Private lives, public scandal
SMH September 3, 2005
When it comes to smear campaigns (Liberal Party) politicians should look no further than over their shoulders, writes David Marr.
EVERY time seems like the first time. But the destruction of John Brogden this week followed an old set of rules. The backroom executioners of the Liberal Party found someone in the media - one person is all it takes - to do their work. Last Sunday the cauldron of rumours and accusations bubbling away inside the party slopped over into The Sunday Telegraph. Next day Brogden was gone.
Mind you, it was a good story. Brogden's attack on Bob and Helena Carr should have been reported weeks before. But it's no secret who was finally pushing it into print. "The source of the original story came from within the Liberal Party itself," Greg Baxter, the corporate affairs director of News Ltd, said. "And the new source about the fresh allegations also came from the Liberal Party, including at the very high levels of the Liberal Party."
The sad events of this week have, naturally, led to a great public debate about the rights and wrongs of the press exposing the private lives of politicians. That continues. But these stories don't come out of the blue. Whether the scandal is Brogden pinching bums or John Gorton on the piss at the US embassy at the height of the Vietnam War, party enemies are usually deeply involved in feeding them to the press.
That's no excuse when the story is a dud. That disaffected senior Liberals were giving News Ltd the sleaze thrown at Brogden after his resignation this week is no reason for it ever appearing in a newspaper. It was backroom trash. In the terrible aftermath of its publication, The Daily Telegraph's editor, David Penberthy, came out with some high-flown rhetoric about these new and "very serious" allegations. "They weren't invented by us. It is perfectly legitimate - in fact it is our duty - to investigate well-founded allegations and to report on them."
Investigate, sure - but report only if they turn out to be true. Unable to substantiate the damaging gossip being fed to it by Brogden's enemies in the Liberal Party, the Telegraph nevertheless published the allegations under the banner headline: "Brogden's Sordid Past: disgraced Liberal leader damned by secret shame file". In the hours after being questioned by the journalists preparing that report, Brogden tried to take his life.
DRAGGING down your own party leader is a messy business. Backroom plotters know that what incompetence and unpopularity can't on their own achieve, scandal can. Destabilising party opponents by spreading dirt is a very old tactic practised, at one time or another, by every political faction on earth.
Briefing the press on the sexual peccadilloes of your party opponents is not a common Labor tactic. This is no place to argue that Labor's factional brawls are civilised affairs. They're not. But muckraking of this kind is rare. The allegations swirling round Mark Latham at the last election - sexual harassment and that steamy but yet-undiscovered bucks' night video - were not being leaked to the press by his very many enemies in Labor ranks. They were pushing other complaints but not these.
But in Australia over the past few decades, it's been the tactic of choice of conservative factions within conservative parties.
The wrecking of John Grey Gorton all those years ago remains the great archetype of a leader destroyed by moralists in his own ranks. He offended Liberal bosses in the states. He had a resolute rival in Billy McMahon - who was feeding dirt to Max Newton, publisher of the newsletter Insight. Newton started the hares running in Jan 1969 with a veiled reference to "an uncomfortable social occasion at the United States embassy".
It took a few more weeks and a mini-scandal about Gorton in Liza Minnelli's dressing room, before the story finally broke - in Parliament, courtesy of the renegade Liberal MP Edward St John who claimed to be speaking for "many others" as he savaged Gorton. Gorton's leadership never recovered & he was soon deposed.
Jeff Kennett was pursued by his factional opponents in the Victorian Liberal Party leaking allegations to the press through the 1980s. That's all they remained - allegations - they didn't get a run in the Melbourne media. Kennett fought the rumours hard, always staying on the front foot. But what this long operation proved was that within the Liberal party muck-raking of this order was considered an available tactic in the relentless efforts by Kennett's rivals to unseat their own leader.
ARTICLE CONT IN http://expage.com/brogden3