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Hedley Thomas - How Julia Gillard censored our free press & neutralised journalists

How Gillard responded should be a salutary lesson about the lengths that powerful political figures will go to crush a damaging story, neutralise journalists, intimidate media outlets and even attempt to permanently alter the freedom of the media.
 
 
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JULIA Gillard began to squeeze the trigger of a powerful weapon aimed directly at the media on August 29, 2011. The story she wanted dead and buried that day, and forever after, had the potential to be extremely damaging to her as the then prime minister. It revolved around a secret union fund she had quietly, without even the knowledge of her law firm partners, given advice about setting up for her former client and boyfriend, the allegedly corrupt Australian Workers Union boss Bruce Wilson, who would allegedly use what was later described as a "slush fund" in a serious fraud.

This little-known scandal had been largely concealed since Gillard left her job as a salaried partner at Slater & Gordon lawyers in Melbourne in late 1995, when several of her colleagues discovered facts about her conduct. Her unceremonious departure from the firm would launch her career as a professional political adviser and, subsequently, as an ambitious Labor parliamentarian. But the facts about the slush fund were known to very few people in 2011. The sanitised, official version was misleadingly different.

How Gillard responded on that Monday morning, August 29, 2011, and subsequently, should be a salutary lesson about the lengths that powerful political figures will go to crush a damaging story, neutralise journalists, intimidate media outlets and even attempt to permanently alter the freedom of the media.

My then colleague at The Australian, Glenn Milne, had published in his column that morning a mere handful of paragraphs about his previous attempts to investigate the slush fund. Milne was essentially flagging a deeper story that was being prepared for imminent airing by a 2UE radio host, Michael Smith, a former police officer who had been digging among union scams after his recent success in cross-examining alleged Health Services Union fraudster and federal Labor member Craig Thomson.

Gillard already knew that Andrew Bolt, the conservative and widely read commentator for the Herald Sun (sister paper to The Australian), had flagged the revisiting of the slush fund scandal - he had written of a "tip on something that may force Gillard to resign". "On Monday, I'm tipping, a witness with a statutory declaration will come forward and implicate Julia Gillard directly in another scandal involving the misuse of union funds," Bolt wrote on his Herald Sun blog over that August weekend.

On the Monday morning, early, a furious Gillard called John Hartigan, the then head of News Limited in Australia. News, and Milne's column, were in her sights. "She said they were very damaging accusations," Hartigan told The Australian a few days later. "She wanted some action and she wanted it quickly."

Gillard demanded a public apology, the immediate expunging from the website of Milne's column, and undertakings that the allegations never be repeated again in The Australian. Leaving nothing to chance, the PM extended this demand to cover all News Limited newspapers and their websites. The Australian's editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, who was told to call Gillard that Monday morning, described her reaction at the time as "apoplectic". Paul Keating's rages were nothing compared with this one from Gillard, Mitchell noted.

Almost all of Gillard's demands were met. Seeing what was happening over at News Limited, Smith's bosses at the Fairfax-owned 2UE then lost their nerve and pulled his carefully researched story, too. Smith protested but lost his job over it. Bolt, appalled at the censorship and the cave-in, considered resigning. Milne lost his column and his place at The Australian.

But this ugly, self-serving assault by a prime minister on the Australian media was not over by a long shot. The Gillard government's announcement of a public media inquiry just a couple of weeks later, in September 2011, was the next blunt instrument to ensure we were more poodle than watchdog.

The slush fund story had been torched and reduced to ashes. But it could not be permitted to flare up again. The media inquiry, headed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC, was a precursor to the government's threats of unprecedented media regulation.

Gillard had said in 2011 that News Limited's journalists in Australia had "questions to answer", apparently arising from the unlawful hacking of telephone voicemails by journalists at the News of the World in Britain. There was never a skerrick of evidence of any hacking by any staff of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers in Australia.

As a government strategy, the crackdown in 2011 was ruthlessly effective.

My colleagues were intimidated by Gillard's and the government's extraordinary overreactions to Milne's and Smith's ill-fated attempts to report without fear or favour on the slush fund.

The media steered a wide berth around the ruins of the slush fund story - except to mock Milne and Smith for being foolish enough to think it ever was a story worth pursuing. This pusillanimous conduct continues today among the more naive and partisan commentators, despite numerous documents, witnesses and other evidence being subsequently produced and reported in The Australian, and by Mark Baker in The Age, in 2012 and this year.

And in the dying days of Gillard's government, earlier this year, draconian proposals for media regulation were warmed up again. Would this incredible attempted stifling, aimed squarely at News, have even been put back on the agenda if The Australian had not published revelations in leaked, and extremely damaging, slush fund-related documents in 2012? The seriousness of the disclosures made Gillard's disproportionate protests about a relatively innocuous column by Milne in 2011 appear confected and absurd. We may never know for certain, but the attempted regulation this year reeked of payback.

When leaders in journalism across the media landscape in Australia fight the good fight against attempted censorship and intimidation by politicians and other powerful figures, great and lofty arguments are rolled into the public arena about the vital importance of the fourth estate.

We know these arguments well: in a nutshell, inquisitive journalists who uncover the truth without fear or favour are a cornerstone of democracy, and their efforts must be defended at all costs, particularly from governments that deploy vast powers and taxpayer-funded resources in craven attempts to stymie media scrutiny.

Why, then, have so many media-freedom-loving leaders in the Australian journalistic community, and in academe, been silent and, worse, sneeringly critical of two journalists who have been censored, intimidated and seen their reputations trashed for disclosures in late August 2011, about Gillard's conduct?

Now, in the new light of hard, documentary evidence from exhaustive investigations during the past 11 months by Victoria Police fraud squad detectives, who will be back in court early next month, it is difficult to avoid one disturbing conclusion.

It is that Milne, Smith and their employers were subjected to a shameless, unprecedented, unfair and disproportionate counterattack by Gillard, who wanted their attempted reporting about her role in setting up the slush fund killed off for all time. A conga line of media critics (for whom party-political preference and ideology appeared to trump the principles of a free press) joined in to make sure the credibility of the two was shredded. Despite the rhetoric we often hear about the importance of repulsing overt intimidation of the media, Milne and Smith were cut down, and lampooned as conspiracy theorists. Attempted media regulation followed.

For those unsure of where things are at, the police interest remains high. The police are due to go back to court in a couple of weeks. A month ago, lawyers for Victoria Police explained to the Melbourne Magistrates Court why they have been taking the slush fund fraud investigation so seriously. The police, who have numerous incriminating statements, want to peruse more than 360 documents seized from Slater & Gordon relating to Gillard's former client and lover, Wilson. He is fighting to prevent the police from having access to this material.

Ron Gipp, for lead investigator Senior Sergeant Ross Mitchell, told the court last month that police were confident in their case so far. "The evidence is very strong," Gipp said. "What we are talking about here is not merely Mr Mitchell saying: 'Look, I've got a suspicion.' This is going way, way beyond just mere suspicion."

Earlier this year, police seized hundreds of documents under the warrant, which specifically sought files held by Slater & Gordon relating to Wilson and Gillard, including her personnel files, invoices, travel records and documents from the firm's partner meetings relating to Gillard and the AWU.

Perhaps those who still don't get it - who still lampoon The Australian, Milne, Smith, Baker and other journalists, including this one, who have been involved in exposing these issues - should explain to the fraud squad detectives and the police lawyers why they, too, are barking up the wrong tree.

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