talk is no better than sexist scuttlebutt, for was it not an admiring Michelle Grattan who once assured us that the nation’s leader is “devilishly clever” – clever as that plan of hers to process boat people in East Timor without telling the Timorese about it. In the Fairfax perspective it beggars belief that such a sharp specimen could knowingly have shared life, pillow and ambitions with a multi-faceted shakedown artist fleecing employers with one hand while robbing AWU members with the other. Inconceivable!
As the cream of the staying-put Fairfax gallery all agreed, the PM’s recent press conference on the matter of Bruce Wilson and the part her legal work played in facilitating his frauds settled everything that needed to be settled, so what possible point could there be in further curiosity?
“Convincing ,” enthused Grattan of Gillard’s performance, adding “that should be the end of it.” “I can’t think of any other question I want to ask her,” agreed fellow Fairfaxista Jacqueline Maley, whose glowing appreciation of our PM’s selective candour was eclipsed by the radiant sun of colleague Phil Coorey’s admiration for Gillard’s refusal to engage in “obfuscation” and “evasion.” Yes, they were Coorey’s actual and adoring words. (Do watch the video.)
Nothing to see here, those seekers of truth asserted, before moving their gimlet-eyed scrutiny to matters of much greater weight and import. And the most pressing of those? Why, whether or not a 19-year-old university student punched a wall! Actually, it was worse than that, as the young fellow is said to have done it twice, once on either side of a sensitive and sensibly left-leaning female head. Why dwell a moment longer on those conservatives’ smears of a strong female Prime Minister when meaty topics like this are available? There was even a common thread to facilitate the segue, as both matters involved re-arranging plasterboard.
Recall, if you will, the transcript of Gillard’s exit interview from Slater & Gordon, in which she bemoaned the misfortune to have been cursed by the unsolicited labours of her crooked beau’s unions friends, whose frequent habit it was to enter her house unbidden and perform unauthorised renovations. Why, one day they totally demolished her bathroom! On another she arrived home to find a new, ugly and unwanted front fence. Perhaps this sort of goings-on is normal in the Fairfax press gallery and thus deemed entirely unremarkable. Perhaps Grattan cannot put down her ear trumpet without finding that some considerate colleague has come along and had it gilded without her knowledge or permission. As with those unsolicited renovations inflicted on a future PM’s double-fronted weatherboard cottage, Grattan also would be unable to produce adequate and comprehensive receipts.
Still, those who are not quality journalists could but wonder how Grattan & Co. never quite managed to notice that, chief amongst the renegade renovators, was a chap Gillard referred to by the nickname of Bill the Greek, aka Vassilis Telikostoglou, an AWU operative and Wilson acolyte whose name appears as an authorising signature on one of the scam bank accounts his AWU mentor established. But that avenue of investigation went unexplored. The notion that Gillard’s social circle was moved by nothing more suspect than her right to a lovely lavatory satisfied all curiosity and the Fairfax caravan moved on. After all, a quality journalist needed only to recall Terry Gilliam’s 1985 flick Brazil, in which Robert DeNiro plays a rogue heating engineer who holds clients at gunpoint while performing unauthorised repairs, to recognise as much. In works of fiction, acknowledged as such or otherwise, the Fairfax view seems to be that such things really can happen.
So it was that the caravan moved on to the topic of Two-Fisted Tony and David Marr’s revelation in the latest Quarterly Essay that the PM-in-waiting is a Catholic with a taste for manly sports and, much worse than that, actually seems to have some firmly held beliefs. What Abbott did as a student was relevant to his pending occupancy of The Lodge, Marr asserted as Grattan manoeuvred to guard his revelations’ rear, because it spoke to immutable traits of character. As Grattan insisted in one shot of last week’s sustained salvo of columns and dispatches, Abbott and his party are damned by “low-rent behaviour" and need to be “held to account for his values”, as Grattan helpfully paraphrased (without attribution) while quoting a slab of Anthony Albanese’s assertions that today’s Coalition leader must be judged “by his background going back to when he was SRC president.”
Again, the layman can only be intrigued by such a selective eye. At about the same age Abbott was allegedly playing Whack-a-Mole with a victorious lady leftist, Marr reportedly was married (to a female no less) and having a bit of a shot at the heteronormative lifestyle. Now that he has found both himself and his place in the pantheon of Mardi Gras heroes, Marr apparently believes the process of personal evolution is a path open to some but inconceivable for others, especially those from the side of politics for which the Quarterly Essay’s star correspondent bears little love.
Again, though, there were those troublesome loose ends, those threads dangling and obvious, available for unravelling yet never tugged. Did not a single quality journalist notice that an alleged contempt for women had long been a staple of the government’s framing of Abbott and his purported philosophy? A Labor staple almost since the moment when Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as his party’s leader, it has proven a handy default accusation when other gambits go awry.
Take Aborigines, for instance, quite a few of whom were prompted to stage a race riot on Australia Day by calls from the Prime Minister’s office, calls that asserted Abbott viewed blackfellas and their Canberra humpytown with racist contempt, a charge immediately taken up by Fairfax quality journalists and augmented with the prominent display of sympatico wire-service accounts. When that little frolic came unstuck and Tony Hodges, Gillard’s aide and whispering chatterbox, decamped in a rush there was nothing resembling a journalistic effort to track him down. Couldn’t have that, heavens no! Due journalistic inquiry is owed only to hounding and besieging people like the unfortunate Godwin Grech, whose Utegate emails caused a former Liberal leader such embarrassment and dismay. As to the Australia Day riot, Grattan’s thoughts on politicians’ operatives focused not on Hodges, nor on questions about his role in the disgrace at the Lobby restaurant or mysterious whereabouts, but on an examination of Abbott’s own aide and chief of staff, the feisty Peta Credlin.
If race riots and their instigation are of no interest, the charge of sexist oppression against a Liberal leader is always at the ready. Asserted in books feted by quality Fairfax journalists and parroted at the slightest prompting, they exist to be amplified (“…one year after he [Abbott] had walked out on his pregnant girlfriend…”), especially when Grattan and her like think Abbott’s accusers have not shrieked quite loudly enough.
If this morning’s polls prove accurate, Grattan and her sewing circle can congratulate themselves on a job well done. They have stitched up a grown man with a narrative thread woven from dubious and disputed memories of his post-adolesence – events which, given the many other topics that might have drawn their attention, must stand as testament and tribute to the selective eye.
As Grattan & Co revel in the short-term boost they have given their favoured team, they can survey the empty desks of departed colleagues, ignore their employer’s near bankruptcy and congratulate themselves on a job well done.
That’s your quality journalism right there, folks.
The shy Professor blogs at Bunyipitude. He will be contributing irregular media criticism to Quadrant Online when not pursuing primary passions for golf and trout