Hostile approach to the media

The Australian
12 June, 2008
By John Lyons

IT is extraordinary how quickly the Government of Kevin Rudd has lost the goodwill of the Canberra press gallery. Women in the gallery, in particular, seem upset with the approach of the PM's media office.

Much of the alienation appears to be a consequence of the style of Rudd's senior media adviser Lachlan Harris. One political correspondent said: "There's a whole layer of suspicion which is bred from the aggression of Lachlan; it influences all the other press secretaries."

The aggression has been experienced by many. One journalist said she felt highly intimidated by a conversation with Harris. He was unhappy with a story she'd written based on a leak from a Labor frontbencher. Harris wanted a meeting; they met in Aussie's cafe in Parliament House. She says he rarely made eye contact but what threw her off balance was that he almost whispered as he made it clear she would pay a price for writing the story.

"You know it's over for you," she says he told her. "Nobody's going to deal with you. We're not going to forget this." After regaining her composure, she told him: "Don't bully me. You're trying to bully me and I'm not going to take it."

The woman, a senior reporter, went to Rudd's office and made a complaint. It was agreed she would henceforth deal with others in the press office, not Harris.

The control being exerted by Rudd and Harris is obvious everywhere. One example concerns Sorry Day. After it became public that the apology would be made on the first day of parliament, a journalist spoke to Rudd's office as was told Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin would be doing a doorstop at 11.30 that morning in Melbourne.

The journalist telephoned Macklin's office to confirm logistics. Macklin's press secretary Jessica Walker knew nothing about the event, which was only two hours away.

That led to an exchange along these lines:

Journalist: "So Jenny's doing an 11.30 doorstop?"

Press secretary: "No, she's not doing anything today."

Journalist: "Yes, I think Jenny's doing a doorstop at 11.30 this morning."

Press secretary: "No, she's not."

Macklin did do a doorstop at 11.30, because Harris told her to, with two hours' notice. That's how national government in Australia is working today.

Two of the most powerful men in Australia today are Harris and Alister Jordan, both 28.

Harris has already been involved in two incidents that angered Rudd. The first was turning his back in protest as Brendan Nelson gave his reply to Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. The second was refusing to wear a tie for a meeting with US President George W. Bush. White House staff and the Australian embassy had asked men to wear jackets and ties. Harris refused. When asked by others as they walked into the White House why he had not, he replied: "I don't wear ties."

Harris's style unnecessarily alienates the people with whom he should have workable relationships.

A woman who arrived in Canberra to fill in as a television producer phoned Harris to introduce herself and felt humiliated by his response. "Why are you ringing me to tell me this?" he said.

Another female journalist recalls talking to Harris on his landline when his mobile rang. He told whoever was calling: "I'm on the other line, let me just piss this other call off." The woman about to be pissed off listened with dismay. "He would have known I could hear," she says.

The Sun-Herald's Kerry-Anne Walsh also experienced the Harris blowtorch. Walsh tracked down several members of a family who disputed Rudd's story that Rudd and his mother had been evicted from a property and were forced to sleep in a car on the side of a road. The family named by Rudd was outraged. One of the daughters of the farmer alleged to have evicted the Rudds said of Kevin Rudd: "He's dragged our father's proud reputation through the mud time and time again."

Because the versions were so different, Walsh sent some questions to Rudd via Harris. The response from Harris was nuclear. According to a version in The Sydney Morning Herald, which Walsh has confirmed, Harris began "ranting like a lunatic", claimed Rudd would "hit the roof" and if the paper published, which it did, "we'll have 100 people ready to roll tomorrow morning to trash you and your paper".

The treatment of women by Rudd's office has now become an issue. One female reporter told how Harris walks into her office and goes straight past her to discuss a story she has written.

On one occasion she went and stood between the bureau chief and Harris and said: "Hey Lachlan, I wrote the story!"

The issue became public on Rudd's 17-day trip to the US, Europe and Asia. As the journalists gathered to depart, Harris told them seating arrangements on the plane had been made by the RAAF and if they were not happy they should complain to the air force, not to him.

As the journalists boarded the plan, the seating plan became clear: the men were in the front and the women at the back. It became a running joke through the trip: "The RAAF made the arrangements, not Lachlan."

Things got worse during the trip. The travelling party gathered for drinks in the high commissioner's residence in London. One circle formed that consisted predominantly of men: Rudd, Harris and several male journalists. A second, smaller circle also formed: the female reporters. For almost an hour Rudd stood in the circle talking to the same group. An experienced press secretary would have ushered the PM to the second group. It was only as they were leaving that Fiona Sugden, Harris's junior, urged Rudd towards the second group.

During the trip, The Australian ran a front-page story saying Rudd would soon visit Tokyo. At a briefing on the trip Rudd was asked about the story: "That's bullshit," he said as he left the room.

Six hours later, Harris called together reporters so the PM could announce a visit to Japan. He confirmed what he had described only hours before as bullshit.

By now Rudd's credibility with the travelling media had dived. Harris tried to repair the damage, but it only made things worse. He told one journalist that despite Rudd saying the story was not true, it was in fact true. "But the PM has just told us it's bullshit," the journalist responded.

That trip highlighted a lack of understanding of how the media works. One of the most remarkable instances involved Gemma Daley, Australian correspondent for Bloomberg.

Daley convinced her superiors in New York to pay the $20,000 required for the trip. She told them she was confident that during the trip she could get an interview with Rudd, whom many in the financial markets - Bloomberg's audience - did not really know.

In the 17 days they were overseas, despite repeated requests, Harris could not arrange for Daley to get even 10 minutes with Rudd.

The apparent hostility towards the media is now flowing into Rudd's security detail. His security officers are being allowed to intimidate journalists. In Sydney in May, as he arrived at a function, one of his security team told a cameraman: "Move over, mate, or I'll stand in your shot all day."

Another journalist, The Courier-Mail's Dennis Atkins, was told by a federal police officer travelling with Rudd's party in Perth to move from where he was talking to the public to a designated media area. He refused to move.

Another problem Rudd has in his office involves his chief of staff, David Epstein. It's the ticking time bomb of the PM's office. Epstein is married to Sandra Eccles, who was promoted three months after the Rudd Government's election to run the Canberra office of lobbying firm Government Relations Australia.

Epstein admitted to The Australian this week that he was forced to call in a witness to a conversation with car giant Mitsubishi because of a possible conflict of interest with his wife's firm.

It adds yet another problem to an already troubled office. The Prime Minister has an angry public service, an increasingly alienated media, and a chief of staff who more than likely will have to call in more witnesses as his wife's clients chase what they're paying big money for: to influence the people in the Government who make the decisions.

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