Diary

Gadfly
Peas in a podcast

It was quite something to tune in to the first episode of Bunter and Georgina Downer’s geopolitical podcast, where they discussed the recent AUSMIN meeting, the upcoming United States presidential election and the future of war.

Father and daughter get along famously as they take us on a wide sweep through the trickiest global thickets, with memos about Condoleezza Rice’s determination to play golf, China’s dominance in the rare earth market, Joe Biden’s “flaky” interviews, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fishing quotas in British waters and Russia’s anti-satellite rocket program.

Bunter sounds as if he’s presenting Play School – those telltale tones, speaking through flannel with a mouthful of dripping – while Georgina has a tendency to interrupt and talk over her father.

But once you manage these minor irritations the weekly pod will be a must-listen for most households.

The former Foreign minister did tell his listener, “If you threaten countries they tend to react badly. You have to persuade.”

If anyone from Timor-Leste had tuned in, they would have been swooning in agreement.

The whole talkathon comes under the auspices of Tenjin Consulting – the geopolitical risk and strategic advisory firm of Alexander and Georgina Downer.

Tenjin, as if we need reminding, is the Shinto patron deity of academics, scholars and the intelligentsia.

However, a word of warning: unless you are careful, you might end up tuned in to something called “Downers”, a production out of Brooklyn that promises to be “the definitive podcast about sadness”.

In the vein of the father

Having bowed out of his boardroom position at News Corp we were flirting with the idea that James Murdoch may be a lovely chap who could no longer tolerate the knuckle-draggers who infest the company’s newspapers or TV “news” channel.

However, along comes Rodney Tiffen, long-time media watcher and former professor in government and international relations at the University of Sydney.

In The Conversation he gave badly needed context to the story about the evolution from ruthless company man to someone with a belated conscience about the hell-in-a-handbasket approach of Moloch and his senior hacks.

Between 2000 and 2003 James was running News Corp’s Star satellite services. This was marked by his supine attitude to the Chinese government, urging Westerners to get over their trifles about human rights and Taiwan, and to “accept the reality of life”. He also agreed that Moloch’s cable channels everywhere would carry China’s propaganda outlet, CCTV9.

By 2003 he was the nabob at BSkyB in Britain, in which capacity he appeared at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to complain about the BBC: “… we have a system in which state-sponsored media – the BBC in particular – grow ever more dominant. That process has to be reversed.”

At this point Tiffen plunged in the knife: “It takes a particularly agile propagandist to find the Beijing regime so benign and the BBC so sinister.”

Yet, that barely covers it. The hacking scandal at News of the Screws was to come when James was by now the chairman and chief executive of the European and Asian wings of the News realm.

It was here that his memory started playing tricks, particularly when giving evidence on oath to the Commons culture committee. He said the company’s hush money payout to hacking victim Gordon Taylor, the boss of the footballers’ union, was a tiddly £250,000. In fact, it was £1 million.

He also claimed he didn’t know that phone hacking was an industrial-scale enterprise within News International. As Labour MP Tom Watson put it to a writhing James: “Mr Murdoch, you must be the first mafia boss in history who did not know he was running a criminal enterprise.”

Peter Chernin was the former chief operating officer of News Corp and if you accept his description of the Murdoch sons as the two “cretins” then these lapses are entirely understandable.

Sermon tanks

Attendees at the Roman Catholic mass on July 19 at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney are still pondering the wonderfully choreographed homily presented by Archbishop Anthony Fisher.

He wrapped the thoughts of Friedrich Hayek, Sir William Blackstone and St Augustine into the one beguiling sermon.

One of Hayek’s ideas was that humans cannot shape things the way we want them to be. The archbishop swiftly shifted to Matthew 13:24-43 and the parable about wheat and weeds. If you rush in to sort it out, the chances are a lot of good wheat will be pulled up and the tares left behind.

Fisher suggested that Sir William Blackstone put the same thing another way: “Better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

Using Hayek and Blackstone to interpret the Bible is a breakthrough.

This, naturally, took us to the unreliability of people who wag their finger at others. “How often do the court of public opinion, or even the law courts, get it wrong?”

Whoever could he have in mind? Just like mistaking wheat for darnel, people are liable to mistake bad for good, and good for bad, and so on and so on.

St Augustine was engaged to point out that there’s not a single field in which the Devil has not sown his seed.

Then it was back to Hayek – man must use his knowledge not to shape things but to cultivate a growth.

The congregation, with heads spinning, must have been pleased to be released into the pale sunshine.

A question of integrity

It’s heartening to see the Rule of Law Institute is giving every encouragement to The Christian Porter not to do anything worthwhile about a national integrity commission.

The institute is run out of the back office of Sydney tax law firm Speed and Stracey, most recently in the public frame as lawyers to and for Dyson Heydon.

The institute sometimes trades under the name of the Magna Carta Institute. In fact, the firm and its founder, Robin Speed, love creating “institutes”, including the Family Office Institute, which had no members but successfully lobbied in Canberra to scupper plans to disclose the level of tax payments by private companies controlled by extremely wealthy individuals.

Robin had also been on the battlements trying to head off the NSW Law Society’s support for marriage equality, declaring he would sue the society unless it put the issue to a vote of members.

Now it’s the turn of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, where Robin in a submission to a parliamentary committee is saying that findings of corruption saddle people with “reputational damage”.

Presumably, these are cases where ICAC has made adverse findings against shady customers, yet the prosecutors have not brought a case in the courts.

The solution, according to the rule of lawyers, is to hold all ICAC inquiries in private – just the thing to tickle Porter’s fancy.

While appropriating the name associated with judicial independence and the separation of powers, the Rule of Law Institute runs a pro-business, anti-regulatory line – they are tax lawyers, after all.

Cruising with Ghislaine

When it comes to Ghislaine Maxwell there are archival details that have been lying for too long in yellowing newspaper files.

Gadfly, wearing sanitised gloves, has picked through some of the most fetching morsels, in the hope that this gets us up to date.

In 1985 the Oxford results list recorded that Ghislaine was the only member of her graduating class to leave the dreaming spires with a third in French and in modern history – from Balliol College.

This is surprising, not only because her mother was French but also because her father, Cap’n Bob Maxwell, aka the Bouncing Czech, endowed Balliol with a fellowship.

In 1991 The Times of London reported that Cap’n Bob called his adored daughter “Sprog”, an endearment that’s since been reserved for Senator James Paterson (IPA-Lib).

In the same year, she was fashion director of her father’s newspaper, The European, where apparently she really wanted to be the features editor, only to be told that the job required considerable experience in journalism. To which she replied: “That’s what Dad said.”

The Evening Standard had by then christened her “The Shopper” while The Observer reported that nobody could “remember seeing Ms Maxwell in the office more than once some time in the summer of 1990”. Maybe that was because she was in New York to join another of the Cap’n’s newspapers, the Daily News.

The Evening Standard seems to have had a bit of a thing about Ghislaine, because in 1992 it reported that her father, who by then had met a watery end, had established trusts for her that would yield about £80,000 a year for life.

In 1995, the Sydney paper The Sun-Herald had a diary entry that reported trucking magnate Lindsay Fox had organised a harbour cruise on a 100-foot yacht with guests Ghislaine Maxwell, “the beautiful, feisty 34-year-old daughter of the late disgraced media baron Robert Maxwell, and her millionaire American beau, Jeffrey Epstein, a property developer who is given to zipping around Manhattan in a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit”. Among those on the evening cruise were Rodney Adler from Fuck All Insurance, his wife, Lyndi, and James Packer and his then new girlfriend, Deni Hines.

Even though it sounds like an amazingly fun gathering, the paper reported that “there are those who think” it was bad taste to take Ghislaine cruising on the water.

But then again, maybe not. 

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "Gadfly: Peas in a podcast".

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