Peta Credlin and Sky’s caustic panels
One evening, during a spell of channel surfing, I settled upon Sky News and its panel of political authorities. They resembled Dickensian ghouls, assembled to warn viewers of excessive pride. They were Peta Credlin, Campbell Newman and Graham Richardson – two infamous failures beside the Forrest Gump of Australian sleaze.
Graham “Richo” Richardson was a formidable minister in both the Hawke and Keating governments, known equally for his raffish charm, ruthlessness and dubious methods. He resigned suddenly in 1994 – there lurked the spectre of his louche associates – and has since made good money selling his expertise outside the parliament.
Richardson has been friend, lobbyist or business partner to some of the country’s most notorious thieves. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, there was scarcely a scandal that Richo didn’t have some proximity to: WA Inc, Nugan Hand Bank, Balmain Welding, the Marshall Islands affair. He was friends with convicted insider trader Rene Rivkin, and an associate of suspected drug trafficker Danny Casey. When he resigned from parliament, associates of his were being investigated for a prostitution racket.
The Saturday Paper is not suggesting any impropriety, but let’s say that Richo had a particular taste in mates. In Australia, we’ll bash “dole bludgers” but give Richardson a TV show.
Then there is Campbell Newman. In 2012 he was the imperious and effective mayor of Brisbane, conscripted from outside parliament as the surprise candidate to lead the Queensland LNP to an election. Newman won in a landslide, a heroic confirmation of the wisdom of his unorthodox appointment. As premier, Newman remained imperious but much less effective. Clueless in consolidating his power, he spent three years hapless and paranoid. Enjoying 78 seats of 89 – Labor had been reduced to a pitiful seven – it still seemed, despite his flailing, that Newman would be returned with a reduced margin.
Oh, no. The astonishing margin he enjoyed was annihilated in just one term, Labor won government and Newman lost his seat. He has been bitter and petulant since, although his ego is sufficiently unscathed that he can publicly offer himself as a figure of political wisdom, as he did last year when he opined tremulously on Malcolm Turnbull: “I’m saying it really clearly tonight: he’s got to resign ... He has led the Liberal Party into the valley of death.”
The striking thing here is not the “analysis”, it’s the chutzpah.
Beside these two, there was Peta Credlin, the former chief of staff to the former prime minister, whose ceaseless and ostentatious aggression, and her boss’s exceptional tolerance of it, is widely agreed to have contributed to his downfall. Tony Abbott was prime minister for slightly less than two years, a failure by his own definition. Abbott had correctly offered Kevin Rudd’s shorn prime ministership as proof of Labor’s inadequacy – and still Rudd’s first spell was 200 days longer than Abbott’s own.
Liberals – inside and out of parliament – were variously appalled and bewildered by the dysfunction and egregious incivility that bloomed around Credlin. They were also appalled and bewildered by Abbott’s limitless faith in her. Rupert Murdoch and John Howard tried to intervene. It was fruitless. There is legion evidence for all of this – for the bullying, the self-absorption, the extraordinary micromanagement. It is in colleagues’ accounts, in direct observation, and, most notably, in Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin.
Today, Credlin has her own eponymous show on Sky. She’s offered as something like a sports mascot – colourful, recognisable, larger than life – but also a caricature reduced to a series of irritable mental gestures, to paraphrase the late critic Lionel Trilling. I can think of no other profession where failure is so predictably rewarded.
Credlin’s great failure, like Newman’s, does not efface her once rarefied position, nor the contacts and knowledge acquired from it. But it’s obvious that failure hasn’t chastened her either, hasn’t made her more interesting or reflective. To watch the righteous jabber that constitutes analysis on Sky’s night shift is to apprehend how incurably fevered these egos are.
There are other opinions of Credlin. Sky colleague Rowan Dean wrote the following last year, in a piece that passionately suggested she run for parliament herself. “We are constantly told by her detractors that Credlin was some kind of foul-mouthed, bossy, bullying, aggressive, take-no-prisoners type of gal when she was running Tony Abbott’s office and therefore she (and he) had to go,” he wrote in The Courier-Mail. “The logic of that always escaped me – surely those are precisely the qualities you need in someone doing that job?”
It’s strange that bullying is offered here as a virtue, stranger still that the qualities that helped destroy a first-term government are praised. “Most CEOs would kill,” Dean continued, “for someone of her ability as their right-hand man or woman.”
I’ve known obnoxious and chaotic leaders before – those whose personality disorders are better defined than their intellect, who bludgeon morale while clamouring to enhance their own influence. The general workforce has no shortage. I’ve also known leaders secure enough to consult, who are strong, decisive, humorous – who engender respect rather than fear. Funnily enough, it’s easier to enter the trenches at the bequest of someone you respect.
One detects in Dean’s praise a juvenile dichotomy: the opposite of weakness is bullying; those who complain of abuse are weak. This odd squaring seems to me the work of reactionary hackdom – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s unsurprising from a man who, in the past few years, has accelerated his buffoonery: who claims that the Grenfell Tower inferno was, apparently, caused by green ideology; who said, when the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, spoke last year of his hope for greater diversity in media and business: “Tim, if you don’t like it ... hop on a plane and go back to Laos.”
Sky colleagues called Dean’s comment “pathetic” and “reprehensible”.
So goes our perpetual cultural war and the Foxifying of Sky News – at least, when the sun sets and the sour tongues are unleashed. In October last year, Credlin’s abusiveness triggered an impromptu ad break when she swore at her fellow panellists. “Journos, journos, journos ... and a Labor outsider,” she said, referring to her colleagues. “Nobody is going to tell you in the Liberal Party what is really going on. They are more likely, the conservatives, to tell me. And I think you are all piss and wind. Because I tell you what —”
We might wonder how many Liberals told her what was really going on when her boss was deposed.
Recently, Credlin told Andrew Bolt that she had phoned senior cabinet minister Josh Frydenberg after he had referred, accurately and plainly, to Abbott’s habit of undermining the prime minister. “I’ve had a conversation with him,” she said. “I’m not going to go into it on air, but I don’t think you’ll see that again.”
One might infer from this that Credlin was attempting to influence party politics – and that she was publicly boasting about it. One might also have seen the slim, papier-mâché mask of “rigorous commentator” slip further. Credlin was roundly mocked by journalists, including former Sky colleagues. Frydenberg shrugged. Characteristically, Credlin doubled down: “What accounts for integrity in the media these days?” she wrote for News Corp. “Sometimes you’ve got to wonder. Last week, I was pilloried by the usual suspects for picking up the phone and speaking with Josh Frydenberg following comments he made on air about the Liberal leadership. Funny, I thought it was incumbent on those in the media to do their best to check the facts before making claims?”
Nowhere in her small and defensive column was reference made to that resonant line: “I don’t think you’ll see that again”. There was no contemplation of her responsibilities and their entanglements. Critics are enemies, self-knowledge poison, and all substantive criticism was ignored in favour of an ad hominem attack on journalism generally. It is difficult to grasp the value of Credlin’s contribution to political ideas in this country, beyond the intimate glimpse she offers of the pathologies that featured in Abbott’s downfall.
Credlin’s column closed with a signature flourish: “P.S. Watch out liars, I’ve got a voice now and I intend to use it.” Doubtlessly it was meant to sound tough, but it came across brittle and vindictive. So enchanted by visions of Artemis is Credlin’s pugnacity, and so impervious to self-reflection, that it has itself become the commodity. This is in part why she has the job. The witless aggression needn’t be leavened with self-awareness or intellectual rigour. It needn’t be useful beyond its being recognisable and modestly entertaining. It’s not a bug, but a feature – the mascot’s defining quality. This is political commentary. This is Sky News at night.
In the Australian Financial Review, Joe Aston mused sardonically on Peta Credlin’s Sky News spot: “If there is a professional fate worse than opening for Paul Murray, we certainly haven’t an imagination vivid enough to name it.”
An Australian protégé of Network’s fictitious, but prophetic, Howard Beale, Murray is Sky’s profane monologist. Unanchored to a seat, he gives brave – and repetitive – voice to the spluttering, inchoate rage of the common man. To be fair, I imagine Murray and I would share ground on a number of grievances – but probably not the one I have regarding his intolerance for complexity or research.
Unlike the unhinged Beale, who accidentally finds for his employees a profitable communion with the public, Murray is not a national figure. Sky News at night struggles with ratings, so much so that I might think my writing about it is redundant. And I would, if I didn’t also think that nocturnal Sky offers a fair reflection of the temper of current conservative thought.
It’s a temper found, I think, in the conservative American columnist George F. Will, who wrote this lament last year: “Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.”
Will continued his description of the temper as “sour, whiney, complaining, cry-baby populism ... the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism”. Oddly, Will ascribes this tone to the communist apostate Whittaker Chambers.
I think the description largely holds for Australia. To this, I might add: mean, glib and suspicious.
I say this resentfully. I say this as someone who has, over many years, moved right. I say this as someone who returns to Edmund Burke, and finds resonance in the story of the fall from Eden. I say this as someone whose grandfather was in Changi, whose father was in the air force, as someone who proudly worked for Victoria Police. I say this as someone who sincerely – if mawkishly – desires the democratic ideal of a bustling marketplace of ideas. I say this as someone who doesn’t recognise the Australia suggested by the most bleakly reflexive rhetoric of left and right – one that resembles Trump’s “American carnage”. And I say all this as someone who is slightly embarrassed to write, however incoherently, of his own politics, knowing them to be contradictory and contingent, and knowing that they’re inherently uninteresting. There is plenty to critique on the left, and too often it comes in sour, bigoted, vindictive tones that masquerade as truth telling.
The Calvinist novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson – who writes with uncommon moral seriousness – has written of the historical distortions of a “sheltering consensus”. It is nothing new, of course, this mental and social need to defer to the prevailing orthodoxies of friends, employees or allies. But social media can now aggressively coerce consensus – from the curated streams of fake news, to the toxic punishment of those who stray ideologically. When we discuss free speech, we rarely contemplate the things not said.
For me, one of the most memorable pieces of last year was Shannon Burns’s beautifully written reflection in Meanjin on growing up white and working class in Adelaide. It provoked contemplation of the left’s partial evacuation of class, its distaste for the classically liberal tenet of free speech, the relative absence of working-class voices, and the zealous policing of culture and thought for the crime of privilege – promoting trivial outrages that themselves indicate privilege.
“The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites,” Burns wrote. “I confess that if a well-dressed, university-educated middle-class person of any gender or ethnicity so much as hinted at my ‘white privilege’ while I was a lumpen child, or my ‘male privilege’ while I was an unskilled labourer who couldn’t afford basic necessities, or my ‘hetero-privilege’ while I was a homeless solitary, I’d have taken special pleasure in voting for their nightmare. And I would have been right to do so.”
Elsewhere, Burns writes: “Language is another site of class-conflict. I grew up in violent environments. For people like me, ‘symbolic violence’ or ‘offensive speech’ were, if anything, a benign alternative to real violence and real hate ... By contrast, the act of, say, revealing the true identity of an Italian writer who hoped to remain anonymous cannot seriously be called ‘violently’ intrusive. Nor can an orange-faced buffoon’s practice of hulking impatiently behind a fellow candidate as she speaks during a political debate be considered ‘violently’ sexist or truly aggressive. From my perspective, these are examples of impoliteness or bad taste – no more and no less – yet they are commonly bundled together with truly despicable behaviour, as though there is no substantial difference. Indeed, the deplorable nature of real violence is exploited to condemn mere idiocy.”
I’m not sure there are many voices like Burns’s out there – muscular, intelligent and expressed in good faith. Certainly there are few mainstream ones. And certainly they’re not to be found on Sky News at night or in tabloid columns by day, where swollen egos bathe in bad faith and the cynically splenetic.
Yes, there are few viewers of the evening shift. But the Sky channel runs 24-7 in political offices across the country – a reflection of the caustic hyper-partisanship of Canberra. Perhaps it’s an imperfect reflection. Perhaps the nocturnal gibbering is not representative. I hope so. But its preference for emotion, its tutorials in contempt, and its contemplation of our public life as an endless blood sport, strike me as dismally apt.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "What’s going on with Credlin and Sky". Subscribe here.