ANY military man will tell you it can be much more dangerous to retreat than advance. Panic sets in, order breaks down and fatal vulnerabilities are exposed, leaving even the best troops to be isolated, overrun and put to the sword. When the rout is over, the most lackluster foe will survey the butcher’s harvest and feel emboldened to attack again. It is a lesson News Limited appears not to have grasped, as today’s escalating assault on The Australian by our PM’s left-flank irregulars all too clearly demonstrates.
Just to recap the details – or, rather, what appear to be the details: The Australian published a column by Glenn Milne dealing with Julia Gillard, her crooked former boyfriend and allegations that misappropriated union funds were poured into, amongst other things, renovations to the couple’s purported Fitzroy love nest. Something in the story was incorrect, and the PM was soon howling down the phone lines at News Ltd. chieftain John Hartigan. The column was pulled, an abject apology published -- and that retreat has set the stage for a humiliating rout which, in turn, opens the field for a further and perhaps even more damaging offensive. If the best defence is offence, the besieged and beleaguered Gillard government now has the momentum to rally its supporters and push back on several fronts.
At the Herald Sun, where Andrew Bolt, aired similar allegations over the weekend, his blog’s current lead item is an opaque expression of discontent with, one assumes, News Ltd.’s generals and their legal batmen, who appear to have ordered his item be stripped of all quotes from an affidavit alleging wrongdoing by Gillard and her light-fingered former swain, Bruce Wilson. “No politics until further notice,” writes Bolt. “Principles to weigh up. Faith to keep. Sorry.” Today saw none of the Herald Sun blogger’s customary early morning updates, the only additions to the site being hundreds of reader comments requesting further explanation. Nor has he posted an item since.
Bolt is quite clearly ropable, but he is, as yet, holding his tongue. Asked on MTR this morning to explain the cryptic post, he declined. Later, during a phone-in on 2GB with sparring partner Paul Howes, he was more stroppy but equally unforthcoming (audio here). His tone of voice suggested a fellow with a letter of resignation in his pocket, although that is but a Bunyip’s intuition. (Bolt has since updated the post and promised to write more tomorrow)
While Bolt is unhappy, Gillard’s snipers are picking and blasting targets at will. The Phage, for example, recaps the Milne column, repeats the original allegation and provides the low-down on our PM’s righteous fury. Being an ardent ally of the PM has done nothing for the paper’s circulation or financial security, but it certainly makes for fast and reliable lines of communication. (By the way, to see how thoroughly Fairfax is tearing the arse from its own trousers, consult the annual report. The numbers for The Age and Silly on page 50 are shocking enough, but the EBITDA figure three pages later for the Financial Review – down 51.7% on the year – is a testament to staggering managerial incompetence.)
Crikey, which yesterday did truth a favour by failing to appear, summoned the wherewithal to grunt, strain and squeeze out an analysis by Andrew Crook, whose prose was the very picture of delight. The Milne piece was “error-filled”, the allegations long ago “discredited” etc etc. Crook managed to name only one perhaps-significant error – the assertion that Wilson and his doxy shared the same address. The excised portions from Bolt’s post said the couple kept their own addresses, and that the AWU had been billed for renovation work on both. If the scandal is the alleged rorting, Milne’s error would seem to be of no consequence whatsoever. All of which makes The Australian’s retraction and News Ltd’s retreat all the more curious. Hartigan was evidently so in terror of whatever Gillard threatened, the apology also was published in the Herald Sun, which did not run Milne’s column in the first place!
Those who missed Milne's column can find it here, where allrightallright has done the transcription.
If Hartigan hoped to calm things down, make nice with the woman who might soon order an inquiry into the ownership of Australia’s media, it was another ham-fisted move. There have been a lot of those lately, starting with the inept firing of Herald Sun editor, Bruce Guthrie, which has so far produced a scathing critique from the bench of News executives’ veracity under oath, a best-selling book and a former company insider who is making a fresh career out of telling tales and bagging his old bosses. An amicable parting or pre-trial settlement with a confidentiality agreement would have avoided all that. Now there is further evidence of things being not being quite right atop of News Ltd. Consider this paragraph from the Phage report on the Milne column’s disappearance:
The Age understands Ms Gillard was furious not only because the column included a false claim, but because she had been led to believe by Mr Hartigan that News Ltd newspapers were not intending to pursue the decades-old story of her former conman lover.
If true – and the Age’s loyalty to Labor makes you think that nugget came straight from the PM’s office – then one of the most oft-repeated charges against News Limited has just been confirmed: It cuts quiet deals with the powerful to benefit News Ltd. That may not be the case, but it is not a good look, not a good look at all – and now it is out there, grist for every journalism department’s academic mill.
Did Hartigan’s acumen go AWOL when he ordered the retraction? Was he in something of a panic, temporarily dazed and disoriented? He would have known that Four Corners was about to devote last night’s programme to the News of The World stink in Britain, so perhaps he had that looming distraction in the corner of his eye. It could easily have been a night of bruises – the possibility of a news report at 7 o’clock, a bashing from 7.30 and then Four Corners’ megadump of sleaze.
And finally there is the biggest question of the lot: Why retreat at all? If, as seems likely, Milne published only a minor error, it could have been easily corrected and the focus on our PM’s association with corrupt unionists allowed to stand. As for Andrew Bolt, there has been no suggestion of inaccuracy concerning his blog post, which actually corrected Milne on the matter of separate addresses. Why was Bolt’s coverage wrapped up and muffled in the same blanket edict to back off and back off quicksmart?
Gillard might have threatened a libel action, but would she have followed through? Craig Thomson took that route and dropped his case against Fairfax at the court’s door. Would Gillard have been any more eager to go on the sworn record about Town Modes, her grifting ex-squeeze and what she knew and when she knew it? Not a chance.
This could all be very sad for those hoping to see an early election. Now the government’s media militia can point to the Milne debacle and claim that any further attention to Craig Thomson is but more of the sleazy, error-riddled same. It will not be true, but it does not have to be for Tony Jones, Michelle Grattan and other camp followers to take up the cry.
And News? Well if Hartigan did have a deal to make sure News Ltd was not dismembered, he sure does not have one now.