Diary

Gadfly
A scarring experience

Where was columnist and sage Piers Akerman on Monday’s Q&A line-up? He was supposed to be there to bring balance to the show but, tragically for viewers, pulled out in protest.

As the pudding-shaped bloviator put it, under the headline “This Q of fools can kiss my A”: “I have lost confidence in the broadcaster.” 

Instead, we were fortunate to get as a replacement the PM’s old student pollie boy friend, Greg Sheridan. Sheridan and Akerman in viewers’ minds are interchangeable, although I’m still distracted by that 2013 magazine image of Greg’s long scar from heart bypass surgery.

When he’s discussing the terrible threats of terror or Greece and the eurozone, all I’m thinking about is Greg’s hairy, bosomy chest.

I’m disappointed he didn’t take his shirt off on Q&A and give us another peek.

Petty cashing in

Talking of confected outrage, The Catholic Boys Daily has been having conniptions about Q&A’s Zaky Mallah moment. ABC’s excuses are “indefensible”, Mark Scott is “incapable of leadership”, it’s nothing to do with “free speech”, this is a convicted criminal etc.

What’s missing from the confection is The Australian’s payment to Mallah for photos to accompany an exclusive 2003 interview with him about the perils of radical Islam. The princely sum of $500 came out of the Moloch imprest account and was stuffed down Zaky’s trousers.

There was also evidence of this payment at his trial.

While the ABC wasn’t paying for his appearance, Moloch’s hacks were. No mentions of “grave error of judgement” anywhere in sight.

Readers revolting

On that score, I’ve just caught up with Rod Tiffen’s article, published a few weeks ago by Inside Story, about the declining influence of Lord Moloch’s tissues. 

Rod is emeritus prof of politics at the University of Sydney with a special fascination for the media and its antics, and he has depressing news if you are a fancier of the Moloch message machine.

It seems the News Corp sheets have a diminishing ability to influence elections. They are simply lecturing to the same ageing, welded-on conservatives and reactionaries, so the “conversion factor” is nil.

Tiffen goes through the data, which is sobering. Last year the total circulation of all Australian daily newspapers was about 2.1 million, one million lower than 15 years ago.

In the past 18 years the “penetration” rate of newspapers has declined to such an extent that Moloch papers, with roughly a 60 per cent share of daily newspaper circulation, are now bought by a gritty hardcore of 4 per cent of the Australian population.

Apart from that, Essential Research has discovered that about half the readers of the Moloch tabs don’t trust what they’re reading.

The ability to influence, because of the uptake of tabloid content by the radio shock jocks, is also limited. Again the elderly listeners are a similar demographic to the readers of these jaunty sheets.

As Tiffen puts it: “Together, the two media form a self-aggrandising and self-referential noise machine, and their volume and bluster should not be mistaken for outreach.”

When it comes to web readership the picture is even grimmer because, of all the newsprint products, tabloids are the most challenged by the digital revolution, with the exception of Britain’s Daily Mail.

Difficult as it is to believe, Tiffen says most visits to The Daily Smellograph’s website are “fleeting”, often only 30 seconds or less, with much less “political impact”.

These publications, he adds, are a “one-trick pony … the confected outrage and the beat-ups rarely hit home”.

Sad news indeed for the wizened mogul, as he cranks his ancient fingers ever more frenziedly to fire off dotty tweets. Not that we won’t be seeing all the old tricks come the next election, with the “stable of largely interchangeable and wholly predictable columnists”.

Justice finally done

And a sad farewell to one of Gadfly’s star personalities, the chief justice of Queensland, Timbo Carmody.

He quit the “failed experiment”, as former justice Alan Wilson described his appointment to the state’s top judicial job.

In March Carmody floated the idea of resigning, saying: “If I felt the office was being damaged, the brand was being damaged because of who was at the helm, and that person was me, I would leave.”

Apart from Timbo spraying around expletives and wanting to sideline the judge who was running the court of disputed returns and sack the head of the trial division, everything was bliss, until Alan Wilson blew the whistle in his valedictory speech.

In May, there was drama over the appeals in the Daniel Morcombe murder case, with senior judge Margaret McMurdo saying she would not sit with the CJ. The difficulty seemed to be his inability to write timely judgements.

Later that month Carmody told reporter Hedless Thomas of The Australian he would resign on “just terms” and if the government could ensure his “reform” agenda was followed through. Nobody could work out what he was talking about.

His only support came from hacks at The Courier-Mail. The paper started a fresh campaign to save him, saying there was a “steady stream of lawyers and the public wanting him to shelve resignation plans”. With campaigning hacks like this at his side it was inevitable the poor fellow was doomed.

He’s staying on as a Supreme Court judge (the third most junior in Brisbane) but will become a judicial member of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Let’s hope the body can live up to at least the first half of its name.

ABF fancy dress

You may have noticed that uniforms are all the rage at the moment. We now have the splendid Border Force top brass decked out in dark French blue with silver leaf creeping up the lapels.

Soon I envisage aiguillettes spreading across the torsos of the Border Forcettes along with other plumage.

The commander-in-chief is the impressive sounding Roman Quaedvlieg, who announced: “Operational security is paramount to conducting effective strategic and tactical operations.”

In the 1970s, Alan Renouf, then secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, wanted Australian diplomats, both here and abroad, togged out in a distinctive Australian uniform, known departmentally as Renouf Rig.

I see that James Carlton, son of media man Mike Carlton, has put together a completely splendid human rights uniform for Freedom Boy Wilson, with enough tassels, braid and gongs to sink a small ship.

What is also reassuring is the Australian Border Force has God on its side. Chaplain-in-Chief Tony Abbott was on hand at the swearing-in ceremony with his smoke-and-water blessing equipment and this invocation to the Almighty:

“May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.”

Christ almighty.

Part of the club

Keeping with uniforms, or at least old school ties: last week Gadfly was shouted to lunch in clubland – one of those old gents’ clubs where money doesn’t change hands.

The dining room looks over the Royal Botanic Gardens, Streetons and Bunnys drip from the walls, no one talked above a library whisper, everything glided seamlessly.

Codgers huddled at tables, where the discussion of business is forbidden. Mobile phone are unheard of. The lunch took me back to school days. Shepherd’s pie and rhubarb crumble with custard. What on earth is the rest of the country complaining about?

Hell of an outburst

Let’s lift our gaze from domestic trifles and go to Washington where effusions are still flowing for the majority Supreme Court finding that the United States constitution protects marriage equality.

Inexplicably, the majority justices failed to take account of the views of one of our local authorities, Dame Janet Albrechtsen, who was very cross with them.

“There is a wrong way and a right way to bring about significant and long-lasting social change,” she instructed. “Five judges on America’s highest court chose the wrong way.”

These judges must now be feeling pretty ashamed of themselves after letting the constitution decide, rather than the people.

Of course, it was perfectly all right for a majority of the court in 2008 to not let the people decide the final result of the Bush–Gore election. 

Usually, the argument from the legal literalists, originalists or black letterists, whatever they call themselves, is that the elected representatives of the people should decide. But not in this case, because Janet also ticked-off our beloved High Court for saying all parliament has to do is amend the Marriage Act to allow for same-sex marriage.

No. That’s not good enough. Same-sex matrimonial bliss should more properly be decided at a referendum of the masses. However, unhelpfully, more than 70 per cent of the masses think there should be an amendment to allow for equality before the law.

Among the minority view of the US Supremes, which is supported by Dame Janet, is Justice Antonin (Nino) Scalia. During submissions in the case, Obergefell v Hodges, a wild man was bundled out of the court screaming, “If you support gay marriage, you’ll burn in hell. It’s an abomination.”

Nino’s told the court that he found this outburst, “rather refreshing”.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Gadfly: A scarring experience". Subscribe here.

Richard Ackland
is the publisher of Justinian. He is The Saturday Paper’s diarist-at-large and legal affairs editor.