Passing Bull 254 –Public interest and privacy

Some years ago, the BBC put on a tough interview with Boris Johnson.  As I recall it, the interviewer finished by calling his subject a ‘nasty piece of work.’  The subject was not amused.  I can almost see the steam rising.  But a critical function of the fourth estate is to check up on the other estates.  The BBC just happens to do that job better than most others.  The English Prime Minister is now gunning for the BBC.  You can draw your own conclusion about the connection between the two events.

Before I comment on the Four Corners program on the Canberra bubble, I must confess to three sources of bias. 

First, I like the ABC but I don’t like the federal government.  I acted for the ABC as a barrister and then as a solicitor for about a quarter of a century.  At times, I took instruction from Sally Neighbour, who was I think the producer of this program.  Otherwise I took instruction from Judith Walker, the in-house solicitor in Sydney.  Judith was as fine a civil servant as I have met.  Her position was very difficult because she was always subject to heavy political pressure from politicians of either side.  It could get very ugly – as they say in the NRL. (She and I both survived that frightful phase when John Howard stacked the board with preposterous puppets.)  I was happy to represent a public body that in my view performed well in a job that we badly need to see well done.  And my partners and I would be greatly amused to hear the firm that I was a partner of described as ‘left-wing,’ or some other such silly label.

As to the government, I find this Prime Minister to be determinedly unimpressive.  Queen Victoria said she felt that Gladstone performed as if he were addressing a public meeting when he spoke with her.  Whenever I hear our present Prime Minister, I feel like a fifth grade student in a geography class at Box Hill State School.  As to the MPs referred to in the program, they fall to be assessed by such of their conduct as is common ground.  On that evidence alone, the best I could say of either is that he is a nasty piece of work.  As to party politics, I will have none of it.  I vote at both federal and state elections based on my assessment of the candidates.  Their party is irrelevant to me – and let’s face it, neither of them stands for much anyway.

The second ground of my bias or prejudice is that I have raised two daughters and I know something of the demons out there that women have to deal with – and I hold very strong views about people who abuse power for personal advantage of any kind.  The crime of rape is after all the grossest form of abuse of power.

The third ground is that I am one of the few people in this country to profess respect for Malcolm Turnbull.  I hold him in much higher regard than most politicians on either side – including his two successors.  In my view, this nation has been badly let down by its politicians, and I very much regret that this man was assassinated by his own party, twice – because too many of them simply refuse to grow up and act decently on the challenges to the environment on climate and other grounds.

Now for the Four Corners program.  I will assume that you have watched it.

All the women were for me entirely credible.  The complainants in these cases – and I have acted on each side in such matters – have no interest in going public like this.  Such a step requires at least two things.  The person sees what they think that decency requires of them in their assessment of the public interest.  Then they find the courage to do what they see as their duty.  All the probabilities are against any fabrication.  The late Peter O’Callaghan, QC dealt with complaints against his church for many years.  He told me that in that time he only saw one bogus claim – and that one was hilarious.  A large part of the problem of this foetid culture in Canberra is that people are too scared to come out.  As one journalist who knows the scene says, ‘speaking out puts a target on your back.’

The evidence of the women was consistent with all the other evidence.  The problem of people living together in what is called the Canberra bubble is as well documented as the failure of the Liberal Party to get more women into parliament and government.

And the people against whom the allegations were made, in particular Mr Porter, chose not to respond to them after being given many opportunities to do so.  Instead, they used their influence to try to destroy evidence and to prevent publication.  On that ground alone, the subject of the program was obviously one of public interest.  Here you have members of parliament, including the Attorney-General, using their influence to try to remove evidence of the public conduct of one of them and to stop the public broadcaster informing the public of what happened.

You do not have to be a lawyer to see the result when evidence of misconduct is uncontradicted.  And we know that it was misconduct precisely because those responsible for it did not want us to know about it.

One critical item involved Mr Porter being seen in a well-known public bar in Canberra behaving with a woman who was not his wife, but who was on the staff of a minister, in such a way as to attract public attention – to the extent that a journalist watching it decided to take a photo of it.  This was the evidence that Mr Porter and his parliamentary supporter, Mr Tudge, tried to suppress.  As it happens, Mr Tudge has also had an affair with a staffer.  But Mr Porter’s friends in the press, especially The Australian, say that this was not a matter of public interest.

If I may say so, what happens in public is not private.  That would be a contradiction in terms.  And it is not private when it involves the conduct of people who are all on my pay-roll.  And it is in the public interest for us to be informed of conduct by our members of parliament that reflects on their capacity properly to represent us – to the extent that the then Prime Minister had to warn them and formulate some kind of precept to deal with an issue which was known to have been festering for a long time.  It is simply worse when one of those involved in the misconduct is the First Law Officer – the person charged with enforcing the law – and who is given to lecturing us about family values. 

And we hardly needed ASIO to warn us of the danger to the public weal of those in power over us engaging in misconduct that leaves them susceptible to the power of our enemies.  If Messrs Porter and Tudge react like this when approached by the ABC, what will they be like when agents of the secret service of China or Russia come knocking on their door? 

It is terrifying to think of what people may have tried on Kennedy or Trump because of their wanton womanising.  Clinton was no better.  The days when what was called adultery were kept in club are long gone.  If an elected representative behaves in a way that leads his wife unable to trust him to keep his word, how does he expect us to trust him?  Do they all not see that we are all just fed up with this perpetual hypocrisy?

There might be an argument in a court of law about what lawyers call similar fact evidence, but this was not a court of law. In my view, this was first rate journalism, and that is evidenced by the reaction to it by those inquired of. 

The denials made by people like those at The Australian go to show their prejudice against the ABC.  In truth, as a friend of mine remarked, they hate the ABC.  And this will get worse.  Now that the ABC has people of the calibre of Laura Tingle, David Speers and Annabel Crabb, the advantage of the ABC will really grate.  They are far ahead of the rest of them.  And when did you last see investigative journalism like this in the rest of the press?  How many parliamentary inquiries or royal commissions have been launched because of Four Corners?  Who else has this facility?  Can you imagine a world in which we did not have the ABC by which we can gauge the rest – to their never ending chagrin?

What now for Mr Porter?  He comes across as having little or no judgment, a pampered pretty boy who is used to getting what he wants by throwing his weight around, a lightweight Antipodean version of Donald Trump in board-shorts and thongs – and we know what his leader thinks of thongs.  Mr Porter has a serene smirk that bespeaks a slovenly conscience trampled under a rampant ego and id.  His ineptness about that silly notion of religious freedom was not one off.  He is a serial dill.  Mr Porter is not at the stage yet where the Australian press uses the term ‘disgraced’, but he is hovering over another favourite sobriquet of theirs – dead meat.  He and his frisky and pesky pal are headed for oblivion, and that will be a blessing for us all – especially our women

And his watery reference to legal action was further evidence of his lack of judgment and tendency to bully.  The prospects of such action being taken and going to judgment well for him are about the same as my prospects of beating his father’s best high jump.

I congratulate the ABC and in particular its Chair and Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan for staring down our government and doing their job so well.  Ita Buttrose knows all about male bullies.  She was a good choice by this Prime Minister and we should take care to see that the recriminations do not imperil the Chair.  Their capacity to indulge in purges of the ABC is another reason why I do not trust or respect this government.

And the government?  When the High Court found that this infection had reached it, our Chief Justice said ‘We’re ashamed….’I was moved by this integrity and decency.  We never get it from the other arms of government.  We just get more banal mediocrity, and, Heaven help us, ‘not on my watch’.

As for the folk at The Australian, it is hard to know whether their jealousy of the ABC is driven by contract or torment.  I watch Four Corners about once a year and I have never seen Q and A.  But the people at The Australian look to be addicts.  The Jewish Sabbath sees a motley of Liberal Party staffers and apologists, Looney Tunes from the IPA, and the most dolorous Catholic in Christendom all join hands for an orgy of ABC bashing.  They divide their time between putting down the ABC and boosting up Donald Trump.  Perhaps the wind brought their sore affliction over the water from their ugly sister in America – although it would have to come the long way.  It is fair to say that the warped minds of people like Credlin, Kenny and Henderson are notorious among people in what they are pleased to call the elites – but their bone crushing predictability must leave them all at risk of boring each other in their own little bubble to death.  They are all a shirtfront to sense and decency.  And the hate mail that they get from their followers which they publish is deeply disturbing.  It has been years since any person of sense, of any political stance, took that paper seriously.

The upside is that they are the best boosters that the ABC has ever had.  The downside is that while Rupert Murdoch lives, Donald Trump could happen here.  And they would see that as a big win.

A mare and her foal are in peace munching the long grass in my paddocks and reducing my fuel load.  Later I will stroll along the ridge toward the cemetery, trusting that the Almighty does not see that as teasing Him, and I will be gazed at by cows munching soulfully on their cud.  Then I will take in the view of a railway viaduct on one side and a lake on the other, each in its own valley.  And then, it being Saturday, I will go the village to collect the papers – and then count the orchestrated sprays of the ABC by Murdoch’s minions – and hope that my uptake of sanity survives the day.

Thank Heaven for the simple goodness of nature.

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