They are ‘dominating the campaign’. (Helen Dalley)
They are ‘bad news for Labor’. (Kieran Gilbert)
They are ‘signs that the wheels have come off’. (anonymous tweeter)
They are ‘a sign that this is a dysfunctional government’. (Tony Abbott)
Sounds dire, right? Sounds like a terrible report has come to light, showing some massive policy bungle, budget blow-out or breach in national security. Whatever they are, they must be important to get some much media coverage.
What are they?
That’s right. Rumours. Schoolyard whispers. Coffee-machine gossip.
First we had Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes stand up at the National Press Club on July 15 and ask Julia Gillard if she could confirm something he’d been told; that she had reneged on a deal with Kevin Rudd the night she challenged him. Gillard’s response? ‘I’m not commenting on a private conversation.’
That was followed up on July 22 by the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann, claiming he had inside information that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had sent a junior staffer to National Security Committee meetings in his place.
On July 27, Laurie wanted to know if Gillard could confirm that she had opposed paid parental leave and pension increases in Cabinet discussions. Gillard replied that she had questioned whether the government could afford those policies, but had supported them when it was clear that it could.
Then, just after midnight, The Australian reported that it had received leaked information stating that Gillard had sent Andrew Stark, a bodyguard, to represent her at National Security Committee meetings rather than go herself. (Sound familiar?)
There are some common factors here – but not the ones you might think.
Every one of these stories was written from information from a ‘confidential source’. The journalists in question have not disclosed their sources – and nor should they. Journalistic confidentiality is a long-held tradition, and has been responsible, in the past, for some incredible stories. Watergate springs immediately to mind, but it’s by no means the only one.
The other common factor? These rumours are unsubstantiated. No one is willing to go on the record to confirm the details. In fact, the only people who have gone on the record are those who are either denying the story or giving their point of view. Gillard, for example, stated that she had not opposed the parental leave policy, but had questioned its affordability.
Otherwise, what we have is silence. The leakers aren’t about to come forward, and the government has made it clear that they will not discuss private conversations nor publish details about confidential security meetings. At this point, without any further information, the story is stalled. Nothing else can be reported unless the media can dig around and find something to confirm or deny the rumours. Right?
These rumours are being reported as fact. Even a story that refers to ‘claims’ and ‘allegations’ (as The Australian did this morning) also features gems like this: a picture of the bodyguard in question with the caption, ‘Andrew Stark, the bodyguard Julia Gillard, as deputy prime minister, sent to sensitive security meetings on her behalf.’
See how they did that? Not ‘alleged’. Not ‘claimed’. It was stated in absolute terms. There’s no ambiguity there whatsoever – and that photo and caption appear above the story, so they become the first thing the reader sees after the headline. The idea is planted before a reader even finds out that it’s a claim with nothing to back it up that can come under public scrutiny.
The same is true of the other stories. A quick Google search will find any number of comments that start from the assumption that the rumours are true, and from there start talking about how damaging it is for the ALP. Now, you’d expect this from the Coalition. It’s to their advantage to damage their opponents’ credibility as much as possible. But they’re not the only ones doing it. Commentators are doing it. Journalists are doing it.
And they’re not saying, ‘this is something that needs to be looked into’. They’re talking about how it looks to have a Prime Minister who opposed paid parental leave, or a former Prime Minister who said he was committed to national security but couldn’t be bothered to attend meetings. This continues even after clarifying statements are made. Gillard says she questioned affordability of a policy, but the questions to other members of the Labor party still start with, ‘Since it’s been revealed that Julia Gillard opposed paid parental leave’.
That’s tantamount to saying, ‘Gillard is lying’, without any proof whatsoever.
There’s an assumption that these ‘leaks’ are coming from Kevin Rudd – an assumption stated as fact by Mark Latham, and one that is going largely unchallenged. As with the rumours themselves, there appears to be no questioning taking place, no attempt to uncover anything like the real story.
This is not good enough. The questions and the commentary about the leaks are eclipsing policy announcements – and contrary to what some media are reporting, there’s a lot of policy out there that deserves scrutiny. Gillard today waxed lyrical about her government’s achievements in apprenticeships and trade training, and said a re-elected ALP would ‘continue to invest’ in them. She provided no details as to how she intended to do this – and she was not asked. Instead, she was asked about polls, and being in Perth – and about the leaks.
As Grog’s Gamut pointed out today in an excellent blog on a related matter, it would have been nice to hear her questioned about policy.
Just in: On the subject of National Security Committee meetings, Gillard said today that she has attended ‘most’ of the meetings, and when she could not, Stark (a former officer with the Australian Federal Police, with a good understanding of security) took notes for her and briefed her. He was never ‘deputised to act on her behalf’.
This is hardly surprising. Prime Ministers travel, both domestically and internationally. There are huge demands on their time. The suggestion that a Prime Minister should never be allowed to miss a briefing is, frankly, ludicrous. That Gillard went to the trouble of asking someone to take notes for her and brief her afterwards could be seen as evidence of diligence, not neglect.
Not if you listen to the immediate commentary, it seems. ‘She should be there … she still have to answer questions … we don’t know exactly what he did.’ She might as well have refused to comment, for all the good it appears to have done.