Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

A frayed knot

As Ebola and jihadists creep ever closer to our shores there is much to alarm us, and the amount of Kool-Aid Peter Fray is drinking should be added to the list.

Peter nowadays is deputy editor of the national Daily Rupert and last weekend he was having a conniption about the print media’s self-regulator, the Australian Press Council.

The rotten council is doing what it is designed not to do – namely, make rulings with which News Corp disagrees. Oddly enough that includes upholding a complaint this month against The Sydney Morning Herald, finding that the paper should have sought permission before reporting what happened at the family funeral of Kate Malonyay, who had been murdered by her boyfriend in April. 

The national broadsheet thought this was a wicked blow to free speech, only topped by an APC ruling that in opinion or comment articles there must be reasonable efforts to state the substratum of facts accurately and not to omit key facts.

This is terrible, because it would rule out publication of Maurice Newman’s comment pieces.

Last weekend, deputy editor Fray warned that News Corp “may consider its own options in relation to the press council”. In other words start its own private press monitor and give true meaning to regulation of the self.

It was so different in 2011 when as a Fairfax man, and before the Kool-Aid kicked in, he told the Finkelstein inquiry into media standards that, “under Professor [Julian] Disney, the press council is seeking to enhance its investigative and complaints procedures ... We would support that”. 

Last week, thinkers of the upmost depth were brought into the fray (oh dear). Legal affairs scribbler Chris Merritt was on about a complaint to the council about the paper’s publication of the photo of the seven-year-old with the severed head. In a compelling piece of research Merritt wandered around the building until he found someone who agreed with him: “Campbell Reid, group editorial director for News Corp Australia, has praised The Australian’s publication of the photograph.”

You can’t get fairer than that.

1 . Mourning glory

“ ... how soon creeps on the time
filled with tempests and with distress!

Tomorrow through the vale,

the traveller will pass,

recalling all the glory of the past ...”

So sang the heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann to an adoring, four-encore audience in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. The words, from Massenet’s Werther, could scarcely be more suited to one prominent member of the audience, privatiser-in-chief Jeffrey Gibb Kennett.

Kennett has been a dedicated sacker, starting with 45,000 public servants, 9000 teachers and school staff and 3500 nurses, leading to a peak Victorian jobless rate of 12.3 per cent.

A new state secondary school is to be built in the inner suburb where he sold the previous one.

At 66, Jeff has more ideas about how to improve life for despondent Victorians – sack the head of the AFL, Canberra must investigate the Bombers, et cetera.

The former leader, who these days sports a haircut that bears a startling resemblance to a frightened echidna, is also remembered for his prediction three years ago that it was too late for The Age to survive.

“No major newspaper can expect to exist and grow long-term unless it is a fierce defender and promoter of the city of which it is a part.”

With this cheer-squad view of the role of the press, and the general eagerness with which he contributes to the national conversation, Kennett may benefit from a translation of another glorious song sung by Kaufmann, from Verdi’s The Force of Destiny: “Life is a hell to those who are unhappy.”

2 . Secret vagrant man

WikiLeaks man Julian Assange seemed pretty confident that he’d be leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London “soon”.

Apparently, this is based on the view that recent changes to British extradition law will see a way for Assange to step outside without being nabbed.

Trust legal eagles to spoil the fun. No sooner had the embassy press conference ended than former London barrister and government lawyer Carl Gardner was out of the blocks. He writes the blog called Head of Legal and in his view Julian doesn’t have the hope of a proverbial snowball in the Sturt Stony Desert.

In one breath the new legislation says in certain circumstances extradition is barred if the “requesting country” hasn’t charged the person it is seeking to import.

Julian hasn’t been charged. The Swedish prosecutor is still investigating, but the investigations are held up because Julian doesn’t want to go to Sweden.

However, the amendments do not apply retrospectively, so on the face of things the new get-out-of-jail cards don’t apply to Our Man in Ecuador.

To complicate matters, some other legal type has commented on the blog that under Swedish law it’s forbidden for a prosecutor to decide whether to charge before the preliminary investigation is formally concluded.

This impasse may be impossible to resolve “soon”.

3 . Best-selling procedural

A noteworthy tome flying off the shelves (even quicker than He Who Must Be Obeid) is Dan Howard’s book R v Milat: A Case Study in Cross-Examination.

It was a full crowd at the NSW Law Society to send the book down the sales ramp. Senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi spoke, as did former DPP Nick Cowdery.

Retired legal types, judges and coppers littered the room.

Howard was Tedeschi’s junior at the famous 1996 trial of Ivan Milat, which ran for 15 weeks with David Hunt presiding.

Milat was found guilty on the seven counts of murdering young backpackers in the Belanglo State Forest and since then he has been sawing off bits of his body with plastic knives at the Goulburn correctional facility.

Publisher LexisNexis Butterworths says such is the fascination with the case that only two weeks after its publication, the book at $139 already needs a second print run.

What Dan Howard has done is basically annotate the transcript of Milat’s cross-examination by Tedeschi, giving insights into the prosecutor’s advocacy techniques and why certain questions were asked. 

For lovers of serial murder trials, this is your book. Start saving.

4 . Bad hobbits

While the Kiwis keep whingeing about the All Blacks being reffed off the park, citizens of the Land of the Wrong White Crowd have been aghast at more dirty play than you’d find in a dozen rugby tests. And if they’re not calling it Rootgate it must only be because they still have family newspapers.

It kicked off when muckraker Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics said that John Key’s government helped a blogger attack the Labour opposition.

Then came revelations that a former prostitute offered the blogger dirt on VIPs, while embroiling Justice Minister Judith Collins.

Collins is on a second “final warning” from Key after fibbing about activities in China and allegedly colluding with the blogger to torment a public servant.

The blogger is one Cameron Slater, who goes under the curious nom de blog Whaleoil.

He had his emails hacked and bits published this week. Years of chat between blogger and hooker-turned-author Rachel Francis include Slater writing: “Now tell me ... current MPs ... rooting in brothels ... Right let’s get digging. Time to let those pricks know they can be got. I want to take out some pollies.”

When Francis said she was going through records of high-profile types, Slater replied: “Oooohhh can I have the politicians please.”

Dirty Politics says National Party hacks found a way into the Labour Party’s computer system. Someone downloaded a treasure trove of credit-card transactions, membership lists and 18,000 emails.

Key’s explanation for this was faultless: “If the Wallabies on Tuesday night had left their starting line-up up on their website, on their private website, would the All Blacks go and have a look? The answer is yes. The reason I know that is it’s happened.”

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 23, 2014 as "Gadfly: A frayed knot".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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