Tony, Peta and Niki — and the silence of the press gallery

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(image via abc.net.au)

The most significant messages from the latest political exposé The Road to Ruin released this week, have been ignored by the mainstream media. Alan Austin reports.

NOW THE FRISSON of tawdry excitement caused by Niki Savva’s Canberra insider book has passed, the lesson remaining is this: the press gallery serves primarily the interests of the media proprietors.

Most members seek to preserve the power of the Coalition. Most have little regard for the wellbeing of the community, the functioning of a healthy democracy or the right of voters to know what is actually happening.

Here’s the critical question: Would Niki Savva and her employer, The Australian, have made these revelations about perceptions of an extra-marital relationship had Tony Abbott still been PM?

No, they wouldn’t. How do we know? Because they didn’t when he was.

Would Savva and The Australian have made those revelations immediately about perceptions of an affair had it been a Labor PM? Almost certainly.

We now know that in February 2015 a senior Senator, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, confronted both PM Tony Abbott and his influential chief of staff Peta Credlin with advice that (a) many colleagues believed they were sleeping together, (b) this perception was damaging the Government, and (c), hence Credlin should be removed.

So why has it taken until now – more than a year later – for this significant conversation to be reported?

Was Savva the only press gallery “reporter” to know of Fierravanti-Wells’ confrontations? If she was, then the others were not doing their job. If others knew, then they were complicit in withholding this information.

A fair dinkum journalist would have gone to his or her editor the moment the exchange was discovered. It would have led the next day’s news. This happens in most functioning democracies. It used to happen in Australia.

The Fierravanti-Wells intervention was not the only significant event revealed this week which the press gallery has hidden. Others include Abbott urging Warren Truss to stay on as Nationals leader to prevent Barnaby Joyce taking the role, Credlin’s edicts side-lining Abbott’s wife after the 2013 election, Credlin’s unprecedented absences from crucial cabinet meetings and her 2013 veto of Abbott meeting PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill.

Savva almost admits she would not have written anything damaging about Abbott had he still been PM.

She wrote in the prologue:

‘I certainly never thought I would write a book about Tony Abbott’s brief prime-ministership. When he got there, I thought his career would outlast mine. Ten months into his tenure, after he tackled me at The Australian’s dinner, I got fired up.’

A dinner in July 2014 celebrated The Australian’s 50th anniversary. Savva recalls Abbott’s greeting thus:

In the middle of our handshake, he said, "Now, Niki, can you please stop criticising my chief of staff."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because," he said, "Sometimes when ministers tell you things, they are not true."

"You know what, Tony? Sometimes they are."

Savva claims Abbott sought to have her sacked:

Thanks to a prime minister acting like a raging bull and full of it, my days as a columnist could have ended early, if not for the support of the paper’s then editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, who endured regular expletive-laden complaints about my contributions from the prime minister.

 So the revelations in Savva’s book may not have come to light at all had she not taken personal offence at Abbott’s conduct towards her at that dinner.

The night provided me with two important insights. The first was that Abbott took more offence of criticism of Credlin than himself; the second, that he took her word above that of his colleagues. They lied; she told the truth.

Which brings us to an even more critical revelation this week: that the Canberra press gallery knew Abbott ministers were liars but, again, failed to report that adequately.

Most commentary on Savva’s book seems to accept as valid her reason for not seeking responses from Abbott or Credlin while writing it — because they would lie, and quoting what they said would be repeating falsehoods.

In a candid comment to Fairfax this week, veteran reporter Laurie Oakes affirmed Savva’s judgment:

‘I would check things with Abbott's office and be misled. One press officer even boasted openly about fooling members of the press gallery.’

To be fair to Oakes, he has on at least one occasion highlighted Abbott’s porkies. Two academics did so for Fairfax in 2014. So has Independent Australia, consistently. Few Canberra press gallery reporters have, if any.

If the press gallery knows what Abbott knows – that ministers say things that aren’t true – then several questions follow:

  • Which ministers? All of them, or just some? Names, please.
  • To whom do ministers lie? Cabinet colleagues? The parliament? Other governments? Or just voters?
  • What things have they said which are not true?
  • Why do ministers lie routinely?

If this Westminster convention is habitually violated, what other principles are routinely trashed?
These are pretty relevant questions in a liberal democracy. The press gallery – including Savva and Oakes – has shown no interest in exploring them with the thoroughness they require.

This pattern of reporting only what suits the newspaper proprietors and the Coalition parties is well-entrenched.

Throughout Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, damaging reports based on malicious cabinet leaks were published, notably by The Australian. The identity of those providing the leaks was assiduously concealed.

If it was former PM Kevin Rudd leaking against his successor – as he has since admitted – then that was a far more important story than the mostly trivial internal Labor scuttlebutt those leaks alleged. In failing to report Rudd’s identity – while reporting the content of his leaks anonymously – the press gallery continued to place the interests of the media organisations and the Coalition above those of readers and voters.

The timing of this week’s release of Savva’s book clearly bolsters the Turnbull Government. Just when ministerial blunders are increasing and polls declining, attention shifts to Turnbull’s predecessor and crushes any ambition he may have to return.

Australia is indeed on the road to ruin. Its media is setting the direction.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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