GERARD HENDERSON’S MEDIA WATCH DOG
ISSUE – NO. 654
29 September 2023
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SAMANTHA MAIDEN THROWS THE SWITCH TO ZANY CONCERNING ALAN JOYCE AND THE THREAT OF PORRIDGE TIME FOR THE IRISHMAN
Media Watch Dog has got a soft spot – with the exception of Eamon de Valera (re which see the introduction to this week’s “Flann O’Brien Gong for Literary or Verbal Sludge” segment). After all, the maternal grandmother of Ellie’s (male) co-owner was born in Limerick.
However, MWD regards with some amusement the suggestion that the Qantas former chief executive – the Irish-born Alan Joyce – might serve time in prison if he does not front up to the Senate Inquiry into the bilateral air rights agreement. It is chaired by the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie.
According to reports, Senator McKenzie has said that your man Joyce may go to prison if he fails to rock up at the inquiry. So, there is a possibility, however remote, of your man Joyce “doing porridge” in one of His Majesty’s many prisons Down Under for breaching parliamentary privilege or some such.
Believe it or not, there is a precedent for this. In June 1955, Raymond Edward Fitzpatrick (a proprietor) and Frank Browne (a journalist) were imprisoned for 90 days by the House of Representatives for a breach of parliamentary privilege.
MWD does not believe that Alan Joyce will serve time in the ACT prison. But it’s a theoretical possibility.
The issue was discussed on RN Breakfast on 29 September. It was the political round-up for the week. Patricia Karvelas was the presenter and her guests were Insiders compere David Speers and Samantha Louise Maiden of news.com.au.
Your man Speers was his stolid serious self. But the zany Samantha Maiden saw the funny side of the issue – commenting towards the end of the segment:
Samantha Maiden: Yeah, look, I must admit when they first said that they were going to call Alan Joyce – and, you know, he was no longer the CEO – I was scratching my head a bit and I thought how are they going to do that? Like he’s not gonna want to turn up. I didn’t think about jail time. But I liked the fact that like, good on them for, you know, having a go – and – and he’s, you know, fled the country. Did he go to Ireland or something to visit his mum? So, he’s like hiding out in some pub having a Guinness? And then Bridget [McKenzie] is just banging the gavel and threatening jail time. I think it’s good. … If anyone’s spotted Alan Joyce in Ireland send all your selfies to me.
MWD hopes that Ms Maiden gets more panel slots on Insiders. Appearing on the program on 11 July 2021, she said that Insiders needed a return of the villains it once had – implying that it had become somewhat staid and boring. MWD concurs. Let’s give more Insiders airtime to the news.com.au political editor.
MWD will report next week as to whether Qantas’ departed CEO is headed for a visit to jail – or a visit to the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge – when he returns Down Under. Stay tuned.
JENNA PRICE ADVISES READERS NOT TO PUT ANYTHING IN WRITING – AND THEN WRITES ABOUT HER PRIVATE RAGES
Media Watch Dog just loved the publication in Nine newspapers of the inner thoughts of senior public servant Mike Pezzullo about his colleagues, some politicians and so on. Currently, Mr Pezzullo is in lotsa trouble about his revelation, via encrypted messages, of his deepest thoughts. But MWD maintains that some are quite perceptive.
On 28 September, Sydney-based MWD fave Jenna Price, who identifies as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, weighed into this issue in her column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Here’s how it commenced:
Basics, people, basics. Never put anything in writing.
There followed the thoughts in writing of Dr Price (for a doctor she is) about Mike Pezzullo and the fate of his WhatsApp chat with a Liberal Party operative some years ago. And then Comrade Price decided that the time was right to write about herself:
What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Me, I’m worried about my draft emails. There are over 1000 missives never sent for good reason. Indiscreet, defamatory if they were ever sent, filled with feeling. Bad language, worse moods. It’s the place where I tell people what I really think. And it’s the place where my rage goes to die.
So, there you have it. Despite warning her readers (if readers there were) about not putting anything in writing, Jenna Price saw fit to write about her inner self and her capacity to vent her rage in emails that were never sent. In short, she’s into (private) indiscreet and defamatory messages replete with bad language and the like.
Needless to say, Ellie’s (male) co-owner has never received any of Comrade Price’s unsent emails. Pity really. But at least we now all know about her inner rage – per courtesy of her public written confession when telling us all never to put anything in writing. Can You Bear It?
NINE COLUMNIST BRAD EMERY ON WHAT NOT TO DO IN A LIFT
While on the topic of Nine columnists, avid readers have been highly impressed by the copy filed by some columnists about their personal lives. For example, the personal early morning absolutions of Kerri Sackville which have been cited in MWD in recent times. Unfortunately, this week’s column by Ms Sackville is headed “How to compliment women without being creepy”. And, as such, is probably an area into which the male co-owner of a female cattle dog should not enter.
So, lotsa thanks to the Port Augusta reader who drew MWD’s attention to a column in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 August by a certain Brad Emery, who identifies as a graduate of the School of Elevator Etiquette.
Headed “You’ve forgotten how to use an elevator: lift your game”, your man Emery decided to remind readers how to use an elevator now that some of us are returning to work in high-rise buildings, following the end of the COVID lockdowns.
Believe it or not, Mr Emery brought Ten Commandments down from the mountain – possibly in an elevator – and placed them in his article. Early on, there was advice about how to enter lifts, phone call etiquette and the like. And then there was Emery’s 4th Commandment:
No crop dusting. If you can feel a gaseous build up in your lower region and don’t think you can hold it, wait or take the stairs. And don’t think you’ll get away with it. As with poker, most people have a “flatulence-tell”, whether it’s a lean, a cough or a slight intake of breath. In a small metal box with half-a-dozen other people, they’re going to know it was you.
So, there you have it. The editors at Nine newspapers believe it appropriate that readers of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald be advised not to pass wind in elevators. In the journalist terminology of old, Nine claims to print all-the-news-you-need-to-know. Really.
There were further commandments about elevator customers (i) not talking about “the noises your partner makes during copulation”, (ii) not snogging in lifts, and (iii) not holding an elevator door open in order to finish a conversation. Groan.
Oh my God. Why do Nine newspapers publish such material? More importantly. Can You Bear It?
CORY BERNARDI’S LOST (ABC) CAUSE
Media Watch Dog is of the (self-deprecating) view that no cause is completely lost until Ellie’s (male) co-owner embraces it. But Hendo does not join all causes. Hence he has not called for the part-privatisation or total sale of the ABC. Others have – and some still do.
On Sunday, 24 September at around Pre-Dinner Drinks Time, one-time Liberal Party senator and current occasional Sky News presenter Cory Bernardi interviewed a certain Mr Valentine on his Bernardi program about something or other. At the end of the interview, your man Bernardi raised the issue of what should be done with the ABC. The answer came as no surprise. Let’s go to the transcript:
Stewart Valentine: We’ve been pushing this one for a long time Cory, as you know, that we should sell 51 per cent of the ABC. They’re actually of no use at all…. I advised Tony Abbott in 2013, I said one thing you must do is you must sell 51 per cent of the ABC because otherwise they will just focus on bringing you down. Which they did, and they did the same with Morrison who even gave them an obscene [financial] increase.
Cory Bernardi: That’s exactly right. One point of disagreement Stewart, I’m sorry to leave you on this. We should sell 100 per cent of the ABC.
Talk about a lost cause – and yes, yet another “I told Tony Abbott” recollection. There was no chance that Tony Abbott would sell all or part of the taxpayer funded public broadcaster when he became prime minister in September 2013. For starters, the Coalition did not have a majority in the Senate.
Moreover, there would have been opposition to such a move within the Nationals’ party room and from some regional and rural Liberal Party members. The fact is that the further you move away from the ABC capital city headquarters – the greater support there is for the public broadcaster. Primarily because there is less commercial media.
Cory Bernardi expected to gain considerable support when he quit the Liberal Party in 2017 and formed the Conservative Party. It bombed. His continuing campaign to sell the ABC is doomed to fail. In fact, it is counter-productive in that it is used by such organisations as ABC Friends and ABC Alumni to defend the ABC against criticism – since such organisations run the scare campaign that a Coalition government would immediately sell the ABC.
This is nonsense. Your man Bernardi fails to realise that his campaign to sell the ABC is likely to be as successful as his former attempt to form an Australia-wide Conservative Party. But he doesn’t know this. Can You Bear It?
THE MELBOURNE MEDIA & THE ANDREWS GOVERNMENT: A CASE STUDY
As avid Media Watch Dog readers are only too well aware, Daniel Andrews – the former socialist-left Labor premier of Victoria – announced his resignation on Tuesday 26 September, after almost a decade in Victoria’s top political job.
It is well known that the “I stand with Dan” movement was very strong within the Melbourne media – particularly on the ABC and in The Age. The Andrews government was scrutinised by The Australian, the Herald Sun and Radio 3AW. But most of the members of the Melbourne media gave the Andrews government a soft run and put up with the premier’s autocratic style.
Sure, the Andrews government won three elections – the last two by a large margin. But a recent walk down Swanston Street in the Melbourne CBD from Flinders Street to Lonsdale Street, convinced MWD that the Melbourne CBD is, in part at least, a derelict shambles.
A bit like it was following the economic incompetence of the Victorian Labor government during the final years of the premierships of John Cain and Joan Kirner in the 1980s and early 1990s – until the election of Jeff Kennett’s Coalition government in 1992.
Sure, there was the pandemic and all that. But Premier Andrews inflicted the longest and some of the most severe lockdowns in the Western world – with devastating results on small business operations, school children and so on. The Andrews government even closed playgrounds – which hit hard at families with young children who live in apartments, flats and the like. Indeed, the more disadvantaged a Melbourne family, the more it suffered during the pandemic.
So, how did the ABC’s Melbourne journalists respond to the Andrews’ resignation? Here’s a glimpse. Let’s go to the transcript of a discussion between Melbourne-based co-presenters of ABC TV’s Breakfast early on 27 September – the morning of the Andrews resignation:
Michael Rowland: Well to his credit he [Andrews] really stepped up – what was it? 100 straight days [of media conferences]? Possibly more.
Stephanie Ferrier: And answered every single question.
Michael Rowland: Every single day. So exposed himself to public scrutiny there….
What a load of absolute tosh. Sure, Mr Andrews attended many oh-so-long media conferences. But he rarely properly answered questions from journalists. Moreover, to this day, the Andrews government has not released the advice that formed the justification for the draconian lockdowns.
The discussion continued with Stephanie Ferrier who fawned over Daniel Andrews’ dress sense and his turn of phrase:
Stephanie Ferrier: His North Face jacket, everything – “we’re getting on the beers”, all of those sorts of phrases that we heard during that very tumultuous time. And the fact that it was so polarising, it was such a – but, as you can see that he obviously was also very involved in big builds, also huge social agendas that really had great ramifications and a lot of other states followed suit. Euthanasia laws.
Michael Rowland: Yes, indeed, very much. Setting a template for the rest of the country. So next hour we have the treasurer Jim Chalmers to chat about, amongst other things Daniel Andrews’ legacy and also Daniel Andrews’ former colleague, the former Health Minister Martin Foley, also coming up on this very big day.
And so it came to pass that the ABC members of the “I stand with Dan” fan club fawned over the Andrews’ jacket and his warning about Victorians not drinking beer in company when they should be locked away for eons. But no mention was made of the enormous debt that the Andrews’ government left Victorians (with the resultant interest payments into the future) and the ramifications of the lockdown policies on the mental health of Victorians.
Then the News Breakfast team advised that two senior Labor politicians would be along after 7 am to talk about their colleague Daniel Andrews. According to MWD’s research, the Opposition leader did not get a gig until well after 8 am.
Meanwhile, over at ABC Radio National Breakfast, the Melbourne based Patricia Karvelas interviewed the Victorian Labor backbencher Sheena Watt on 26 September. PK, as she likes to be called, made no reference to the massive debt which Jacinta Allan, the new Victorian premier, has inherited from her predecessor. Another media member of the “I stand with Dan” soviet, it would seem.
ABC’S ANDY PARK GIVES SOFT INTERVIEW TO GREENS’ SENATOR HANSON-YOUNG WHO EFFECTIVELY CALLS FOR THE CANCELLATION OF NEWS CORP IN AUSTRALIA
The previous issue of Media Watch Dog ran the (then breaking) news that Rupert Murdoch had stepped down from his roles leading News Corp and Fox Corporation. As is known, Mr Murdoch will transition to the role of chairman emeritus of both organisations.
MWD documented how the ABC had reported the views of mainly Murdoch critics – most of whom suffer from Murdochphobia. They included National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik, The Guardian’s former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian Australia’s Josh Taylor and so on.
Well, the ABC’s approach continued into the evening of 22 September. ABC Radio National Drive’s presenter Andy Park gave a long and soft interview to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Exhibiting a serious case of Murdochphobia, the leftist Hanson-Young declared that Rupert Murdoch “has wreaked havoc on democracy”. Quelle surprise! What’s more, the Greens senator alleged that Murdoch “has done all this at the expense of the climate, at the expense of democracy and, finally, to the [expense of] investment in genuine public interest journalism”. Really.
This rant went even further than that of Alan Rusbridger, who at least conceded that Murdoch had done “some amazingly positive things for journalism”. But there you go.
Comrade Park was clearly at one with Comrade Hanson-Young. He alleged that “the standard practice of sitting governments … is to entertain News Corp and be entertained by them”. Absolute rubbish to be sure – but your man Park works at the taxpayer funded public broadcaster. Encouraged, the Greens senator continued – relating in the process, what she has learnt from, er, taxi drivers and the like:
Sarah Hanson-Young: Everyday Australians [are] becoming more and more frustrated with the inability to trust the news that is being promoted, published every day from News Corp papers. I hear that all over the place from people, whether it’s in the supermarkets or in the taxi – or emails and phone calls I get from members of the public in my office. And if I’m getting that, I know that every member of parliament is getting that as well.
Andy Park: My point is that it’s incredible that you’ve got the support of one former Liberal and one former Labor Prime Minister.
Comrade Park finds it incredible that Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd regard Murdoch as somehow responsible for the fact that they both lost the prime ministership. Forgetting that they lost the support of their respective party rooms. A similar fate befell Labor’s Bob Hawke in 1991 and the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott in 2015. Neither blamed Murdoch. But, unlike Messrs Rudd and Turnbull, neither went into denial.
Senator Hanson-Young continued that people are afraid to criticise News Corp. Which would suggest that she doesn’t watch/listen to the ABC – or even to herself.
Comrade Park did not challenge Comrade Hanson-Young’s suggestion that Australia should have a “fit and proper” person test to determine who can own commercial media. She implied that neither Rupert Murdoch nor Lachlan Murdoch (his successor at News Corp and Fox Corporation) would fit the bill. Consequently, News Corp in Australia would be divested of its media interests. Which would leave Australia overwhelmingly dependent on the ABC and Nine for news and current affairs – both left-of-centre media organisations – plus the avowedly leftist Guardian Australia.
So, according to Hanson-Young, democracy in Australia can be enhanced if News Corp is effectively cancelled. Andy Park did not challenge her Murdochphobia.
HAMISH MACDONALD’S IGNORANCE CONCERNING NEWS CORP’S SUPPORT FOR SOME LABOR GOVERNMENTS OVER THE LAST 50 YEARS
The previous issue of MWD reported on an exchange between Radio National Breakfast presenter Hamish Macdonald and one-time News Corp editor Neil Breen on 22 September. Comrade Macdonald challenged Breen with this statement:
Hamish Macdonald: So, are you saying that Rupert Murdoch personally and explicitly supported an editorial supporting Kevin Rudd to become prime minister?
Mr Breen’s answer was: “He did.”
Apparently Hamish Macdonald is unaware of the fact that, in Australia alone, most News Corp newspapers (i) supported the election of the Gough Whitlam led Labor Party in December 1972, (ii) supported the election of the Bob Hawke led Labor Party in 1984 and 1987 and (iii) supported the election of the Kevin Rudd led Labor Party in 2007.
All of which demonstrates that Murdochphobia can affect usually well-informed journalists like Hamish Macdonald.
JUSTIN STEVENS’ ALL-STAFF EMAIL REPLETE WITH LITERARY SLUDGE – CHANNELLING HUGH BONNEVILLE’S PERFORMANCE IN THE BBC SITCOM W1A
Could there be two Justin Stevens personas at the ABC? It would seem so.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph on 25 September in a piece headed “ABC urges staff to engage regional Aussie audience”, Sophie Elsworth reported that Justin Stevens, ABC Director News, Analysis and Investigations, had emailed all staff. The date was 18 September and Stevens was reflecting on the ABC’s “new Audience-First News Strategy”. Sounds rather odd, don’t you think? After all, the taxpayer funded public broadcaster has been in operation since 1932 – but your man Stevens reckons that it’s about time that the ABC put its audience first.
As it turned out, Ms Elsworth did Mr Stevens and company a favour. She summarised Stevens’ “Answering your strategy questions” 1994-word long email into a pithy report. However, Media Watch Dog has had to wade through the whole document (which was obtained after the Daily Telegraph report) – like a hiker in heavy boots wading through quicksand.
The ABC Director of News started off by thanking the 1,150 staff who took part in the “two town halls” he had hosted the previous week. Stevens says “town halls”; Media Watch Dog says “meetings”. It turns out that Stevens has now commenced doing “weekly all-staff town halls” for the rest of the year. If Stevens’ email reflects his own town hall, those attending won’t need any Mogadon. In the email, which is replete with management sludge, Stevens initially declares that “our Audience-First News Strategy focuses on three pillars”. Just three. Namely: Value, Engagement and People – all with Capital first names. Pillars on steroids, it would seem.
That’s all very well. But what does it mean? It’s not clear. Value – entails that the ABC “must ensure our content delivers value and reaches as many Australians as possible through digital platforms”. That’s all, folks. Engagement is all about – guess what? – engaging “in what interests the community”. How about that? And People – well, “we will share knowledge and support our people to develop the skills of the future”. And we must make our output sustainable, so our work lives are enjoyable”. Go on – alas, he did.
Media Watch Dog wonders how the work lives of ABC staff can be enjoyable as they listen to such managerial speak.
Oh yes, there is also the Purpose Statement – the purpose of which, apparently, is to promote the Value, Engagement, People “key words”. Yawn. So far – no person, place or thing has been named.
Reading all this, it could have been a script from W1A, the BBC parody of recent memory – with Justin Stevens playing the role of Ian Fletcher, the BBC’s Head of Values (performed by Hugh Bonneville). The commencement of the third series has your man Fletcher chairing a meeting of The Way Ahead Group – soon to be re-named The Renewal Group. At one stage, the BBC’s head of output described the BBC’s More or Less Initiative (as identifying) “what we do best and finding more ways of doing less of it better”.
Finally there was the very democratic sign-off. To wit, the very democratic “Justin” said an email goodbye after a “Thanks everyone” salutation. Thereafter Justin answered some of the (allegedly) most commonly asked questions about the Audience-First News Strategy. They read like Dorothy-Dixers – that is, non-challenging answers in response to self-written questions, but of the bureaucratic kind.
There are references about the need to “prioritise high values over low value stories”. Whoever would have thought this was necessary? There are also references to “KPIs”, “conversations”, “pillars” and so on.
But wait. At last, there’s a name – “Hobart”. Your man Stevens – or whoever wrote this literary sludge – makes this point about the ABC’s Hobart newsroom in South East Tasmania.
First and foremost we should be producing people-focused content that reflects diverse Tasmanian communities, and delivers for under-served audiences including women, CALD [Culturally and Linguistically Diverse] communities and young people.
What nonsense. If the ABC wanted to reflect diverse Tasmanian communities, it would not have despatched Sabra Lane from Canberra to present ABC Radio’s AM program in Hobart. Hobart, per head of population, is Australia’s most left-wing city. Replete, as it is, with public servants, academics, artistes, professionals, and assorted sandal-wearers [Even in winter? – MWD Editor]. Also, one of the Coalition’s lowest primary votes in the whole of Australia is recorded in the federal seat of Clark – based in Hobart, which is very much Sandalista Central.
If Comrade Stevens wants to connect with the Tasmanian masses, he should send Comrade Lane to, say, Launceston, located in the middle of the state and relatively close to the west and east coasts. Unlike Hobart, the likes of Launceston, Burnie, Devonport and Scottsdale are not bastions of the leftist intelligentsia.
Then there is this about the ABC News Channel – which, by the way, does not always show news:
We’ll be looking at how we continue to deliver continuous news video to on demand audiences; slow down the news cycle with more explainers and constructive conversations; while doing more to engage audiences that we aren’t reaching, particularly in the suburbs and outside the big cities. The News Channel works with many different teams across News, so we’ll also be working with them on ideas for us all to meet the strategy.
So here Stevens is talking of slowing down the news cycle – as if the ABC News Channel isn’t slow enough already. As to “constructive conversations” – can’t the ABC Director of News make do without the “conversation” cliché?
Soon after, Stevens reflected on the Northern Territory Newsroom – without mentioning that it is based in Darwin (which is also replete with public servants, academics, professionals and the like) rather than Alice Springs – and a long way from the most disadvantaged parts of the territory:
For us, I see this as an opportunity to shift our thinking around priorities when it comes to the stories we choose to do. At the core of our pitching and commissioning will be the question of value to our audience. So we’ll be asking ourselves: (i) Who is the audience? (ii) What does the audience gain from this? (iii) What is the impact?
What Stevens fails to address here is how it is that the ABC did not adequately report the violence experienced by Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory. This story, all but ignored by the ABC, was made prominent by Sky News reporter Matt Cunningham and The Australian.
And here’s the comment on the ABC’s Canberra operation:
Canberra Parliament House bureau: For our team our challenge will be to continue to put the audience first in our thinking about that political coverage and find ways to ensure our best journalism is reaching as many people as possible on digital platforms.
More meaningless jargon. Nowhere in this Audience-First Strategy is there any mention of the fact that the ABC is a conservative-free-zone without one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.
Moreover, Mr Stevens does not even hazard a guess as to why the taxpayer funded public broadcaster is not “reaching audiences in the suburbs and outside the big cities”. In short, senior ABC management is in denial about the fact that the taxpayer funded public broadcaster has lost much of its one-time traditional conservative audiences – and that so many of the topics presented as news are so worthy as to be so boring.
In short, Justin Stevens’s email is 1994 words of sludge which uses techno-garbage to avoid addressing the ABC’s declining audiences – resulting, in part, from its lack of political diversity.
Media Watch Dog is of the view that Justin Stevens got someone from Human Resources or some such to write the bureaucratism which pervades his all-staff email. Why is this? Well, Stevens was interviewed by Leigh Sales for her book Storytellers: Questions, answers and the craft of journalism (Scribe, 2023). In the interview, Stevens talks in a jargon-free language. His views are not deep but they are lively and there’s not one reference to “the pillars of Value, Engagement and People”. Thank God.
[Interesting. You should follow this up by giving your man Stevens your (prestigious) Flann O’Brien Gong. Just a thought. – MWD Editor.]
Due to overwhelming popular demand, the Flann O’Brien Gong returns again this week. As avid Media Watch Dog readers will be aware, this occasional segment is inspired by the Irish humorist Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966) – nom de plume Flann O’Brien – and, in particular, his critique of the sometimes incoherent poet Ezra Pound. By the way, your man O’Brien also had the good sense not to take seriously Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), the Fianna Fail politician and dreadful bore who was prime minister and later president of Ireland for far too long.
The Flann O’Brien Gong for Literary or Verbal Sludge is devoted to outing bad writing or incomprehensible prose or incoherent verbal expression or the use of pretentious words.
JUSTIN STEVENS SCORES FOR HIS TURGID EMAIL TO ABC NEWS-GATHERERS
For his Turgid Epistle to the ABC’s Audience-First News Strategy readers, (re which see “An ABC Update” segment) Justin Stevens has won Media Watch Dog’s gong for literary or verbal sludge.
By Flann O’Brien
of Ezra Pound
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was only five or six %
The rest was only words and sound —
My reference is to Ezra £
Inspired by your man O’Brien, here is MWD’s response – with a little help from the late Jackie (Dip Wellness, The Gunnedah Institute) along with the American psychic John Edward who gets on well with the dead but not so much with the living:
of Justin Stevens
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was only four or five per cent
It’s just all sludge that’s up his sleeve
My reference is to Comrade Steve
LABOR’S BERT EVATT (1894-1965) – NOT ALWAYS A CHAMPION OF CIVIL LIBERTIES AND THE DISADVANTAGED
Just when Media Watch Dog thought it was safe to assume that the qualities of former Labor leader Herbert (Bert) Vere (“Everyone calls me Doc”) Evatt would no longer be exaggerated – Ellie’s (male) co-owner came across Troy Bramston’s article in The Weekend Australian on 23 September 2023.
The piece was titled “H V ‘Doc’ Evatt: His humanism and flawed genius put Australia on the world stage”. The occasion was the 75th anniversary of the third session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Bert Evatt was elected president of the Assembly for this session. As Bramston put it: “It was a unique honour for an Australian to be elected president and he was determined to be a champion for civil liberties, the disadvantaged and on behalf of smaller nations in the emerging post-war era.”
Early on, Bramston, a fine historian who has written an important biography of Bob Hawke, had this to say about “the Doc”:
It is hard to overstate Evatt’s stellar career in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. He was a brilliant lawyer and advocate; a scholar who authored books on history, politics, law and biography; served in the NSW parliament (1925-30); was appointed to the High Court in December 1930 at age 36; resigned to take up a career in federal politics in September 1940 and held two ministerial portfolios during the Curtin-Chifley government (1941-49) [as minister for external affairs and attorney-general].
Bramston interviewed Evatt’s daughter Rosalind Carrodus who lives in NSW. She is known to be a friend of Heather Henderson (Robert Menzies’ daughter). Bramston used his piece on Evatt to make comparisons with Menzies. Menzies won seven elections (1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963) while Evatt lost three elections (1954, 1955 and 1958) all to the Coalition led by Menzies. Bramston writes:
His leadership of Labor (1951-60) was a time of deep division within the party, a split over communist influence and electoral failure. Evatt led Labor to three election defeats in a row – May 1954, December 1955 and November 1958 – but almost dislodged Robert Menzies’ government on his first attempt. Born in the same year, they were rivals in law and politics, and shared a mutual contempt. Evatt was a better lawyer, but Menzies was a better politician.
It’s true that the 1954 election was close in terms of votes cast. But the Menzies government was returned for a third term with a comfortable majority of seven seats in the House of Representatives.
By the way, Bramston’s view of the relative abilities of Menzies and Evatt is similar to that of former prime minister John Howard (a Menzies admirer) and former High Court judge Michael Kirby (an Evatt admirer). Both men launched Anne Henderson’s Menzies versus Evatt: The Great Rivalry of Australian Politics (Connor Court) at The Sydney Institute on 10 August 2023. Henderson is the first author to write a comparative political history of the two leaders.
The Howard/Kirby speeches can be viewed on The Sydney Institute’s website.
Mr Howard acknowledged Evatt’s high intellect but commented that “politics does involve a lot of judgment and part of that judgment is how you handle people”. His point was that Evatt was not a team player. Mr Kirby commented: “Evatt was a genuine brilliant intellectual…a big achiever with a big ego to match…and a man who looked on problems in a legal way instead of in a political way…he wasn’t really a team player.”
Bramston wrote in The Weekend Australian that “Evatt’s mental faculties weakened significantly in his final years and he died, at age 71, in November 1965”. However, it would appear that Evatt’s mental decline was evident as early as 1940 when he left the High Court for a career in national politics. Set out below is what a number of Evatt’s contemporaries said about him – none of whom were hostile to the Labor government in the 1940s:
Professor William Macmahon Ball commented that Evatt was “wholly untrustworthy” and suggested that even during the immediate postwar period “the mental illness which brought the great pity and sadness of his last years was already incipient and active”. Dr Margaret George in her study Australia and the Indonesian Revolution referred to Evatt’s “schizophrenic volte-faces” as a diplomat. And in Trial Balance H C Coombs mentioned Evatt’s “tendency to suspect people around him of disloyalty to him on the most trifling of evidence”.
However, it was not until the publication of Peter Crockett’s Evatt: A Life that the true condition of Evatt’s mind became apparent. Crockett trailed through the available archives (including reports from Australian diplomats abroad to the then Department of External Affairs) and interviewed widely.
Generally, Crockett was sympathetic to Evatt’s career in law and politics. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Evatt was a bully with a terrible wrath who exercised these skills willingly on waiters and those ranked below him in the legal hierarchy. While a civil libertarian in opposition, he was often authoritarian and illiberal when in office. As attorney-general in the Curtin and Chifley governments he ran an informal system of spies and informers on his staff and had some of his senior public servants and their families investigated by security.
As to personal behaviour, Crockett described a visit to the Middle East in the late 1940s where Evatt lined his chest with newspapers to protect himself against the elements and proceeded to meet his hosts accompanied by the sound of “crepitating paper”. Moreover Evatt was a bad traveller extraordinaire. Once he refused to board an aircraft because he had not seen it refuelled; on another occasion he travelled on a plane carrying a fishing line lest “his aircraft come down in the sea and food be needed before the rescuers arrived”.
And then there was Evatt’s decision as attorney-general in the Curtin Labor government to intern without trial members of The Australia First Movement including its leader P.R. (Inky) Stephensen (1901-1965) during the Second World War. The official war historian Paul Hasluck described Evatt’s treatment of Stephensen and others, and the Australia-First Movement detentions, as “the grossest infringement of individual liberty made during the war”. These internments without trial were opposed by such leading Labor figures as Arthur Calwell and Frank Brennan.
In other words, Evatt was not an equal opportunity civil libertarian. He advocated civil liberties for those on the left of politics – but not so much for those on the right. Sure, Bert Evatt was a flawed genius. But, Bramston’s claims that Evatt always had “a liberal and progressive” view and was “always for the underdog” needs to be qualified by documented evidence as going back to as early as 1940.
Troy Bramston is correct to depict Evatt’s important role in the defeat of the 1951 referendum – that would have made it constitutionally possible for the Menzies Government to ban the Communist Party of Australia – as his finest moment. However, it is important to note that “The Doc” was a very flawed individual – whose behaviour to others would not be tolerated today.
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Until Next Time
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