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

A reptile biz function

What better way to celebrate World Press Freedom Day than with champagne and nibbles on the 61st floor of a corporate law firm’s gleaming tower in Emerald City’s CBD? 

The lift had so much marble cladding it is a miracle we made it to the top. 

There were hacks by the metre, including various distinguished ones from overseas – Anna Nemtsova from Moscow, Madhu Trehan from India’s Newslaundry, David Barstow from The New York Times and Bambang Harymurti from Tempo magazine in Jakarta.

The event was the Australian Press Council pre-conference shindig to get everyone in the mood for two days of chinwagging about metadata, sources, investigative journalism, and whether there is any future at all for reptiles of the press. 

Katrina Yee Rathie, the managing partner of King & Wood Mallesons, welcomed everyone, saying it was nice that not all journalists were imprisoned in the budget lockup or in a Beirut jail after a botched story.

“When the APC was first formed in 1976, it was a new and fragile body,” council chairman David Weisbrot pointed out, “and very few doctors would have given it 40 years to live. However, here we all are – hale and hearty and ready to party.” 

It was also lovely to see Peter Greste not draped in Egyptian cotton. 

As a video of the Bangarra Dance Theatre entertained Gadfly and assembled guests, thoughts wandered to another imprisoned journalist, Paul Sheehan. Where is Paul, has he served detention for long enough, is there an appeal process, etc? 

The fact that Paul is in a prison of his own making and that Fairfax is shedding journalists at a frightening rate are factors that must have muted the Free Sheehan movement. Otherwise, surely there would have been a panel discussion about Paul’s contribution to understanding Islam, the therapeutic benefits of magic water and Krispy Kreme donuts, and other global issues. 

The latest news from Greg Plywood’s glue factory is that the chance to volunteer for redundancy ended on Thursday and now 80 hacks must be chopped to save $15 million by the end of this financial year.

After top executives have snaffled a great chunk of the loot, let’s hope there are some shekels left to keep a few journalists on the treadmill. 

1 . Giveaway Voltaire

In the spirit of press freedom, let’s extend a hand of fellowship to Dutch sage Andreas Blot (BA, on hold). 

Blot has come to the rescue of the annual dinner put on by the human rights outfit Liberty Victoria. The Voltaire Award for free speech is to go to Channel Ten and Fairfax commentator Waleed Aly, an announcement that caused Blot to snipe, “In what way is this award a tribute to Voltaire?” 

Andreas’s brigade of foam-flecked followers launched into online tirades about Waleed, including: “How low we have sunk when someone like him receives an ‘award’ ... my dog deserves
one more than he does. (Mike D of Malvern)” 

Blot certainly brings out the best in people, but the upshot is that there has been an unprecedented demand for tickets to the July 23 Voltaire dinner. 

Blot had the same effect with his attack on the line-up for this month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. Too many lefties, apparently. “These writers are not challenging the dominant cultural paradigm.” That challenge has to come from intellectual powerhouses such as Blot and the sepulchral Gerard Henderson, who took time out from his duties as Cardinal Pell’s PR man to have a go at the writers’ fest for the abominable sin of being supported with taxpayers’ money, for heaven’s sake. 

In the case of the writers’ corroboree at least we know from where the money comes, unlike the miserable Sydney Institute, which tries to hide who is filling its till and pulling its strings. 

Again, the outcome of the Henderson–Bolt bandwagon has been a strong response by citizens who want to actually turn up and hear how the assortment of commie writers are not “challenging the dominant cultural paradigm”.

Thanks, boys. 

2 . Singing canary

While in lunar land, we’ve just received Cory “Bestiality” Bernardi’s latest email newsletter – subject line: “Your weekly dose of common sense.”  

Basically, it’s a message that Cory wants to continue to “serve” in the senate for another term, from where he’ll “still be fighting for you and the national interest for many years to come”. What could be more commonsensical than that? 

All he has ever sought to apply are “the founding principles of the Liberal Party ... at times it has seemed a very lonely path to tread – albeit an important one”. 

He also compares himself to the “canary in the political coalmine” warning of what is ahead. So far, toxic coal gases, the prospect of gay marriage, or even global warming, have not snuffed out this canary. 

There’s a little section in his missive called “Things that make you go hmm”. Apparently he goes “hmm” at the health and safety implications of undercooked burger patties, the installation of traffic lights on German footpaths and the perception of Australia as a nanny state scaring off IT gurus from overseas. 

As the senator himself put it all too aptly: “What previously was just weird and creepy is now supposedly the new normal.” 

3 . Rocked Bottom

Back to journalism. Bob Bottom, an old investigative sleuth, was incensed by a recent column in The Sun-Herald by barrister Charles Waterstreet

The columnist claimed in his April 10 piece, to the puzzlement of many, that lawyers like him get paid the same whether working on a matter involving a parking ticket or a million dollars’ worth of coke. 

He also complained about another professional burden: “people accuse us of lying for a living, but my real job is to stop truth from ever coming out.” 

Bottom whipped off a note to the editor-in-chief, Darren Goodsir: “As a subscriber to The Sun-Herald, and a one-time correspondent, may I advise that I am appalled by a proclamation in a column by Charles Waterstreet ...” 

He wasn’t appalled by the pay scale for cases of drug importations and parking tickets, rather the claim that the brief says his job is to stop the truth ever coming out. 

Unlike the lawyers’ code of conduct, newspaper writers are bound by an ethical regime that says they should “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness”, etc.

“Thus,” according to Bob Bottom, “Charles Waterstreet should no longer be accepted by Fairfax as a weekly columnist.” 

Goodsir wrote back: “I am forwarding this to some of my senior editors for discussion. It is a serious matter and I will talk to them next week upon my return to work.” 

They must still be discussing it because Waterstreet continues to appear in the paper. 

4 . Pro-lifers prohibited

Anti-abortion advocates in Victoria are distressed about laws making it an offence for protesters to enter an exclusion zone of 150 metres around the entrance to a termination clinic, with penalties of up to $18,200 or 12 months’ porridge. 

A quaint note is being distributed by “pregnancy helpers” around East Melbourne, complaining that they are being criminalised for their sterling work in offering “help to a mother who is approaching an abortion establishment”. 

“Hundreds of Victorian children are alive today because their mothers were offered help outside abortion businesses by these very same Pregnancy Helpers ... Killing the baby is no longer a crime, but seeking to help mother and baby is.” 

Yes, it is a distressing state of affairs, particularly as the only murder to have been committed at one of these clinics, in recent memory, was by a crazed anti-abortion protester. 

Peter James Knight wanted to make his point a bit more forcefully than a leaflet when he arrived at an East Melbourne clinic in 2001 with a rifle, ammo and litres of kerosene. His first shot killed the security guard, Steven Rogers. He reloaded and pointed the weapon at the stomach of a woman, whose boyfriend managed to wrestle Knight to the ground. 

The anti-abortion zealot got a 23-year minimum stretch. So much for saving lives.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Gadfly: A reptile biz function".

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

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