Diary

Gadfly
Reinventing their spiel

“Cry Freedom” echoes through the wide, brown land as reptiles and hacks try to throw off the shackles of oppression. Some of them have been, or still are, Moloch employees whose newspapers cheered on the slate of overwrought post-September 11 national security laws that bit by bit tightened the noose around the reporting of politically sensitive matters that had received the green elephant stamp of “top secret”.

Flummoxed readers choked on their kippers and kedgeree when reading in The Catholic Boys Daily that Benito Dutton was now the paper’s No. 1 public enemy. It was even reporting human rights celebrity Amal Clooney in a warm and glowing light.

The paper wants “modernised” press freedom, with limits on what the wallopers can search and seize. Do you think it would be so incandescent if it were only the ABC that was raided and not the home of a Sunday Telegraph reporter?

This is the same paper that cheers every time the ABC or the Nine newspapers suffer a loss in the defamation courts and was a standard-bearer in the war against a charter of rights.

Schmo Morrison would love to have laws that give News Corp everything it wants. The trouble is overarching media protections would also benefit those enemies of the people, the ABC and the old Fairfax mastheads. The net result is nothing will happen.

Dutton has spoken. Trying to keep as straight a face as is possible for a starchy, tuber-like subterranean vegetable, he said, “Nobody is above the law.” This pulled into line his party room supporter, Attorney-General The Christian Porter, who at one stage was wandering off script saying that there is “absolutely no suggestion” journalists were being targeted by the police.

The Christian misspoke, apparently because of the “limited information” he had at the time.

Chris-mas in July

Thank goodness Chuckles Henderson hosted a session last week at The Sydney Institute to sort out what is at stake, starring two of Lord Moloch’s most celebrated thinkers: Chris (Fritz) Mitchell and L’il Kris Kenny.

The topic was “The Media and Freedom of Speech – Two Views”, whereupon Chris and Kris spent a good deal of time agreeing with each other, with Kenny reliving the glory days as a bag carrier for Bunter Downer and warning against “recklessness dressed up as journalism”.

It was not easy to work out the line from the old German who edited The Catholic Boys Daily for so long. He thought it was important to reform 18C, do something about the “persecution” of Bill Leak and give Israel Folau the religious freedom he craves.

Both agreed that the current fuss was overblown – Plod was merely after more information about the sources and no journalist would end up in the slammer.

With that sorted, let’s move on.

Phone on the range

The Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill is currently before federal parliament with remarkably scant inspection by the hacks, despite its alarming authoritarian overreach.

The legislation establishes criminal offences, punishable with up to five years’ porridge, for anyone who incites trespass, theft or damage on agricultural land, which is broadly defined to include farms, abattoirs, feedlots, wineries, orchards, fishmongers, apiaries, plantation forests and woodchip export facilities.

This is all covered by state law, but to get in on the act the Commonwealth is relying on the telecommunications power in the constitution.

Under the bill, offenders do not even need an “intention” to interfere with agricultural activities. All they need is a mobile phone. Those who post words or photos on social media in support of animal activism also are in the frame.

Since most of the TV footage of animal cruelty has been supplied by activist groups, any exemption for A Current Affair or those “working in a professional capacity as a journalist” is basically meaningless.

It’s Cockies Corner’s attempt to trump One Nation. Already this week we had the minister for agriculture, Bridget McKenzie, warning of dire consequences for farmers if citizens eat vegan chicken or beef burgers made with soy and peas.

If The Christian gets this bill through, there’s little to stop the Commonwealth creating new federal offences for things already covered by the states – only with much stiffer penalties.

Who would have believed the framers of the constitution contemplated that federal parliament would protect beekeepers from militant vegans who sent telegrams?

CPI rises

There was a top-table line-up at the New South Wales Parliament House in Macquarie Street for the launch on Wednesday of the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI). Tony Fitzgerald, Nick Cowdery, Bret Walker, Geoff Gallop, Geoffrey Watson and George Williams were on hand to welcome the new think tank, which is dedicated to preventing corruption, protecting integrity institutions and fighting the undue influence of money in politics.

Dick Smith got a round of applause after former justice Tony Whealy acknowledged him for “striking a blow for taxation equity”. Whealy went on to talk about a “counter-reformation” in the nation, especially when it comes to the criminal investigation of journalists and whistleblowers. He was particularly keen for the CPI to do research on why people in the media and in politics have sought to weaken existing integrity bodies.

You know who you are.

Former Victorian justice Stephen Charles added that those who criticised a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption as a kangaroo court should do better than “plagiarise Margaret Cunneen”.

Whereupon pastries and scones were served to the ravenous attendees.

Judge and fury

Let’s move our attention to the law courts and the robed ambassadors of justice.

Imagine, for a moment, the pleasure that a self-represented litigant would get appearing before Judge Salvatore Vasta of the Federal Circuit Court in Queensland.

Sal has made a name for himself with threats to charge litigants with contempt and then flinging them into pokey. An impressive number of his judgements have been eviscerated by other robed ambassadors higher up the food chain.

The latest Vastarisation to emerge involved appellant Michael Gambaro, who claimed he had been unfairly sacked. Gambaro appeared for himself before the judge and, from what is available of the transcript, we pick up this interaction:

Judge Vasta: How is there statute changes? Either the law is as it was…

Gambaro: Workplace…

Judge Vasta: Do not ever interrupt me. Do not ever. You’ve been told many times when I talk, your mouth goes closed. You do not ever interrupt me, or you will be cited for contempt. I’m not putting up with your rubbish.

Gambaro: Yes, your honour.

Judge Vasta: There’s only one person in charge here and it’s me. Now, make your submission.

Gambaro: I thought you were going to explain something, your honour.

Judge Vasta: You interrupted me. What’s so important? What is so important that you would risk the wrath of the court in trying to tell me that there is something more important? Tell me what it is.

Things didn’t improve as Sal’s intemperate interruptions continued. Gambaro struggled to answer the judge’s questions, and Vasta eventually had him thrown out of the court.

Sal remains a favourite of his boss, the chief of both the Family and the Circuit courts, His Honour Chief Justice Willy Alstergren. He has appointed Sal acting chief judge of the Circuit Court, and to the task of “reforming” the court’s “efficiency”.

Needless to say, Vasta is an appointment of Soapy George Brandis – a lingering gift to the nation.

In media Rares

Hats off to Justice Steven Rares in the Federal Court. He has the docket for an action by a group of Indigenous Australians from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory suing Channel Seven over a “discussion” on Sunrise in March 2018 about Aboriginal children being taken into care.

The chitchat was in the hands of presenter Sam Armytage and panellists Ben Davis, a radio man from Queensland, and PR lady Prue MacSween.

Among other things, MacSween volunteered the thought that a rebooted Stolen Generations might be the way to go: “Just like the first Stolen Generation, where a lot of children were taken because it was for their wellbeing, we need to do it again, perhaps.”

The legal argument descended into issues of identification of members of the community and whether the panellists were “information providers” under the consumer-law and safe-harbour exemptions for broadcasters.

Davis was promoted on the program as an announcer for Brisbane’s Radio 4BC but there was no similar tag for MacSween. Justice Rares spoke for millions when he interposed:

“To me she’s a nobody. I’ve never heard of her and I’ve got no idea what contribution she possibly could have made to the program.”

Massaging truth

The rotten business of child trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, one-time close pal of Bone Spurs Trump, has captivated the imagination of a scandal-plagued United States and the world beyond.

The story revives memories of the bouncing Czech, Captain Bob Maxwell, the famed Atlantic freestyle swimmer, employee pension thief and proprietor of British red tops including the Daily Mirror.

It is his daughter, Ghislaine Maxwell, who is at the centre of the Epstein story. She has been described as having a multifaceted role in Jeffrey’s household – “half ex-girlfriend, half employee, half best friend and fixer”. How many halves can you have?

She has also been accused of complicity in procuring young women for Epstein’s massage rooms. Juan Alessi, who was a manager at Epstein’s Florida palace, estimated more than 200 people came to the house over several years to provide massages. Prince Andrew was a friend of Ghislaine’s and a regular guest in Florida. In 2011, Virginia Roberts Giuffre claimed she was “procured for sexual activities” at just 17 years old by Ghislaine and forced to have sex with Randy Andy. Ghislaine denied this, leading Giuffre to sue her for defamation in 2015. An emphatic denial from the PR people at Buckingham Palace was promptly issued, reiterated this week after news broke that the files from this defamation case would be unsealed.

Capt’n Bob must have been close to his youngest daughter – the yacht from which he dived so spectacularly into the Atlantic as his debts mounted was called the Lady Ghislaine.

Memories of the rollicking, cork-popping days of the media come flooding back. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Gadfly: Reinventing their spiel". Subscribe here.

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