Recent opposition attacks on Julia Gillard’s ethics have been underpinned by an unprecedented underground online campaign prosecuted on social media. The questions raised by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop were foreshadowed in the Murdoch press, which in turn was informed by blogs maintained by right wing activists operating on the margins of the mainstream media.
All this has happened beyond the rarefied gaze of the press gallery, which has become a target for speculation and abuse itself.
Untroubled by ethical codes or even laws covering defamation, contempt of court, racial vilification and even sexual harassment, partisan websites habitually describe government ministers as criminals, repeatedly presenting unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoings as fact.
The Twitter vanguard
Postings have been promoted by Twitter accounts such as Labor Dirt, maintained by a Gold Coast IT specialist, who recycled tweets around the clock on the #auspol hashtag at the rate of one per minute.
Comments are re-tweeted by a chorus of mostly anonymous supporters who confuse personal attacks with political debate. Name calling included “Slagillard”, “Juliar”, “bignose”, “dillard”, “adulterer” and “husband stealer”.
“Gillard more slippery than a bar of soap in a gay sauna” Irving J tweeted on #auspol. He’d earlier written that there was no need for those he labelled criminals to actually have a criminal record because socialists were by definition “criminals”. He tweeted:
When the grubs r running country, they get what they deserve! thieves & socialist filth to boot.
The internet campaign has been spearheaded by The Pickering Post, edited and apparently entirely written by retired News Limited cartoonist, Larry Pickering. Pickering was made famous in the 1980s for his naked caricatures of Australian male politicians depicted with either very large or minuscule penises. More recently, he was banned from Facebook for three days for posting a lewd drawing of the prime minister, which featured a naked Julia Gillard talking about the carbon tax.
Pickering wrote on his blog that he ignored journalistic conventions to ensure the story about the prime minister, who he clearly despises, was broken. “I copped plenty of flak because I told the story in a different way in order to get the traction it deserved,“ he said.
Without citing evidence, or perhaps assuming that it was self-evident, Pickering claimed the story had been suppressed by a government PR machine which defamed opponents; a drip-feed of “feel good” policies, subtle control of the media through press conferences, repetition of the party line and denial.
Meanwhile, he claimed mainstream media political correspondents were also engaged in a conspiracy to ignore the story, writing:
Bongiorno, Grattan, Oakes and minor Gillard sycophants Pascoe, Murray and van Onselen are still in embarrassing denial … Welcome to the real world of investigative journalism, fellas, you have all been asleep.
But Pickering’s form of “investigative journalism” is one that most investigative journalists would not recognise.
Shock-jocks gone rogue
Joining the charge with Pickering is Michael Smith, a former shock-jock and retired policeman, who has merged the roles of commentator, publicist and prosecutor. Smith had earlier been prominent at a public rally staged against the carbon tax which was highly critical of the PM.*
In a much publicised falling out with his Fairfax media employers, he objected to being told not to broadcast material contained in an interview about Gillard. Since then, he has maintained a media profile with a blog and video monologues distributed on Youtube.
After failing to get a response to questions put to the prime minister’s office, Smith wrote that he “reported the Prime Minister’s conduct in the matter of the Power of Attorney to the Chief Commissioner of Police, Victoria Police Force”.
When later contacted by a Victorian Police Fraud squad sergeant, Smith said, “I furnished further and better particulars to him as well as some further documentary evidence.”
“The detective then asked me if I could contact Ralph Edwin Blewitt [to become the star witness against Gillard] and if so could I invite him to attend on Victoria Police to make a statement. It’s now widely known that Mr Blewitt did in fact return to Australia as a result of the detective’s request.”
Indeed, Smith could be seen hovering in the backgrounds when Blewitt presented himself for mainstream television interviews.
So how did Smith get onto the story that ended his mainstream career?
The creator of Kangaroo Court of Australia, Shane Dowling, has claimed that a post he made in 2011 led both Michael Smith and news.com.au columnist Andrew Bolt to pick up on Gillard’s personal history.
He claimed the government had blackmailed Fairfax and News Limited to keep silent.
Dowling has unsuccessfully sought a press pass for himself to federal parliament.
The gallery left behind
Blogger Grogs Gamut has observed in his book The Rise of the Fifth Estate that the press gallery is seen by many as an inward-looking group of insiders. He writes:
Many journalists in the press gallery will interact only with other members of the gallery, and those who do interact with non journalists seem more likely to do so only to argue with critics. For all the concerns about not being allowed to tweet stories outside their area, few do so. Most tweet links to their own stories or to others in their own newspapers.
This isolation, and dependence on politicians’ handouts, has contributed to a gap between the media and the public now claimed by social media activists. As the Youtube hits to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech showed, there is a huge audience that is disconnected from the gallery’s view of politics.
But citizen journalists such as Pickering, Smith, Dowling and the leagues of Twitter users on #auspol ignore the niceties of the ritualised dance between political reporters and politicians.
The AWU affair shows how new media has created unimaginable opportunities for free speech, but at a cost to civil political debate, politicians' sensibilities and often the truth itself.
*An earlier version of the piece referred to “Ditch the Witch” banners displayed at earlier anti-carbon tax rallies. This reference has been removed as Mike Smith has informed us that no such banners were present at the rally at which he spoke. We apologise for the error.