CAN you bear it? In last weekend’s ‘The Australian Financial Review’, Mark Latham argued that journalist Michael Smith should not be allowed to get “involved in the mainstream media”.
The former Labor leader described Smith as a “nut job” who did not practise “journalistic impartiality” and who had exhibited a “virulent anti-Gillard bias”.
So Latham, a recipient of the most generous old parliamentary superannuation scheme who tops up his taxpayer-subsidised pension with payments from Fairfax Media, is campaigning to have a highly qualified journalist barred from attaining employment within his profession.
Moreover, Latham is now presenting himself as an arbiter of journalistic standards.
Latham is upset that, on March 22-23, The Weekend Australian published four articles totalling 8000 words that Smith co-wrote with Hedley Thomas.
The articles documented the role of the Australian Workers Union in the Dawesville Channel project in Western Australia two decades ago. This was a $60 million taxpayer-funded project that was awarded without a public tender to Thiess, the building company that made payments of more than $300,000 to the slush fund.
The authors also focused on the operations of the AWU Workplace Reform Association, then controlled by the Perth-based AWU official Bruce Wilson. Wilson was, for a time, the boyfriend and legal client of former prime minister Julia Gillard.
Latham’s column did not contain one word of criticism of what Smith and Thomas wrote. Not one. His position was that Smith was a nut job who should not be writing for, or commenting in, the mainstream media.
Moreover, Latham does not believe Gillard’s admission that she gave legal advice to set up the AWU’s slush fund when a legal partner at Slater & Gordon in Melbourne in the early 1990s should be a matter for public discussion. Put simply, Latham wants to shut down this debate. Which explains his attack on Smith, who has followed the story consistently, if at times obsessively, for two years. Smith has paid a high price for his devotion to this particular cause.
After a successful radio career in Brisbane, Smith took over the afternoon slot on Sydney’s 2UE in January 2011. In August 2011, he interviewed Labor parliamentarian Craig Thomson concerning his behaviour as a Health Services Union official.
Thomson put in a disastrous performance and the interview set in place a series of events that saw him convicted of misusing HSU members’ funds on prostitution and other non-union expenses. Thomson is appealing his conviction and sentence.
In late 2011, Smith began pursuing Gillard concerning her involvement with the AWU slush fund. This was a legitimate story, covered by The Australian but virtually ignored by The Sydney Morning Herald , The Age and, for most of the time, the ABC.
Smith set up an interview with Robert Kernohan, a former AWU president in Victoria, who had complained about embezzlement in the union. But it was not to be, as 2UE declined to put a prerecorded interview with Kernohan to air.
It is known that Gillard and her office responded with hostility to reports in The Australian and on 2UE concerning her involvement in the AWU slush fund. After an internal dispute, Smith was suspended by 2UE. He subsequently resigned and has not had regular employment since then. In other words, Smith has paid an extremely high price for relentlessly pursuing a story that many members of the parliamentary press gallery ignored.
Journalists who became obsessed with David Marr’s claim that Tony Abbott, when aged 20, had punched a wall near a young woman’s head showed little curiosity about Gillard’s behaviour when she was a legal partner at age 30. This despite the fact there was no independent witness or contemporaneous evidence to support Marr’s claim, yet Gillard’s involvement in the slush fund was documented in a record of interview in which she participated in September 1995.
It may be that nothing will come of the allegations concerning Gillard’s involvement with Wilson and the AWU slush fund. She denies any wrongdoing. But this is a legitimate journalistic story. It is known that Gillard left Slater & Gordon following internal criticism of her involvement in providing legal advice to establish the AWU Workplace Reform Association.
The handling of members’ funds by some officials in unions such as the HSU and AWU — along with payments to union officials by some businesses — has become a matter of genuine public interest and concern.
There is an ongoing Victoria Police Fraud Squad investigation, documents have been seized from the law firm under search warrant, and a royal commission has been established to probe union slush funds.
But to Latham, it is not an issue. Not long into the controversy, he branded those commentators critical of Gillard’s involvement in the AWU slush fund as “Brucers”, a reference to Wilson. Latham’s label invoked a link to the “Truthers”, in the US and elsewhere, who refuse to believe that the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, by Osama bin Laden’s Islamist hit squad.
There is a difference here. It is widely recognised that those who deny that the twin towers in New York were destroyed by planes flown by al-Qa’ida terrorists are, in fact, nut jobs. However, those who are concerned about the AWU’s very real slush fund of two decades ago are not in any sense of similar disposition and include people with impeccable labour-movement backgrounds, such as Fair Work Commissioner Ian Cambridge and former Labor minister Martin Ferguson.
Moreover, in a finding made on December 9 last year, Victorian Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen held that Wilson obtained the use of a home with payments made by the construction company Thiess to the AWU’s slush fund. Gillard attended this auction.
Ralph Blewitt, a one-time associate of Wilson, has admitted that he did engage in corrupt behaviour with respect to the slush fund and is willing to give evidence to this effect.
Latham’s case for the prosecution against Smith is a double-barrelled one. First, he correctly identifies Smith as a virulent opponent of Gillard. He points to the comment on the Michael Smith News website, written on November 2, 2012, which read as follows: “I hold a special contempt in the whole of my being for Miss Gillard …”
Some of what Smith said cannot be repeated on legal advice; his character assessment is certainly tough. And it does contain some of the criticism which did fall heavily on Gillard because of her gender. Namely, the home-wrecking allegation, which is rarely, if ever, used against male politicians who have relationships with married women.
Smith wrote this shortly after he ceased employment at 2UE and he no doubt blamed the former prime minister for his unfortunate predicament.
Yet who is Latham to make such a judgment? In the lead-up to the 2010 election, Latham was engaged by the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes to report on the campaign. The program, which aired on August 12, 2010, showed an angry Latham physically confronting the then prime minister at the Brisbane show.
If anyone other than a former Labor leader had done this, they would have been removed by the prime minister’s security detachment. But Latham was allowed to aggressively confront her. He alleged, without evidence, that the Labor Party had “made a complaint” about him working for Nine. Gillard replied that she did not “know anything about that”.
Latham concluded his piece by urging viewers to lodge an informal vote at the 2010 election.
Then, writing in The Spectator Australia on February 5, 2011, he described Gillard as “a fairly dry fish”, adding: “Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.”
Latham repeated the criticism when interviewed by Fran Kelly on Radio NationalBreakfast on April 4, 2011, after the publication of a new edition of the jaundice-riddenThe Latham Diaries.
So, according to Smith, Gillard is a home-wrecker. And, according to Latham, she has no love in her. Clearly Latham’s criticism of Smith’s “virulent anti-Gillard bias” has scant credibility.
Latham’s second criticism is that, in late November 2012, Smith allowed a contributor to place a comment on his blog about how members of the Australian Defence Force allegedly saluted Gillard when she visited Afghanistan. In folklore, the act of saluting officers in a combat zone identifies a suitable target for a sniper. Another contributor placed this comment on Michael Smith News: “What a bloody pity that the Taliban don’t have a single sniper worth his shekels.”
Smith’s immediate response was: “I’m going to bed now with a smile.” He removed both offensive comments, along with his response, from his blog the following morning.
When I spoke to Smith this week, he acknowledged that he should not have made this comment and added: “No one on my website was seriously talking about assassination — the joke was on politicians who like to be saluted in war zones. The joke is so old it’s sepia so I took the comments down the next morning.”
In Latham’s view, the material briefly carried on Michael Smith News in late 2012 should bar Smith from ever again obtaining future employment in the mainstream media. Yet Latham has been rehabilitated of late from his own past excesses.