Latham's Law

Latham’s law

20 November 2011

12:00 AM

20 November 2011

12:00 AM

Kim Williams has left Foxtel just in time, escaping Bob the Blogger’s ferocious campaign against Psychic Sally, Teen Mom and America’s Fattest Honeymooners. In the great tradition of News Ltd, Williams has been kicked upstairs, replacing John Hartigan as CEO. Hopefully this change in personnel will provoke a reassessment of News’ style.

A traditional newspaper man, more knockabout than intellectual, Hartigan saw his papers as a never-ending bar-room brawl. Anyone who refused to genuflect to News was targeted for ridicule and the politics of personal destruction. This cowboy culture is one of the reasons for the Federal government’s media inquiry, a forlorn attempt to lift the standard of newspaper reporting in this country.

As a man of arts and letters, Williams is likely to have his own agenda for reform. If I might make a small but significant suggestion, he should cast his eye over the opinion pages of the Daily Telegraph. One of the contributors, the radio shock-jock Ray Hadley, is incapable of writing a cohesive beginning-to-end column, falling back on the schoolboy technique of dot-points. This is embarrassing for News and the journalistic profession it claims to support. Surely the Tele can find someone literate enough to write by prose, not by numbers.


With Hartigan’s departure, it is timely to shine the spotlight on the quality and professionalism of other parts of the Australian media. In the coverage of Federal politics, the big story has been the Richardson Renaissance. It is easy to forget how long Richo has been off the scene. In my years as a Labor frontbencher, I never saw him in Canberra or knew of any parliamentarian under his spell. For a decade or more his presence in the media was non-political, concerning his struggle with the taxman and stories surrounding the murders of Caroline Byrne and Michael McGurk.

This must have been a troubled time for the former Labor Senator. In September he told a reporter he had received 100 death threats. The number must be correct for he is, after all, a numbers man. Well, perhaps not. One of the surprising features of Richardson’s comeback is the number of errors in his commentary. Polling trends have been misread, factional alliances misstated. He is even starting to forget election dates, normally the point at which political hatchet men hang up their machetes.

In Richo’s column in the Daily Telegraph on 30 September, for instance, he claimed that ‘Labor won only 11 seats in [the 1972 Queensland] election,’ offering a lengthy recollection of his role in the campaign. The famous ‘cricket team’ result was actually in 1974, at the height of the Whitlam government’s unpopularity. Little Richo, it seems, is a little rusty.


When he is not complaining about the declining standards of rugby union, Nick Bryant is engaged in some wondrous adventures. Earlier this month he told the readers of The Spectator Australia he had appeared at not one, but four sessions of the Brisbane Writers Festival — in itself, one of the great oxymorons of our time.

I remember a decade ago telling a group of Queensland MPs that I was writing a book. One of them responded, ‘Why don’t you go to the shops and buy one for ten bucks instead?’ His offsiders readily agreed, throwing their heads back and laughing in that familiar banana-bender style. They were the antithesis of Benjamin Disraeli, who declared that whenever he wanted to read a book he wrote one.

Even the state’s best-known product, the media cyclone called Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged Queensland’s intellectual limitations. When I knew him as a parliamentary colleague, he was fond of explaining that ‘once you leave Brisbane and cross the Pine Rivers you can hear the sound of banjo music’. This was Kevin’s Deliverance to the Labor Caucus, an appreciation of the need to simplify our message and dumb down our policies north of the border. For the same reason Australians call people with red hair ‘Bluey’, Queensland is known as ‘the Smart State’.

Bryant must have felt well at home. How else can one explain his brain-snap in praising the journalism of the ABC’s Annabel Crabb? Among the many criticisms of the ABC, the one that worries me most is inaccuracy. Crabb typifies the modern ABC culture, in which research is optional and facts are dispensable. In the August edition of the Monthly, for example, she made basic errors about the dates of a speech by Julia Gillard and a major announcement by Kevin Rudd. She was also mistaken about the membership of both the Rudd and Gillard Cabinets.

At least Crabb cannot be accused of bias. When it comes to the tussle between Gillard and Rudd, she spreads her incompetence evenly between the two.


In these pages last week Malcolm McGregor seriously undersold his skills as a sports writer. He is, in fact, the author of a splendid biography of Paul McLean, Australian rugby’s fly-half of the 1970s.

In the late 1980s Malcolm and I worked together in Bob Carr’s office in NSW Parliament House. Like me, Carr is itching to read Malcolm’s dispatches on the coming Indian summer of cricket. Just last week Bob the Blogger confided: ‘I know lots about cricket. In fact, I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur. The only thing I don’t understand is why they named him Jiminy.’

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