Will the real Hillary stand up?


February 22, 2008

This Sandra Lee feature about mysterious Crikey political correspondent Hillary Bray appeared in The Australian on February 8, 2001.

The mystery of Hillary's identity is part of the appeal, so who is crikey's political `shit stirrer', asks Sandra Lee

The anonymous internet political gossip columnist Hillary Bray has a caustic tongue. Prime Minister John Howard is dismissed as the ``Prime Miniature'' and Amanda Vanstone the ``Incredible Bulk''. In NSW, the Liberal Party's Barry O'Farrell is known as Fatty O'Barrel (no guesses why), and Western Australia's Premier Richard Court is ``Richard the runt''. Queensland has ``Pauline and her band of bigots'' and ``Ol' redneck Rob''. The hit parade goes on.

``Pure shit stirring,'' is how Hillary describes his (yes, he is a man) column in a telephone interview without revealing his identity. ``It's always been for the people in the beltway. I am having fun. Hillary is corridor talk. It's conversations.''

Example: ``The Age has done a wonderful job of canonising an economic vandal who led an incompetent government that was the captive of public sector unions. Joan Kirner.'' Hillary Bray. August 14, 2000.

So who is the self-appointed ``shit stirrer'' who has appeared weekly for the past year on the crikey.com.au website run by former Victorian political candidate, former political staffer and former News Ltd and Fairfax journalist Stephen Mayne?

No one is saying. Not the man in question, who took his name from the James Bond character Sir Hillary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and not Mayne who denies, ``completely, hand on my heart'', being Hillary under a nom de plume although some fingers point to him.

"When someone says to me I reckon that's Hillary and it's right, I have to deny it so my denials are worth nothing,'' he confesses.

But Mayne wants people to keep guessing. "At the very least, the gossip columnists should be speculating as to the identity of Hillary – we know half the Government does,'' he said last year on the website.

Mayne insists he is one of a handful of people who knows Hillary's identity. He repeatedly boasts of the "Howard Government insider's grasp and knowledge of politics'' (Mayne also understands the use of hyperbole), but refuses to unmask him saying to do so could endanger Hillary's job and ruin crikey. "How's that for scaremongering,'' he wrote in one email correspondence.

When Hillary was told of this story, he sent an email. "And is Hillary going to be asked for a comment?'' Yes. Who are you? (He wasn't saying.)

There is no doubt the mystery of Hillary's identity is part of the appeal. The intrigue makes the gossip that much more salacious and fun. When Joe Klein was unmasked as Anonymous, the political insider who wrote Primary Colours, the novel based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, the insider element of the story was immediately diminished.

By way of biography, Hillary says he has been around politics for nearly two decades but will not say who he works for.

This much is known. Hillary doesn't like Howard, doesn't like Howard's stance on reconciliation, in fact, Hillary doesn't much like the Howard Government's policies at all, except he approves of Howard's economic record.

"I find it hard to complain.

"I have voted Liberal most of my life, but I am not a fan of the current government, much,'' he says. "I think it's a bit mean-spirited.''

Hillary says he first suggested the idea of the column to Mayne after Victorian premier Jeff Kennett was ousted from office, and denies he has a conflict of interest in writing about politics, particularly Liberal Party politics, and even his boss.

"I don't think I have ever written a single thing that would not have gotten out otherwise,'' he says, adding it is "amazing'' the people who leak information to him. "People are dumb enough to email me from ministerial offices.''

For his part, Hillary reminds us there is a known list of candidates who could be, well, Hillary, including two who have been named by Amanda Meade in Media's Diary: Greg Barns, the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, and Andrew Parker, a Canberra-based lobbyist from Parker & Partners. Others include Defence Minister Peter Reith's media adviser Ian Hanke and former Howard staffer David Gazzard. (sic)

Barns is unequivocal. Not me, he says, although he admits he has fed Hillary a few items on the ``machinations of that fascinating beast, the Liberal Party''.

"I put it in the genre of the Private Eye column HP Sauce. It's the closest thing we have got in this country to Private Eye,'' says Barns. Does it have an impact on politicians and policy? "I doubt it. I hope not.'' But it does, he says, keep people amused in Canberra. "The vast bulk of Australians – 99.6 per cent – wouldn't know about it.''

Parker, too, is unequivocal. Not me, he says. "We all know who Hillary Bray is. Stephen Mayne ... I can assure you categorically I have neither the time nor the interest ... It's a funny column and much of it is harmless. But I am not a contributor nor have I ever been and I am not Hillary Bray.''

Hanke is unequivocal. Not me, he says. "It's pretty f...ing inaccurate most of the time. Some of the stuff that's been written about my minister – it's been way off beam. You wouldn't say they are well informed. I think it's probably Mayne. I think it's Mayne through a different name.''

Gazzard is unequivocal. Not me, he says, and he is outraged that his name has been linked to Hillary on previous occasions. "I don't think it's one person, I think it's a moderate or a group of moderates. I would rather slit my wrists than write John Howard is a rodent.''

(Please note: your correspondent was unable to pick Hillary's voice as being identical to any of the suspects questioned.)

Sydney Morning Herald political journalist Margo Kingston doesn't know who Hillary is and doesn't want to know. "I like that idea that it's someone you don't know. You get a feel for the inside of the Liberal Party.''

Example: "Not only is there constant tension between the Coalition partners. All the internal brawls keep turning public and the Libs are about to embark on the mother of all shitfights for preselection in the prized seat of Ryan as John Moore's parting gift to the Rodent.'' Hillary Bray on Queensland politics. January, 2001.

The Daily Telegraph's chief political reporter Malcolm Farr reels off a list of the usual suspects but includes the only female mentioned. "It's an amalgam. Obviously somebody within the Liberal Party, some young smart arse moderate or a group thereof. Somebody with a rather jaundiced wit. It's anti-Howard.''

Farr, a seasoned political observer, says Hillary's identity is occasionally discussed and deliberated upon. "We all like gossip and so you plug in. I haven't used anything from it.''

Crikey.com.au has 800 subscribers and gets 12,000 page impressions a week, and it's not only those in the ``media spindustrial complex'', as Hillary describes those who report on politics, politicians and policy, who read it.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie mentioned the site in the Parliament, earning him the title of "Hillary fan'' in Hillary dispatches.

Last September, crikey was mentioned in a Senate committee hearing on the Privacy Amendment bill discussing publications on the internet.

"It is really a combination, I suppose, of news and entertainment,'' said Senator Brett Mason, of the site.

Senator John Faulkner in an estimates committee last May also mentioned Hillary in passing, noting: "A lot of people round the building'' read crikey Politics. "I get about 20 copies of it in hard copy stuck in the internal mail,'' he said. "I wonder where it comes from. To be honest I am not suggesting that these things are accurate, but hillarybray@hotmail.com does appear from time to time to be quite well informed about certain matters.''

Yes, Senator, but will the real Hillary please stand up?

Anyone who knows Hillary's identity should contact the author immediately on sandraeplee@aol.com