Anti-Cossie editorials, Alan Ramsey, the art of Friday information

July 28, 2008

Here are Stephen Mayne's three stories from the Crikey edition on Monday, 5 December, 2005.

6. Why is The Australian dark on The Treasurer?

By Stephen Mayne and Christian Kerr

Something has happened between Peter Costello and Rupert Murdoch's local flagship, The Australian.

Anyone who read The Weekend Australian was left in no doubt that the paper is very unhappy with the Treasurer – check out the two anti-Costello editorials on Saturday which carried the kickers "Reformers required: Peter Costello is lagging in the essential reform stakes" and "Gerard had to go: But why did Costello appoint him in the first place?"

If that wasn't enough, Mike Steketee produced this cover story for Inquirer ripping into Costello's handling of the Gerard affairs while talking up the PM's performance. Try these lines for size:

Robert Gerard's resignation yesterday from the Reserve Bank of Australia board brings home how poorly the Treasurer has handled this controversy. It makes Costello's attempts all week to defend the appointment look hollow. He is left looking sleazy and sloppy, giving a job to a very generous Liberal Party donor who had set up a Caribbean tax haven.

Even Dennis Shanahan weighed in on Saturday with the following:

On the reform front, taxation will be one of the biggest challenges. There are already tax cuts and changes built into the May budget, but the internal pressure for further cuts to rates and greater reform of the system is immense – a challenge for Howard and Peter Costello. The campaign by millionaire backbencher Malcolm Turnbull for more tax cuts has undermined the political impact of those the Treasurer phased in at the last budget.

While Glenn Milne is regarded as the most loyal of Costello backers, his column this morning was cold comfort for the Treasurer and only served to paint him as petty for moaning about the PM's form of words on Insiders yesterday.

Completing the punishment was Steve Lewis this morning, who managed to draw Costello's faith into the saga, claiming that his reputation as Mr Clean had been damaged.

So what's going on?

The Christian Kerr theory: There are two things to remember here. Rupert Murdoch founded The Australian with two goals in mind. The first was for the paper, by its sheer existence as a national daily, to be a nation builder. The second was for the paper to shape that nation as a crusader for ideas – like tax reform. It continues to fulfil these roles admirably.

We've got to take this into account when we're looking at its coverage of the Gerard affair. But there's something else, too. The Australian has a point. A pretty damned good point.

As we have said before, hundred of people who would never have otherwise entertained the idea were persuaded to join the Labor Party in the 80s, thanks to the drive and vision of Treasurer Keating. Who's ever joined the Liberal Party because Peter Costello holds the purse strings?

Peter Costello has had no ownership of any policy of any real significance. Paul Keating also had big ambitions. Unlike Costello, he also had big ideas.

The Stephen Mayne theory: Did Rupert and Cossie have a falling out during the Sun King's recent two week visit to Australia? Is Rupert still annoyed that Cossie didn't tip him off about John Malone's application to FIRB to lift his voting stake in News Corp three years ago?

The more likely scenario is that The Australian is dirty with the Treasurer for not grasping the nettle on tax reform – a campaign that it has taken up with great gusto in recent months.

Rupert is on the record blasting Australia's punitive top income tax rate, yet Cossie has shown no signs of giving ground. The hardline approach on all the skirmishes between Treasury and The Australian's FOI editor Michael McKinnon probably hasn't helped either.

14. Alan Ramsey toys with retirement

By Stephen Mayne

It was a weekend for 50 year veterans of the media to talk about giving it away. First we had Trevor Sykes interviewed by Alan Kohler on the final Inside Business for the year as his alter-ego, Pierpont, prepares to bow out of journalism next week to take up a career as a company director.

Even more interesting was the interview that Monica Attard, fresh from collecting another Walkley last week, had with Alan Ramsey on ABC radio's Sunday Profile.

The big news was that Ramsey is "contemplating retirement" after 50 years in journalism, which might coincide with Fairfax's latest round of redundancies. Sadly, Ramsey didn't advise his SMH readers in what was a cracking Saturday column on the history of Robert Gerard's political dealings with the Liberals in South Australia.

While hearing the lounge bar bore of the gallery let fly was entertaining enough, unfortunately, both Attard and Ramsey left quite a bit unsaid, like his couple of years on Bill Hayden's staff. This might have been relevant when Ramsey was shredding Paddy McGuinness, who was also on Hayden's staff as the prized senior adviser at that time.

Somehow, one of Ramsey's greatest scoops also didn't get a mention. Who can forget the grumpy younger man revealing that Bob Hawke had offered his old boss a chance to be Governor General? Attard again failed to mention Ramsey's spell in Vietnam, in which he produced great copy and was wounded.

In this limited interview, Ramsey saw journalism only in terms of the press gallery. Which is okay if that defines the boundaries of your personal space and intellectual life.

If Ramsey really does hang up the poison pen, there will be no tears in John Howard's Cabinet and the PM will be able to gloat that he outlasted him. Both of them are 66. New John Fairfax chairman Ron Walker might even be able to claim it as a victory on the Liberal Party cocktail circuit.

16. The art of disseminating vital information on Fridays

By Stephen Mayne

The execution of Van Nguyen at 9am on Friday morning was always going to dominate the news over the following 24 hours, but wasn't it interesting how many other relatively major events just happened to occur on such a busy news day.

Friday is well known as the best day to dump bad news because there are no shock jocks on Saturday and newspapers have earlier deadlines and smaller news sections due to the preponderance of weekend feature material and advertising liftouts.

Friday is also the busiest day of the week, so the public is often too busy to take notice – which explains why Stateline usually rates worse than The 7.30 Report. Staying back after work for a drink, heading off for the weekend or just hitting the town are other reasons why the evening news has fewer viewers on Fridays.

If Rob Gerard had any sense he would have resigned by Tuesday afternoon after seeing the towelling that Peter Costello suffered in Question Time. Hanging around till Friday afternoon just magnified the problems for all parties, even if the resignation itself was slightly lost in the avalanche of other news.

The government would ordinarily have been caned for bringing out the guillotine on the industrial relations debate in the Senate, but they ended up passing relatively unscathed on Friday afternoon with only modest outrage.

Similarly, banks have long been known for cynical timing as you can see from these dates for the last 10 AGMs of the big five:

CBA 2004: Friday, November 5
CBA 2005: Friday, October 28
SGB 2003: Friday, December 19
SGB 2004: Friday, December 17
ANZ 2003: Friday, December 19
ANZ 2004: Friday, December 17
NAB 2003: Friday, December 19
NAB 2005: Monday, January 31
WBC 2003: Thursday, December 11, 2003
WBC 2004: Thursday, December 16, 2004 (in Auckland)

And so it was on Friday when NAB dumped 392 pages of information in their concise annual report and full financial report. Surprise, surprise, CEO John Stewart and his heir apparent Ahmed Fahour both collected a very tasty $5.9 million, but please don't tell anyone that they have recently surrendered the title of most valuable bank to the CBA.