Tim Blair


New Criterion



Friday, May 28, 2004
HENNY HERALD'S ENTRY in the competition for the Marr's Media Watch Medal for Meritorious Media Manipulation by my Mates.

In yesterday's issue the Herald reported:
Iraq abuses: Army knew months ago. An Australian military officer stationed in Baghdad was aware of allegations of prisoner abuse as early as last October and passed details to Australian officers in regular reports, the Herald has learnt.

Simple enough, a scandal and a great story. The "prisoner abuse" that has been dominating Henny's broadsheet pages for several weeks had been known to, and suppressed by, our military and/or political leadership for eight months.

Small problem for the Henny commune. It's not true.

The army has now interviewed over 290 personnel, according to tonight's PM programme, and concluded that no-one had heard of any reports of the abuses that have been the subject of recent headlines.

Their Minister and the Prime Minister confirm it.

What the army knew was what we all knew earlier this year: the Red Cross had reported prisoner complaints to the Red Cross about discomforts in Iraq prisons.

Can't let a good beat-up just die like that. Time for creative journalism.

First, take advantage of the fact that your story is untrue and the alleged perpetrators of the cover-up are caught flat-footed by the charges. This was Tom Allard's task:
The Defence Minister, Robert Hill, appears to have misled Parliament over the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal after the Prime Minister contradicted his account of when Australians first knew of the mistreatment.

Second, back off a little, but in such a way that you appear to be going forward. This clever stunt was left to Louise Dodson:
Questions remain about when the Government knew of abuses in Iraq.

Hey, she can do better than that:
John Howard obviously wants the issue of when the Federal Government knew about allegations of Iraqi prisoner abuse off the agenda - and fast.

You see? We've progressed from a cover-up of secret knowledge to a suppression of public knowledge.

If Howard first says 'I'll take that on notice', and then shortly after gives his response, even that can be spun into a sinister maneuvre.

Usually when he finds himself in this situation the Prime Minister exercises cool judgement and buys some breathing space by promising to look into the particular matters raised.

That is what he did initially at a press conference yesterday when he was asked when the Australian military knew about what was happening to Iraqi prisoners.

Then something happened to that cool judgement.

He began to look like a man operating in a parallel universe when he tried to divert attention from the issue later in the press conference and in Parliament.

He went on the attack in Parliament declaring "there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that Australian soldiers or other military personnel serving in or around Iraq have been involved in any way in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners which we have seen portrayed in the media".

"Defence has publicly stated that no Australian Defence Force member witnessed any mistreatment of detainees," he thundered.

Hello? No one said they were involved or that they witnessed it - just that they were told about it.

This is what Howard actually said, with no thanks to Dodson for the reporting:
Mr Howard acknowledged that Major O'Kane had seen a Red Cross report in October, but he said it was "quite nonsensical" to suggest that he or the Australian Government were aware of the more serious claims made by the ICRC in a February report.

Sure, Howard was giving the issue his own spin, but do you see how the allegation, about which "doubts remain", has become a simple fact - 'it'.

The Herald has raised two issues, (implicitly)what army and government knew, and when they knew it. When they want to focus on the second question, the answer to the first can be assumed.

Just in case the reporters and the sub-editors can't be trusted to keep the campaign going, Henny scatters Allard's and Dodson's pieces through the news pages.

Now we have two levels of commentary replacing what used to be reportage in the news pages of our broadsheets. First the news is inevitably spun rather than reported, and then it is given a further rev-up by Hennys' commentators.

The point about Henny's technique is this. It doesn't matter if your attack has any basis at all. In the noise and fury you generate any unscrupulous hack can spin out a dark cloud of possibilities.

This is journalism lost in the vortex of Henny Herald's parallel universe, to paraphrase Dodson.

As the post-modern left keeps telling us, there's more than one truth, but only mine counts when I have the loudspeaker.