I don’t often think of Leonard Cohen when I’m listening to Peter Dutton speak, but the Canadian singer/songwriter was foremost in my mind as I listened to the Immigration Minister on the ABC’s AM program on Tuesday.
Dutton was sounding off about a Fairfax-ABC conspiracy against the Abbott government when good old Leonard – he’ll turn 81 in three weeks, God willing – popped straight into my head.
“Let’s sing another song boys,” Cohen wrote more than 40 years ago, “This one has grown old and bitter.”
Which it surely has. Liberals have been banging on about a Fairfax conspiracy ever since I became an editor there more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.
Dutton was singing from a tried and true song sheet when he said: “I think there’s a huge move by Fairfax at the moment to try and bring the government down…”
“Regime change, is that what you’re saying?” asked AM reporter Tom Iggulden.
To which Dutton replied: “They aren’t supposed to be political players, they’re supposed to be objective reporters of the news and I think many of them have morphed into frustrated politicians themselves.”
Elsewhere his language was more intemperate as he pursued his absurd thesis. “There is a bit of a jihad being conducted by Fairfax at the moment,” Dutton told Sky News. Forget Leonard Cohen, this was beginning to sound like Kanye West at his deranged best.
Even if I acknowledge Dutton has some expertise in assessing frustrated politicians – he’s surrounded by them in the party room – his outburst will have fooled no one.
It was classic shoot the messenger stuff designed to deflect attention away from the Minister’s recent Border Force farce and ongoing speculation about the future of Joe Hockey.
In the early 1990s, when I was editing The Sunday Age for Fairfax in Melbourne, senior Victorian Liberals publicly dubbed us “the Labor Star in drag” because we dared to report on their failings.
Later, when I was editing The Age, the same Liberals talked publicly of “the three A’s” trying to bring down their government – The Age, the ABC and the ALP. Meanwhile, in Canberra, there was constant speculation about a possible break-up of the company to “foster” media diversity.
It was all designed to make Fairfax second-guess normal journalistic impulses, best expressed by the company’s late and great editor Graham Perkin, who once said the greatest responsibility of any news organisation was to hold the blowtorch to the belly of government.
Of course it is. Fairfax is doing no more, no less. Nor for that matter is the ABC, which also copped a serve from Dutton.
“I think regardless of what Tony Abbott does, Fairfax will say it’s bad. I think regardless of what Joe Hockey or the Abbott government does, Fairfax will say it’s bad,” Dutton said, adding: “They’re being helped by the ABC as well, there’s no question about that, some elements of the ABC.”
The reality is that the government is getting an armchair ride from much of News Limited, still the dominant entity in Australian news media. This, in turn, is distorting the government’s assessment of rival media outfits simply doing their jobs.
Dutton and his colleagues should be looking closer to home when assessing why they’re so much on the nose at the moment. It’s all to do with performance, theirs not Fairfax’s or, for that matter, the ABC’s.
Indeed, Dutton’s boss summed it up perfectly two years ago when Labor was enjoying its own run of bad press.
“Fundamentally, if you want good coverage, you have got to perform well,” said the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott. “And the reason why this government gets poor coverage, at least in some areas of the media, is because it has been the worst government in our history. If you want better coverage, be a better government.”
Bruce Guthrie is editorial director of The New Daily. He edited The Sunday Age from 1992-1995 and The Age from 1995-1997. He was a Fairfax columnist from 2010-2013 but no longer has any direct association with the company.