Carr reporting a new low for Canberra press gallery

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The mainstream media's reporting of the Bob Carr appointment may have been the lowest point, so far, in Australian political reporting history, says Alan Austin.

Was last week the worst ever for false political reporting in Australia? Can anyone recall when the Canberra media pack has been more united, more vicious — and more comprehensively wrong?

And this just as the Finkelstein inquiry has released its recommendations on governing journalistic standards. Nice timing.

As if last week in Canberra wasn’t exciting enough, The Australian ran a front page story on Wednesday with several unverified claims. It asserted that a deal Prime Minister Julia Gillard had made with former NSW Premier Bob Carr for him to become foreign minister was thwarted by the PM’s colleagues.

The headline to the report by political editor Dennis Shanahan and Matthew Franklin was: ‘Mutiny kills PM's Bob Carr plan.’

Wrong. The captain had not been overthrown overboard. And wrong. The Bob Carr plan was alive and well.

The opening paragraph reads:

‘Julia Gillard was forced to withdraw an offer to make former NSW premier Bob Carr her foreign affairs minister after senior ministers rebelled and demanded Kevin Rudd's vacancy be filled by one of her supporters, Stephen Smith or Simon Crean.’

Untrue. Some ministers probably argued against the Carr appointment. And Carr, we know, said the day before he was ‘not pursuing the vacant NSW Senate seat’. But is there evidence that Gillard ever withdrew her offer?

Paragraph two was also wrong:

In a breakdown of Labor stability and the Prime Minister's authority, Ms Gillard was told she could not appoint Mr Carr as foreign minister and parachute him into the Senate to fill the vacancies left by Mr Rudd and NSW right-wing powerbroker Mark Arbib ...’

No evidence of any lessening of either Labor stability or the PM’s authority. The reverse seems true. Carr’s ascension disproves the claim that Gillard was told she could not appoint him. She could.

Some background details in the story were accurate: Yes, Mr Rudd resigned. True, Senator Arbib quit the Senate. And yes, Ms Gillard wanted Bob Carr in foreign affairs and had phoned him about this on Monday.

But the essential story was clearly false.

With so much recent proof of shonky political reporting from Murdoch employees, it seems extraordinary that virtually all Canberra journalists accepted the Shanahan and Franklin fabrications and repeated them in a raucous pack.

This is especially dismaying as Gillard herself alerted them in a doorstop that:

“The story that's on the front page of The Australian newspaper today is completely untrue.”

Did any of them think to read the story again and check? It seems not. They all went yapping away like stupid puppies chasing a diseased hare.

When Ms Gillard challenged the veracity of the story, virtually all reporters jumped to the foolish conclusion that she was denying that Bob Carr had been offered the job.

Why would they assume this? The approach to Mr Carr was not the subject of Wednesday’s front page. That had been established the day before. No-one had disputed it.

Wednesday’s story was this:

‘Ms Gillard's attempt to assert her authority and create a ‘circuit-breaker’ from all the bad news surrounding the leadership challenge has now been undermined as senior ministers and factional leaders veto her actions.’

Despite being totally false, it spawned countless follow-ups — virtually all of them repeating the essential falsehood. About 190 stories are accessible here. Many of them labelled the PM a liar for insisting the story was false.

All major news outlets are culpable. ABC’s News Radio had Shanahan crowing about his scoop on Wednesday. ABC ‘journalist’ Steve Chase asked none of the glaringly obvious forensic questions about the reliability of Shanahan’s ‘information’.

In the Fairfax media, Michelle Grattan reached a career low with her piece ‘Failed Carr overture fuels Abbott attack on PM’.

First up, in what sense is an Opposition attacking a Government news? Since long before Grattan was a cadet, this has been unpaid political advertising.

She then proceeded to make several baseless statements: ‘Gillard's authority has taken a fresh knock’, ‘aborted discussions with former New South Wales premier Bob Carr’, ‘Joel Fitzgibbon tipped to return to the ministry’, ‘the proposal was dropped in a telephone call to Mr Carr from the Deputy Prime Minister’ and ‘Mr Smith is now favourite for the foreign affairs job’.

The prize for amplifying the fabrication, however, again goes to Murdoch’s Andrew Bolt. ‘Julia Gillard yesterday panicked and appears to have muddied the truth about a stupid bid to recruit former premier Bob Carr,’ he wrote in one of several error-riddled pieces. A ‘serial liar’ he called her in another.

For Mr Bolt to question anyone’s handling of the truth is hilarious. He has learned nothing, it seems, from the hiding he copped from a Federal Court judge last year who in a racial discrimination action found Bolt to have made 20 factual errors — in just two articles.

Highly public vicious attacks were then launched in the federal Parliament. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Deputy Julie Bishop had swallowed both the original false story in The Australian and the media’s misinterpretation of the PM’s assertion that it was wrong.

“There is a pattern of behaviour emerging that borders on the pathological,” Bishop claimed in what is now a breathtaking slander. “The Prime Minister has turned denying the undeniable into an art form.”

Outside Parliament, Abbott said:

“It's obvious that this Prime Minister was being loose with the truth in the Parliament yesterday and it's obvious that the Prime Minister's choice for Foreign Minister has been vetoed by the faceless men of the Labor Party.”

No. Gillard had not been untruthful at any stage. And no, there was no veto. Those that were lying last week were Abbott and Bishop. And most of the Canberra press.

Is it too much to hope for retractions and apologies this week? How will this impact deliberations on Mr Finkelstein’s report? We shall soon see.

(Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist specialising in the media and social issues.)

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