Share

Strengths and defects: Triumph and Demise & Power Failure

In the preface to his book about the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, Paul Kelly departs from tradition. Where most authors acknowledge all those who have helped them before, saying something like any mistakes that remain are mine, Kelly solemnly undertakes to ‘assume responsibility for the book in its strengths and defects’. This strikes a peculiar note. Who else is going to claim responsibility for the book’s strengths? The local vet? Is the author telling reviewers how to review his book, or has he, to use the vernacular, swallowed his own story?

Kelly’s response to the publication of Julia Gillard’s My Story (2014) confirmed the suspicion that he might have lost any sense that Margaret Simons’ description – in her book Fit to Print (1999) – of Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes and Kelly as ‘the God correspondents’ was tinged with irony. Gillard’s memoir was released in September, one month after Kelly’s book; it immediately reached top spot on the Nielsen BookScan lists, selling around 62 000 copies by the end of the year, and drew praise and criticism from reviewers in roughly equal measure. Kelly then wrote a fourteen page introduction for a ‘new, updated edition’ of Triumph and Demise that was released a month later, in October. It sternly takes Gillard to task for what Kelly sees as the memoir’s many flaws. High on the list are her refusal to give a full account of the events of 23 June 2010, when she confronted Rudd over his failing Prime Ministership, and her playing of the gender card in her now famous ‘misogyny speech’.

Kelly is of course entitled to make his argument, and there is no doubt that the ousting of an elected Prime Minister in his first term of office was an extraordinary – and to the public unexplained – event that hamstrung Gillard and Labor’s ability to gain public confidence for their policies. But elsewhere in the book, and in promotional interviews, Kelly exonerates Gillard from the charge that she was disloyal to Rudd and plotted against him in the months leading up the fateful challenge. He acknowledges that Gillard was ‘subjected to sustained and grossly offensive sexist and misogynist attacks for which there is no excuse and no equivalent experience for a man’, but says that overwhelmingly criticism of her and her government stemmed from ‘her policies and her political actions, not because of her gender’. He writes that Gillard’s criticism of her sexist attackers is ‘part true yet even greater part fantasy. It will appeal to many readers, presumably women readers.’ This suggests women prefer comforting fairy tales to ‘hard facts’, which reinscribes the sexism he has just criticised, and is oblivious to the possibility that a man might also abhor sexism.

The argument that Gillard’s misogyny speech needs to be put into a political context does carry weight. She was desperate to divert attention from the problems her government had with the then speaker, Peter Slipper, not to mention Slipper’s offensive remarks about women in his private emails. Such an argument does not, however, explain the thumping sense of identification felt by so many women around the nation; nor does it square with what even Kelly labels the unprecedented sexist treatment of Gillard from the moment she became Prime Minister. It is as if he and other press gallery commentators expect these two contexts – the political and the personal – to swim alongside each other in well marked lanes and never stray across, let alone collide. I don’t imagine Kelly consciously intended it, but his introduction reads as if he believes he knows Gillard’s mind better than she does, and that it would have been better for all if she had not penned her 504 page memoir but read his 560 page book instead.

*

None of this means that Kelly’s book is without value. He has covered federal politics for about 40 years, providing millions of words of high level analysis of the day’s events, which he later builds on by conducting fresh interviews with political leaders and senior public servants to write considered book-length accounts of the life and death of various governments.  Triumph and Demise follows The March of Patriots (2009), which covers the first half of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister, which followed The End of Certainty (1992), about the Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and so on. He has won all the big journalism awards, including Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year, and as recently as December 2014 Triumph and Demise won the Walkley Award for best non-fiction book.

Who am I to criticise Kelly’s work, you might ask. Fair question, but it is the very garlanding of Kelly’s work with awards and the status-stamping dust-jacket recommendations on the updated edition (of the ‘if you read only one book about these turbulent years’, ‘this is the definitive account’, and ‘future historians will regard him as the gold standard’ variety) that make me think that Kelly, like Bob Woodward in the United States, has become a ‘human brand’ – as one of Woodward’s biographers Alicia Shepard puts it. Like Woodward, Kelly has in place extensive arrangements for exclusive newsworthy excerpts from his books to be published in his employer’s news outlets: the Australian and the Australian Agenda program on the Sky news channel. Like Woodward, Kelly’s name appears on the covers of his books in type as large, if not larger, than the book’s title. Both men promise to deliver what they see is a unique form of contemporary history that combines the timeliness and urgency of journalism with the kind of close and continual access to key players that is denied to academic historians and access to important documents well before they would normally become publicly available.

As with Woodward, there is the same fixation in Kelly’s books on the political class – leaders, cabinet ministers, chiefs of staff, media advisers and heads of departments – and a paucity of interest in how what they do affects the lives of ordinary people. As with Woodward, there is an obsession with the power plays of political rivals. Little of Kelly’s forensic intelligence is directed at discussing the complex issues confronting the nation, except as they bear on who won and who lost the political week.

Woodward has been criticised, by Jacob Weisberg of Slate among others, for becoming a Washington insider who reflects the conventional wisdom of the moment; it was only in Woodward’s third book about George W. Bush, State of Denial (2006), when the failures of the Iraq invasion had become blindingly obvious, that he began meting out serious criticism of the administration. Kelly, too, has been criticised by Robert Manne in the Monthly for his myopic inside-Canberra perspective, and by Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in Overland in 2010 for delivering the conventional wisdom of the moment in ‘sonorous, apocalyptic tones’.

Kelly prides himself on the dispassionate nature of his analysis, calling out Liberal and Labor governments alike, but he straitjackets complex issues in either / or dichotomies. In Triumph and Demise, the plight of refugees is reduced to soft-headed idealism versus the iron laws of border protection. Ross Garnaut’s description of climate change as a ‘diabolical policy problem’ is quoted, but Kelly then proceeds to reduce it to a conflict between naive idealists and economic realists.

Just as few people read Woodward for the quality of his prose I wonder how many readers will actually reach the end of Triumph and Demise. There are good, pungently expressed summarising statements from time to time, but these are buried in paragraph after paragraph of prose that, as Tom Wolfe once wrote of Walter Lippman, has been turned over in his  ‘ponderous cud for a few days, and then methodically egested in the form of a drop of mush on the foreheads of several hundred thousand readers’.

*

There is one major difference between the work of Woodward and Kelly. The elephant in Kelly’s room is not one that troubles Woodward: Kelly has worked for Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, known since 2013 as News Corporation Australia, for the past three decades.

There is now a wealth of evidence stretching back to the 1950s about how Murdoch runs his company. It has been gathered and thoroughly analysed in numerous recent books including but not limited to Michael Wolff’s The Man Who Owns the News (2008), Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay, Bad News (2011), David McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch (2012), Martin Hickman and Tom Watson’s Dial M for Murdoch (2013), Rodney Tiffen’s Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment (2014) and Nick Davies’ Hack Attack (2014). The recurring themes in these books, all of which are well worth reading, are that Murdoch has been and is the elemental driving force in News Corporation; that the company’s culture reflects his personality and values; that Murdoch uses his media outlets to ruthlessly pursue his business interests; that these interests are often entwined with his political beliefs, which are deeply held if not always deeply thought through; and that at its worst News is a ‘rogue corporation’ (Davies’ term), which not only trucks in unethical journalism, such as phone hacking, but abuses its media power either by intimidating politicians, police and celebrities to provide certain stories or by attacking its critics in the most relentless and personal terms.

At an academic conference in 2014 about the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Australian, Kelly delivered a keynote speech that made much of how Murdoch disagreed with the newspaper’s editorial endorsement of Kevin Rudd on the eve of the 2007 election, but allowed it to be published. For Kelly, this buttressed the routine claim by News editors that Murdoch is not an interventionist proprietor. Read alongside the six books listed above, however, his comment is like a bottle bobbing in the ocean. In any case, there is little in Triumph and Demise that his boss would disagree with, as far as I can see.

It is not easy for journalists to write critically about their own company (I know this first hand from working as Media editor for the Age), but in Triumph and Demise Kelly does not even seem to try. He alternates between portraying Murdoch’s media outlets as fulfilling their fourth estate role by holding the government to account, ignoring other less savoury aspects of their coverage, and muffling the interactions between political leaders like Rudd and News Limited editors like Chris Mitchell of the Australian by describing them in blandly benign terms.

There is no doubt the News Limited newspapers did good journalism that held the Rudd and Gillard governments to account. But there is not much doubt that they also campaigned vigorously against these governments in ways that extended beyond the kind of campaigns that many news outlets run, and which strayed into the blinkered and bludgeoning territory that has long been commonplace across Murdoch’s global media empire. It is widely agreed in the journalistic accounts, the emerging academic studies, and the various politicians’ memoirs that the Rudd and Gillard governments had serious flaws and that their disunity killed any momentum and obscured their achievements. It is also well recognised that the media in general, and the News Limited outlets in particular, played a role in the Labor governments’ demise. You get barely an inkling of that from reading Triumph and Demise.

*

It is in another of the journalistic accounts of the Rudd and Gillard governments that you find a refreshing openness of method and a genuine commitment to coming to grips with Garnaut’s ‘diabolical policy problem’. I am thinking of Philip Chubb’s Power Failure, which charts the Rudd and Gillard governments’ efforts to put in place a mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What shines through Chubb’s book is his effort to take readers well beyond the simplistic dichotomies of Kelly (and many others) to a fuller appreciation of the complexities of resolving this global issue. Where Kelly cloaks his journalistic tradecraft in a Delphic aura, Chubb is at pains to develop a rigorous method for dealing with politicians and advisers who are highly practised in the dark arts of persuasion and manipulation.

Like Kelly, Chubb is an experienced journalist; he has worked in senior roles at the Age, the now defunct National Times, and at the ABC. He is a winner of a Gold Walkley Award for the five-part 1993 documentary series he researched, wrote and produced with Sue Spencer entitled Labor in Power, about the rise and fall of the federal government led by Bob Hawke between 1983 and 1991. The documentary was widely praised for the extraordinary level of candour shown on camera by the politicians and their advisers. Less widely known was the complicated and delicate negotiating skills needed by Chubb to persuade first Hawke and then the man who successfully challenged him for the prime ministership, Paul Keating, to agree to take part in the program. Little of that was apparent to viewers, even though Chubb later wrote an account of the story behind the story. Between 1993 and the origins of Power Failure, Chubb has become committed to making his journalistic method transparent for his audience.

The book’s opening chapter describes how an extreme weather event – the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria – came close to destroying Chubb’s family’s home on the outskirts of Melbourne. They also prompted a ‘moment of blinding clarity’: human-induced climate change was real and governments around the world needed to do something about it. Chubb then watched in bafflement, disbelief and growing anger as Rudd, then the enormously popular Labor Prime Minister, who had been elected in 2007 partly on a mandate to take action on what he had called ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’, botched the introduction of a scheme to combat climate change.

Chubb followed the issue closely after Rudd was deposed in 2010 by Gillard, his former deputy. Gillard struggled mightily and eventually succeeded in introducing a Clean Energy Future package, forever dubbed a ‘carbon tax’ by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, in 2011. He watched in despair as the Liberal-National Party coalition, led by Abbott, swept to power in 2013 and repealed the carbon tax in 2014.

Power Failure is a work of explanatory book-length journalism, though it is noteworthy it has been produced as part of a PhD under the supervision of two political scientists. For many readers, human-induced climate change is a complex and abstract scientific issue. Equally, opponents of action, especially those working in the news media, primarily at outlets owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation according to McKnight’s study, have been highly successful in shifting the issue from one of science to one of ideology. It is now clear how difficult it is for political leaders to introduce policies that will reduce carbon emissions in an economy that is so dependent on the fossil-fuel industry. With so much at stake it is not surprising that the climate change issue has cost Australian political leaders, both in government and in opposition, their jobs.

This highly charged and contested ground would be enough to make it difficult for Chubb to sift and sort his way through the various political players’ version of events. What makes it even harder is the extraordinary degree to which those in the Labor government, especially Rudd and his supporters, used background briefings of journalists in the parliamentary press gallery to destabilise Gillard’s government – a practice subsequently documented by former gallery journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh in The Stalking of Julia Gillard (2013).

The nature of journalist-source relations in the news media usually remains subterranean, but Chubb uses the space afforded in a book to confront this thorny issue directly. In a ‘Note on Sources’, which he places at the very beginning of the book, he describes, discusses and defends how he went about his research. Chubb tells readers he interviewed 74 people, most of whom were central to the development of climate change policy. Most agreed to be interviewed on-the-record, including Gillard. The main exception was Rudd, who was interviewed once, on background, meaning Chubb could draw on what he said but not quote him directly. As Chubb wryly points out, however, Rudd’s defence of his government’s work on climate change ‘has long been well known’, mainly because Rudd and his supporters have extensively backgrounded journalists on it.

Chubb says he needed to grant anonymity to some sources, mainly senior public servants and ministerial advisers, who have less freedom to comment publicly and less power than their political masters, which means they need to be seen to be ‘dependably discreet’. He is acutely aware of the vagaries of memory and the possibility that the protection afforded by anonymity can be used by the ruthless and unscrupulous to settle scores or plant misleading information. By carefully cross-checking between sources and against the documentary record, Chubb believes he has been able to provide a ‘considered view of a very important part of Australia’s story’. He also believes most of his anonymous sources were striving to ensure that ‘the truth as they genuinely saw it’ be represented.

Even so, Chubb sets out three ground rules for dealing with material provided by anonymous sources:

The first concerns anonymous direct quotes containing strong or colourful criticism of the behaviour of others, especially either prime minister. These were excluded. Quotes of this type must be clearly and openly sourced. The second concerns anonymous opinions. These were only included in the book when it was clear to me that they were reasonably representative of a legitimate point of view. The decisions whether to include them was assisted if there were others saying something similar on the record. The third concerns facts put forward by anonymous sources. These were only ever included if they were corroborated by others.

What impresses here is, first, the seriousness with which Chubb approaches the vexed questions of dealing with anonymous sources and of being captured by sources, and, second, how open he wants to be with his readers about an area of journalistic practice that, partly by necessity and partly by mythologising – the roots of which lie in the creation of ‘Deep Throat’ for Woodward and Bernstein’s book-length account of Watergate, All the President’s Men (1974) – has been hidden from plain view.

Paul Kelly may have been writing journalistic books since the mid-1970s, but his modus operandi has ossified and his stance of the privileged insider has been called into question since the 1990s. Younger readers see the role of the privileged insider as part of the problem – if they see it at all, as they voraciously consume and engage with media from a wide range of sources, online and elsewhere. A defining ethic of the new media age is transparency, and in this Philip Chubb’s work is more likely to strike a chord among young people, especially when, despite the efforts of vested interests and News Corporation’s media outlets, human-induced climate change remains an urgent global issue requiring action.