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gillardLeaks, rumours, polls and deniability: Kerry-Anne Walsh paints an ugly picture of Kevin Rudd’s road back to the prime ministership.

This book, which details the covert media campaign run by Kevin Rudd and his supporters over the course of the Gillard government, went to the printer just before Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership on 26 June this year. In its final paragraph, Kerry-Anne Walsh predicts that if Rudd were to become PM again, the federal parliamentary Labor party ‘will have collectively surrendered its principles and its fate to one of the great wreckers in modern Labor’.

Stalking Julia Gillard does not claim to be a history of the Gillard government. It is more personal, and more passionate, and policy issues figure only when they become instruments of the Rudd campaign. The prefatory Author’s Note describes it as a:

… contemporaneous diary of an extraordinary time in Australian … Initially my idea was to record the unfolding drama of … Australia’s first minority parliament since 1939, but it quickly became apparent that while the minority parliament was functioning remarkably well under Gillard’s leadership, there was a heaving political undercurrent being generated by a minority within the Labor caucus that kept threatening to derail its success. I noticed that as the months passed, the vast resources of the press gallery became more focused on Rudd’s ambitions for a comeback than anything the historic minority parliament had to offer …

While there are rigorous, professional and highly competent journalists reporting from the press gallery, what confounded and disturbed me as the months passed was how many more got swept up in Rudd’s power play, giving undeserved momentum to his ambitions to reclaim the prime ministership.  They became players, not reporters … 

The underhanded work being done by his [Rudd’s] acolytes was respectfully kept in anonymous shadows while being given headline treatment.

The book is a damning catalogue of collusion and incompetence by the Australian media in pursuit of the leadership story, and it is depressing reading.  The collusion was with ‘Team Rudd’, those individuals within and outside parliament whose mission since 24 June 2010 had been to see Kevin Rudd return to the prime ministership, and who steadily fed rumours of ‘leadership speculation’ to journalists who readily reported them as facts. The incompetence is the failure of fact-checking that allowed stories to run, again and again, claiming increased support among caucus for a Rudd return, when it didn’t exist.

In September 2011, Walsh writes:

There is an earnest push by Team Rudd for the relentless media bludgeoning of Gillard to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A picture of her losing her grip on power and authority is presented daily to voters and media consumers, despite no evidence being provided to back up that conclusion. The government is suffering policy difficulties, as any government will from time to time, and there is a clutch of MPs who want Rudd returned; but they’re a minority desperately trying to entice the media to blow strong wind in their sails.

Every policy set-back was framed in terms of the leadership. For example, when the High Court nixed the government’s ‘Malaysia Solution’ for asylum seekers, the headline in the Herald-Sun was ‘Tick tick tick’ above an article that stated:

‘Senior government figures say Julia Gillard has “lost her authority” and have urged her to weigh up whether it’s in Labor’s best interests for her to stay on as PM.’

The next day Joel Fitzgibbon went on ABC Radio and said:

‘Well, those headlines are misleading. There is a suggestion that Julia Gillard doesn’t have authority. I would suggest to you that if she lacked authority, people who were quoted in that article … would be putting their names to those quotes.’

The Sydney Morning Herald’s story on the High Court decision ran the headlines ‘Factions in open warfare’ and ‘Doubts over PM’s leadership’ despite the accompanying article acknowledging ‘no one [is] suggesting any moves are imminent’.

By early February 2012 there were claims that Rudd had personally briefed four journalists – ‘two … from the ABC, one from Fairfax, one from News Ltd’ – on his plans.

When Rudd resigned as Foreign Minister later that month, the former editor of The Age, Michael Gawenda, described how Rudd presented himself in his press conferences as if he had never been involved

‘… in the grubby politics of undermining, white-anting, wounding and ultimately destroying an opponent. And reporters, some of whom knew that none of this was true, reported it all, without comment, without letting us know that they knew, personally, that it was untrue.’

How did this silence serve the public interest? The ABC’s editorial principles warn journalists about relying on anonymous sources, yet, Walsh claims:

… two of Aunty’s most respected political journalists were said to be privy to the inside running on Rudd’s battle plan for his February 2012 challenge weeks before the leadership ballot, yet they chose to keep this to themselves.

How did it come to this?

It is nothing new for the media to take a political stand. Why else would so many politicians court Rupert Murdoch? There has always been a symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press – one wants an audience, the other wants a story. It’s not uncommon either for journalists to move between the press gallery and political staffs. Walsh herself, a press gallery journalist of many years standing, had a stint working for Bob Hawke. But something different was going on here.

Special Minister of State Gary Gray believed part of the press gallery’s obsession with Gillard’s leadership was the fact that:

… all except a few ABC journalists were caught off guard by the events of the night of 23 June 2010. Now they are keeping watch … and jumping ‘at every single shadow they see,’ says Gray … ‘Meanwhile, the actual processes of the government continue to work well and, in my view, the cabinet processes and the internal workings of the government are working better than they have worked for over a decade …’

Veteran journalist and host of ABC’s Insiders Barrie Cassidy summed it up succinctly:  ‘The fear [in the press gallery] is that if you don’t support the concept of a challenge, then you will miss the story.’

And so the speculation ground on. Nevertheless, at the end of February 2013, Dennis Atkins of the Courier-Mail reported that:

‘There has been no great movement of caucus votes … most of Rudd’s parliamentary colleagues find his behaviour annoying and counterproductive. The usual response from exasperated MPs is: “Why won’t he just shut up?”’

One person who did call out Rudd’s behaviour was former ALP Senator Graham Richardson – himself no fan of Julia Gillard. In a 2011 article headlined ‘Kevin Rudd’s treachery will be the biggest obstacle he faces’, he wrote:

‘Not a day goes by where you don’t see an article about how a surging Kevin Rudd is going after a doomed Julia Gillard.’ He writes that senior journalists tell him that Gillard ‘will be gone by Christmas’. 

So much for Richardson the Labor insider, reduced to quoting journalists rather than Labor sources. Which is part of the problem Walsh describes – journalists quoting journalists quoting journalists:

Before appearing on ABC’s Insiders one Sunday morning a few years ago, I was chatting with the two other journalists on the panel … One had just taken a phone call from a Labor contact about disquiet within cabinet over a certain policy issue and, dispensing with confidentiality, he breezily chatted to us about it.  On air the third journalist, straight-faced and without shame, said he’d been told that morning ‘by senior cabinet sources’ about ructions over a certain policy issue, pinching and rebadging as his own the other bloke’s telephone call.

Journalists in the press gallery regularly discuss stories among themselves … When heads are put together and a collective wisdom arrived at about certain events, it can be tough being the one to break ranks.

The weakness of this ‘collective wisdom’, nurtured in the hothouse of Canberra, was evident in the way the press gallery missed the importance of Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’. As the speech went viral on social media, receiving hundreds of thousands of hits not just in Australia but around the world, the press gallery was left stumbling to explain its collective negative judgement of it.

The pressure of the digital news cycle also encourages journalistic cannibalism.

When the debate over the government’s proposed poker machine reforms was raging in November 2011, Simon Benson and Steve Lewis reported in the Daily Telegraph that: ‘Kevin Rudd is being urged by key backers within the Labor Party to challenge Julia Gillard for the leadership as early as this month’. Their source was unnamed.  When Rudd finally confirmed his support of the reforms, Philip Hudson of the Herald-Sun:

… files Rudd’s statement in an online update at 9pm under the banner: ‘Kevin Rudd will support pokies but won’t reject talk of PM challenge’.  The rest of his article is a lift from the Benson-Lewis story … Without attribution or any evidence he has sought to confirm the story …

This is the way of modern newspapers and online reporting for media conglomerates. A creative sub-editor on the news desk plucks bits of copy out of stories from one or more journalists in their vast stable, maybe adding a dash of AAP copy. Combined with more than a splash of hyperbolic poetic licence, it is then poured into one glorious mishmash, often under one by-line, and transmitted to all the News Ltd tabloids. The journalist under whose by-line the story appears may not have a clue about the final story because the news outlets’ need to feed the twenty-four-hour online story beast makes news gathering, accuracy and fact-checking an anachronism. Despairing politicians who claim they have been misquoted or verballed, or that stories are outrageously wrong or fabricated, are ignored. 

This borrowing and re-purposing is not unique to News Limited. In December 2011:

The ABC’s Jeremy Thompson leads with this statement: ‘Julia Gillard’s grip on the prime ministership appears more tenuous than ever, with a group of senior ministers now believed to have swung their support behind leadership aspirant Kevin Rudd.’ The ‘now believed’ is because it was written in both the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald this morning …

It is a cycle of Chinese whispers and pack reporting, with journalists repeating what other journalists have written … By the end of this twenty-four-hour news cycle, the story that’s appeared in the morning newspapers, based on nothing more than the words of Rudd spruikers, has been repeated on radio and television and become ‘fact’.

Walsh describes how, at one point earlier this year, speculation reached fever pitch that Simon Crean was going to tap Gillard on the shoulder and get her to stand down in favour of Rudd. Camera crews and reporters crowded the corridors of Parliament House to get the news. But in fact Crean wasn’t even in Canberra that day.  And one source claimed that the whole frenzy was started by tweets from Liberal party staffers.

Journalists’ reliance on polls – and the importance politicians place on them – constantly fed into the speculation. Newspapers commission polls, and can even create stories in the way a poll is conducted – for example, by adding an outsider’s name to a leadership poll (as Walsh admits she did herself on occasion). Changes of a couple of percentage points that are within statisticians’ margins of error are still reported as trends.

More than once Walsh shows the causal chain of press attacks on Julia Gillard’s leadership leading to poor polls which lead to more press attacks which lead to worse polls.  When positive polls emerged, as they did earlier this year, the press focus on the negative swiftly followed.

However, the book also acknowledges that Julia Gillard was not always her own best advocate.  The wooden, often absurd, public speeches (the ‘we are us’ speech to the Labor conference, for example) remain puzzling.  Walsh ponders:

I wonder about the vacuousness of contemporary politics, in which an effervescent, smart woman has been forced to undergo public transformation into a starched and over-scripted public figure.

Did Gillard simply not see some of those scripts – ‘moving forward’, ‘the real Julia’, ‘we are us’ – for the duds they were?  Walsh gives a partial answer when she quotes from Gillard’s speech to the Press Club on 14 July 2011:

‘I’m a decision-maker by nature and I have tended to let the decisions speak for themselves. It doesn’t come easy to me to expose my feelings as I make these decisions. I was the shy girl who studied and worked hard, and it took time and effort but I got from Unley High to the law and as far as here, where I am today. I’ve brought a sense of personal reserve to this, the most public of professions.’

But reserve alone doesn’t explain why Gillard would stick with bad scripts.

While Walsh’s focus is the media’s relationship with Team Rudd, as she styles Rudd’s supporters, there are also interesting sidelights along the way. She is emphatic about the circumstances of June 2010:

It has been confirmed to me by impeccable sources who were at the centre of the action on the night of 23 June that Gillard was deeply reluctant to take the job … She was a most reluctant draftee.

And she has had access to an unpublished memoir by ‘a former high level Rudd government policy adviser’ who paints a devastating picture of the dysfunction in the Prime Minister’s office under Rudd, with advisors being frozen out if they gave advice the PM didn’t like.

The brutal nature of politics was thrown into stark relief when Julia Gillard was on compassionate leave after her father died. Rudd the backbencher chose that moment to appear on the 7.30 Report for his first major interview since his failed February 2012 challenge, insisting that he ‘won’t be silenced’.

However, perhaps the most depressing thing about this book is that nowhere is the leadership discussed in terms of policy. In all the hinting and smoke-and-mirrors of the Rudd boosters, there was never a clear policy reason why Kevin Rudd should lead instead of Julia Gillard. In fact the whole leadership issue diverted press attention away from policy.

Kerry-Anne Walsh’s style is intimate, breezy, and dripping with sarcasm. She’s not afraid to channel the thoughts of Kevin Rudd, either, as here in October 2011:

His spirits soar even more when the oracle of News Ltd commentary, Paul Kelly, announces on 19 October: ‘Gillard has now reached a stage of permanent humiliation’. 

The diary form means the book is written in the present tense, and the litany of examples of press attacks can feel a bit relentless. The Gillard government did make its own missteps which fed the press speculation.

Nevertheless, despite what so many in the media were telling us for pretty much the duration of the Gillard government (Walsh provides a handy timeline at the back of the book chronicling the continued prophecies of doom throughout the last three years) we now know that there wasn’t sufficient appetite in caucus for a leadership spill until the very eleventh hour. Gillard continued to defy the media and survived deadline after deadline.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard provides a unique perspective on the Gillard government, and a cautionary tale of what can happen when the delicate relationship between press and politicians goes wrong.

Kerry-Anne Walsh The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the Media and Team Rudd Contrived to Bring Down the Prime Minister Allen & Unwin PB 2013 320pp $29.99

You can buy this book at Abbey’s here or at Booktopia here.

If you would like to see if it is available through Newtown Library, click here.

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