Entertainment Books Kim Williams: the words that brought me down at News Corp

Kim Williams: the words that brought me down at News Corp

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Rules of Engagement
Kim Williams
Melbourne University Publishing

In early June of 2013 I received a phone call from Chris Bowen, who had become a backbencher in the wake of the most recent Rudd versus Gillard leadership contest that had so characterised the chemistry of the government from the time of Gillard’s ascension to power.

“It was possible some colleagues and Rupert Murdoch himself might see it as partisan on my part.”

Bowen had backed Rudd but stood down, saying it was the right thing to do. I should pause and say that the initial ‘sin’ with Rudd and Gillard in my view was the original takeover, which was all about Rudd and Gillard toppling Kim Beazley when they had no real agenda other than the assumption of power.

There was no developed policy platform and reform remit and it simply cannot be made up on the run—and that is what they mostly did for the next six years.

· News Corp’s Australian newspaper crisis exposed

Bowen asked if I would agree to launch the book he had written, which was published by Melbourne University Press. It was called Hearts and Minds. I had dealt with him during his period as Assistant Treasurer with responsibility for competition policy and we had a few engagements on proposed legislative changes. We had connected well. He seemed to be a terrific, able minister.

Kim Williams and Chris Bowen - AAP
Kim Williams and Chris Bowen ahead of his fateful speech at the then minister’s book launch. Photo: AAP

He had an unusual capacity to listen, even when he did not agree with you. I respect him as a politician and as a person genuinely interested in public policy. When Bowen asked me I said I would read the book and let him know. He sent the book to me, which I read and (although there were elements in it with which I had issue), I then accepted the assignment.

I knew at that time it might be a controversial thing to do as it was possible some colleagues and Rupert Murdoch himself might see it as partisan on my part rather than as supporting policy debate generally. Accordingly I sent an advisory to a senior colleague in New York, together with my intended speech, who expressed no concern and said he understood entirely.

By the time of the launch Chris had become the Treasurer in the new Rudd-led government and I suggested that his new PM would be a better launcher. He stuck to his request for me to do the honours. I gave the Hearts and Minds launch speech on 12 July and all hell broke out for me in News Corp soon afterwards.

By the start of August I no longer had a job. The reasons were clear. Colleagues who mattered had lost confidence in my views and approach (if they ever had them) and the speech to launch the book was seen as unsound and inappropriate. The Daily Telegraph had published a version of my speech and it had been related to Rupert by other people as a piece of dastardly behaviour. Needless to say, I stood by the speech, and still do.

Our exchanges were somewhat more forceful in subsequent communication. From that day forward I knew my goose was cooked.

I had an exchange with Rupert about the matter some days after the launch and when I contested the issue of corporate loyalty and appropriateness with him I said it was clear that he had not read my speech. He said, no, he had read it and that it was very clear and that everyone was talking to him about it. I don’t believe he had read the speech. But he ended that conversation by saying, ‘Now is not the time’.

Our exchanges were somewhat more forceful in subsequent communication. From that day forward I knew my goose was cooked. Clearly I had enabled others to act, using the misrepresentation of the speech as the necessary evidence. It was simply a matter of how it was best handled for the company. There were many exchanges and a series of calls and several plainly worded telephone exchanges between me and Robert Thomson, the News Corp CEO, who acted fairly decently throughout.

kim-williamsThe actual Hearts and Minds speech opened with the following statement, referencing that the new prime minister might have been better for his launch:

‘I have no idea as to why Chris Bowen invited me to launch this book. I expressed surprise when he invited me at the start of June and even more surprise when I suggested, after his ascension to the position of Treasurer, that he might like to make a change which would supercharge his publicity a little more—good for book sales,’ I suggested.

‘Chris said, no. He was happy for me to do it and happy I am also.

‘All countries need books like this and politicians like Chris— those who reflect a terrific and honourable commitment to their nation and her people and to the quest for better policy and the frameworks that secure it on an enduring basis.’

I am glad I spent time on the speech because it was most definitely my swan song (and I do not mean Wayne).

I had spent a considerable time on the speech, having read the book and being predictably old-fashioned in my ways when obligations to do something have been accepted. My speech went on to say that I found it refreshing, that not only was Hearts and Minds free from cookie-cutter ideology but it also outlined policies that reflected a reformist path from Labor’s past, ones that reflected priorities for the future including: policies to drive growth; to give primacy to national savings through superannuation; to encourage the services economy—for example, by breaking down protectionism in other countries—and small business.

I applauded his approaches to lower the company tax rate—altogether necessary showing a comprehension of the importance of business to encourage wealth creation; and to recognise that we needed better teachers and methods of measuring what they do, to lift their standards and ensure they receive lifelong training—a position with which I wholeheartedly agree.

I continued, saying that whatever your politics might be this book was most welcome because it went to the heart of the health of our political system and the parties that seek our attention and devotion. I indicated it was rich with direct analysis and practical ideas and sometimes refreshingly evidenced a little mischief in making a point—for example, Chris suggested that Ben Chifley in today’s world could easily be seen voting Liberal or even, perish the thought, Green—in the text, he said Chifley was smart and would have had the opportunity to go to university and therefore may have been an entirely different person.

In closing I said that Chris Bowen was a politician willing to contemplate things others may not. He had in his book treated the past as a guide, not comprising a sacred set of tablets. He had advocated new ways of looking at the world, not only acknowledging that it has changed but recognising the imperative to embrace the primary forces that have driven that change. I am glad I spent time on the speech because it was most definitely my swan song (and I do not mean Wayne).

Recently a friend—a senior retired editorial executive—described to me the difference between, for want of a better term, ‘the two primary news journalism organisations’. Fairfax he said was about exposing and News was about agenda setting or ‘making and backing’. I had the feeling that he thought neither company did either very well any longer.

I don’t know where the canary is but I sense there is a lot of methane running about and we all need to replenish the landscape and get oxygen and sunlight in play if we want to rescue the quality and direction of our journalism. We all have to play our part and put up or shut up in paying for the things we care about.

This is an edited extract from Rules of Engagement by Kim Williams, available at MUP.com.au. Buy the book here. 

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