Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Eddie Obeid - a case of media failure?

Last night's Four Corners Program, The Enemy Within, on the Obeid matter was interesting. How could it be otherwise, given the subject matter? In a way, more revealing was a story in today's Fairfax press by Anne Davies and Sean Nicholls, Diary Carr kept refers to Obeid's 'untidy' interests.

During a torrid meeting In March 2003, then NSW Premier and now Foreign Minister Bob Carr told Minister Obeid that he would not be reappointed. In his diary notes, Mr Carr wrote: ''Removing Obeid from cabinet means not having controversies about his untidy pecuniary interests. That eliminates one area of vulnerability.''

He also wrote: ''I took on the Obeid faction, the Terrigals, and forced their leader out. Squalls and turbulence, but I won, breaking Obeid's power. Now he flutters around me, desperately reasserting his relevance by managing and massaging backbenchers,''

As I read, I thought how revealing it was about both men. Mr Obeid was clearly a very determined and difficult man, apparently capable of combining aggression with charm, fear and favour and favour mixed; those desperate attempts were ultimately successful.

Mr Carr's focus appears to have been pragmatic, forcing himself to deal with a difficult problem in the now. There is no recognition of the longer term threat. It's a tactical, not a strategic response. And that was one of the problems, to my mind, with NSW Labor. Power and politics was a reactive game played in the now on a very particular stage with most of the play taking place backstage.

Maybe I am being unfair. I do not pretend to understand the complexities of it all. To someone from outside NSW in particular, the whole thing must seem very difficult, difficult to understand. One thing I query from Mr Carr's period is the lack of scrutiny by the main stream media. I need to define scrutiny.

Mr Carr served as Premier from April 1995 to August 2005, the longest service as Premier in NSW's history. In many ways he had a charmed run. Reporters liked him. My personal frustration and especially in the last period of Mr Carr's premiership lay in the absence of detailed analytical reporting. I may be naïve, but I regard that as important.

Opposition leaders Kerry Chikarovski and then John Brogden struggled to get any media oxygen. What happened to John stands out in my mind as an example of just what happens in the Sydney goldfish bowl. We talk about NSW politics, but that politics is actually generally dominated by events in Sydney. That is where the largest number of votes are, that is where the main media outlets are.

On 29 July 2005, John apparently made comments at a Sydney function about Mr Carr's wife Helena. If reported correctly, they were stupid and hurtful comments. They were not typical of the man. A media witch hunt broke out. Mr Brogden apologised, but the attacks continued.

On 29 August 2005, Mr Brogden resigned as leader of the opposition. The following day, he attempted suicide. He was found only because his family became concerned and contacted police.

On the evening of 30 August 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald contacted Barry O'Farrell, now Premier, to ask him about leadership speculation against Mr Brogden. O'Farrell replied: "Excuse me if I say I don't care about the leadership at the moment, but I am following an ambulance with John Brogden inside. He has attempted self-harm. It sort of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?"

It turns out that Mr Brogden was suffering from depression, an occupational hazard in politics where you are often alone, playing a role, always on show. This has become worse in recent years as changing social attitudes and heightened media scrutiny has shrunk the private space that politicians try to create for themselves.

Some of Australia's greatest political figures have been very imperfect human beings. They have drunk too much, had sexual encounters of various types, have tried to balance all the emotional complexities of the normal human life with the emotionally demanding and sometimes very stylised political game.

In Mr Brodgden's case, a brief fit of mea culpa gripped everyone. It did not last. There have been many cases since.

John himself went on to rebuild is life in a way I greatly admire. He had the personal strength and family support required to do this. Looking at what he has achieved makes me wonder just what he might have done if he had become NSW Premier.

To return to my main theme, my charge against the main stream media is simply this. Your focus on the personal, the immediate, is damaging our political system. You drive out a John Brogden, yet fail to identify an Eddie Obeid.

This may sound unfair. I don't believe that it is. The point is that real transparency requires objective analysis of not just immediate events but but of underlying processes and policies.

I accept that does not meet immediate deadlines, nor create nice stories.  I accept you have a problem, And yet, the events now unfolding through the ICAC inquiry would not have happened if you had been doing your job.


Interesting piece by Alex Mitchell on the ABC's The Drum, Bob Carr's selective memory on Eddie Obeid, that provides a little more background on the rise of Mr Obied relevant to this post and also the comments. The discussion has been helpful to me in clarifying issues in my own mind.


Anonymous said...

Jim I agree with these comments re MSM (except I remember the Askin years), but wanted to ask you - or anybody in fact - if there is any sense that actual charges might be possible against any of the cast and crew of this production?

I've got this nagging doubt that anything actually prosecutable will ever come of it.


Winton Bates said...

kvd: I will be surprised (and disappointed) if prosecutions are not possible.

Jim: I agree with your point about too little media attention to underlying processes. But in this instance the media was also slow to dig up the dirt. There was some reporting of the Terrigals - for example here by Peter Botsman - but the emphasis was on the evils of machine politics rather than the potential for corruption.

Anonymous said...


The media have long been onto Obeid but defamation laws made it difficult for them. It's less difficult to seize upon political mistakes than to talk about corruption.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I can't answer that question. I'm not a lawyer.

Winton. M's comment is relevant. In a way,your comment "the emphasis was on the evils of machine politics rather than the potential of corruption" sets the problem. To my mind, our focus on those two things and especially the second is actually part of the problem.

Because of time, I am going to have to leave this comment hanging up in the air until I can respond properly, but just a short example.

A few years ago, I attended a training course on public service ethics. Actually it wasn't really on ethics in the sense of values,rather on what constituted corrupt corrupt conduct.

After listening to the examples, they were real cases, I was puzzled. Surely, I asked, the problem here is not corrupt conduct, but failures in management and supervision that allowed them to happen? I suppose my point was that any half way decent manager in a working system would have been close enough to his staff for the problem not to have arisen in the first place. So the problem in the particular case was not corruption but management.

Count Skogg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Legal Eagle said...

Agree wholeheartedly with Marcellous. It's easy to pick on a political gaffe - no way you're going to get sued for defamation for that - much harder to report on corruption - there's a real risk if you get it wrong.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE. I did take the force of M's comment.

Let me try to amplify, drawing on my comment to Winton.

We start with a set of activities, of manipulation, for gain. Whether that constitutes corrupt behaviour as defined is a legal question. I won't comment directly. M's comment dealt with the difficulty the media find in reporting on such matters.

Behind those activities lay another set of behaviours, of culture, structures and relationships within the then Government that allowed certain things to occur. Certain aspects of this were, as Winton notes, reported on.

But then you have to ask a further question. Power fights, the organisation of activities to advance ends and individual power, are not of themselves unusual. But what appears to have occurred in this case is that those involved were, it appears, able to manipulate official systems for their own ends. This is actually a failure of public policy and public administration. The checks and balances that should have applied failed and did so despite an ever growing web of laws, protocols, procedures.

Now we come to the area that I write on all the time, my perception of those failures and the reasons for them. How did all this happen?

Let me give a simple and apparently trivial example. until recently, there was no central record of NSW Labor Government press releases.

When I found out about this I was astonished. When I commented on it to a journalist friend, I was even more astonished because he did not regard it as significant. There was a set in the NSW Public Library!

I blinked. Everybody knew that the Government was into spin and re-packaging. But how do you check on what the Government is doing, has done, if their previous official statements are not readily available?

Behind this lay a secretive culture dominated by need to know. Want to access a previous Cabinet Decision? Good luck. Want a copy of a Cabinet Minute relevant to work that you were doing? Good luck. Want to understand the budget figures? Good luck.

Part of the reason for all this secrecy is that NSW is a very parochial place. Sydney, and that's where the power rests, is a goldfish bowl. Everybody is very sensitive, fearful of criticism from the local media. But the secrecy and lack of transparency, along with other structural changes that effectively dis-empowered the ordinary public servant concentrating power in the hands of a few, created the climate that allowed deals to flourish.

My charge against the media is not that they failed to reveal Mr Obeid's activities (Marcellous,)nor that they failed to comment on the power system that emerged (Winton), but that they failed to address the underlying systemic problems that were to make both such a future problem.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Well you obviously feel quite strongly about some aspects of these issues - as do I - but I think it's a bit rich at this late stage to attempt to portray the media as in some way at fault in the treatment of either Mr Brogden or Mr Obeid.

Mr Brogden made a stupid comment and paid dearly in terms of career. The fact that this so wounded him as to turn him towards self harm is a matter for him and his family. And I'm very happy as a human being to read of his subsequent turnaround - but that really has nothing to do with media reportage; more the character of the person.

What do we expect of the media, other than to report facts, and label opinion columns as just that? I do not regard them as any sort of guardians of truth, justice and the Australian way. They're just people; underpaid, overworked, out of their depth mostly. Just like the rest of us, really.

And Obeid: despite totally agreeing with Winton's hope, at this point I'm not seeing anything concrete, definite, court-of-law-provable. My own opinion is that he's a grub of the worst sort; but if the law means anything then he needs to be proven guilty of something.

Last time I looked the law didn't work on innuendo, inference, and lucky coincidence to convict. Or have I missed something?

And I hate that you quote Barry O'Farrell; I have listened to his regularly obsequious performances with Alan Jones and Ray Hadley - both on 2GB - and am embarrassed that such a populist panderer could ever have become Premier.

But apart from that, I agree with almost everything you've said :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I think that I will let your last comment go through to the keeper, kvd. It doesn't address the points I made, but that's my fault for lack of clarity. Or maybe I'm just wrong.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry if that last response sounded a bit tart, kvd. Just tired, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

It is fine to be tart. I was not on your point because I don't believe your point is practical. No amount of systems will defeat collusion; although those systems might make such more transparent - but then what?

Man A buys farm; man B approves mining lease on that same area. I fail to see, at this point any legal proof that either person either broke a law, or colluded to break a law.

It's a bit like pork-barrelling: government money ends up in government electorates; both sides do it; both can claim sufficient justification that the money is needed; everybody knows what's going on. And like the standard country joke that the best kept roads lead to councillors' properties. It happens irrespective of systems or reportage of same.


Evan said...

Very true. Both politics and media focus on tactics - which leads to taking much for granted that is very detrimental in my view.

Carr seems to have been very much a media manager rather than a statesperson.

Perhaps it is about experience in the media. He and Abbott both had dream runs, both of them had experience in journalism.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Evan. kvd, I wonder whether or not we are talking at cross-purposes.

Do I accept that a a degree of collusion as formally defined is likely to be present in any system where power is involved? Yes.

Recognising that the definition of corruption varies between places and across time, do I think that a degree of corruption or fraud is inevitable? Yes I do.

On both collusion and corruption I would also note that the costs of trying to stop it as compared with dealing with it when it occurs can greatly outweigh any gains.

Do I believe that the media can stop all this? No, I don't.

I won't go on at this point, kvd. One of the things that you do very well sometimes is to challenge my thinking. I will respond more later.