08/02/2012 - 10:43

Text harasser needs better advice

08/02/2012 - 10:43

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If the premier has trouble keeping his staffers on the right track ... maybe he has too many of them.

If the premier has trouble keeping his staffers on the right track ... maybe he has too many of them.

PREMIER Colin Barnett probably wished he had stayed on holidays when he walked into a row over a move by one of his media advisers to send pictures of Mark McGowan’s Rockingham house to reporters.

It was bad for the adviser (who lost his job), uncomfortable for Mr Barnett (who was pestered with questions about who knew what and when within his office), and good for Mr McGowan (who didn’t have to do anything).

For one of the few times since being elected premier in 2008, Mr Barnett was subjected to persistent probing from reporters – this time about an issue relating to his staff – and he looked distinctly annoyed.

Some critics drew comparisons with the actions of a prime ministerial staff member in Canberra on Australia Day, which resulted in Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbot being escorted through angry protestors near the Aboriginal tent embassy. But that is a very long bow.

Without going into the issue chapter and verse, the local media adviser, James Larsson, who has subsequently quit, acted unwisely. First, he sent a text message to some journalists advising that Mr McGowan was drinking at a Subiaco hotel, a long way from his home in Rockingham.

That fact is hardly remarkable, even if Mr McGowan had portrayed himself as a family man with three young children. 

Many fathers of young children drop into hotels for a drink, and still consider themselves to be good parents. 

Far from being at the pub, however, Mr McGowan was at home helping feed his family. It would appear Mr Larsson, with whom I always enjoyed a good working relationship, simply didn’t have enough to do.

Second, Mr Larsson emailed a picture of Mr McGowan’s two-storey house to reporters. This was unwise.

Identifying MPs’ residences has generally been considered off limits on the basis it could attract unwanted attention for their families, especially when the members are absent on parliamentary business.

That’s where the premier drew the line, and Mr Larsson was on his way.

The whole saga raises several questions. The first is: what does a government staffer hope to achieve by sending a text to reporters that a senior opposition MP is at the pub? It’s hardly a hanging offence, even if correct. The source had been the premier’s chief of staff, Brian Pontifex, who thought he had seen Mr McGowan at the hotel.

The concept of premiers and ministers having independent, well-staffed offices started under then premier Brian Burke in 1983. The idea was to give the ministers advice that was independent of the public service, and the goal was better decisions and implementation. 

It might come as a surprise that ministerial staffers with too much time on their hands sometimes get involved in causing embarrassment to their opponents – and they are not necessarily sitting opposite in the parliament.

I recall in the early 1980s the media adviser to a NSW Labor cabinet minister slipped me a cabinet minute from the mines minister seeking the green light for a licence to explore for uranium. Nothing remarkable about that in the current climate but back then it was a no-no for anyone with Labor affiliations to flirt with uranium.

Naturally enough, partly because cabinet minutes are supposed to be strictly confidential, I reported the move with some enthusiasm. The mines minister was less than impressed, while acknowledging the fact he had been ‘set up’ by one of his (left wing) cabinet colleagues.

“You know I could have you charged under the Crimes Act for this,” he told me. I hadn’t known, but replied that I was ready for anything that might come my way. 

He didn’t deny the story and the licence application fell through. 

And that issue was generated by his own party.

Mr Barnett might be well advised to cut the staff levels in his and ministers’ offices to prevent idle hands causing more mischief. The last thing he’d want within his own ranks is a repetition of the NSW experience.

Buying influence 

GINA Rinehart’s push to buy almost 13 per cent of Fairfax Media, on top of the 10 per cent she already owns in the Ten Network, has certainly set the rumour mill buzzing as speculation mounts as to her motives.

Neither business is that profitable. 

The Sydney-based Fairfax Media is just a pale imitation of the powerhouse organisation of the 1980s when it had influential newspapers, metropolitan television stations and the Macquarie Radio network. The newspapers remain, but they have been hit – like most other major publications – by declining advertising and circulation. The radio mix has also changed radically.

And the days of free-to-air television channels being licences to print money are long gone. 

If Ms Rinehart is attempting to get her strong free enterprise and anti-mining tax views presented more prominently in the media as a result of her investments splurge, she would be following in the footsteps of her late father, Lang Hancock, in the 1960s.

Hancock’s biographer, Robert Duffield, noted that initially he was dubbed ‘The Flying Prospector’, ‘Man of Iron’ and ‘King of the Pilbara’, based on his well-publicised iron ore discoveries in the Pilbara; but that all changed.

“The hour faded when Hancock’s star came on collision course with that of the concomitant WA hero, Sir Charles Court,” Duffield said, adding: “But Hancock’s public image and public influence declined in the early 1960s because the local press by and large deserted him: that is to say its proprietors did.” 

By the late 1960s, Hancock was cashed up, thanks to the extraordinary lucrative royalties deal he and his partner, Peter Wright, struck with Hamersley Iron – and which still feeds into the Hancock and Wright family coffers. They decided to start their own newspaper, edited initially by experienced economic journalist, Maxwell Newton, to ensure their views were heard.

“Thus was the Sunday Independent born, with a brief to support free enterprise, less government and the divine right of prospectors to their discoveries,” Duffield wrote. “ … it was no propaganda sheet, except in the sense that it was anti-Court and WA-first, which to Hancock is not a contradiction in terms.”

But for Hancock, the venture ended in tears. The concept flopped, Duffield noting that it was “too intellectual, too in-depth, too demanding of the reader … .”

The paper lost money, but Hancock said that wasn’t the main problem: “ … the people of WA weren’t ready for an independent, quality paper. As I got more and more disillusioned, I knew I would have to drop my standards or get out.” 

So he got out.

The paper was later sold to its rival, the News Ltd-owned The Sunday Times, which eventually closed it in the mid-1980s.

Hancock found it was too hard to compete against the ‘monopolists’ as he called them, the established media empires that effectively called the shots in the national media industry.

Mrs Rinehart appears to have learned from her father’s experience. She’s investing in the established media in an attempt to ensure that her views are not only heard, but better understood.

And like her father, she’s not used to being fobbed off. 

Watch this spot.

 

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