Telecard Affair – Author’s reply to Jack Waterford

Jack Waterford, Editor-in-Chief of the Canberra Times wrote a critical review of The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching. My response became the final chapter of the book.

Chapter 14

A puny fightback

It was not surprising that the ‘mainstream’ media ignored my two books, The Media of the Republic (1st Ed. 1999) and The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching (1st Ed. 2001). I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any other response. The main players in the media were not about to recognise the work of an author intent on savaging them—even if it was to take him down. No, better to ignore criticism. One exception was Jack Waterford, at the time the editor of the Canberra Times (later promoted to the position of editor-in-chief, ‘Media’ supplement, The Australian, 13 December 2001).

Waterford thought it worth his valuable time and the Canberra Times valuable space to attack The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching to put straight those erring about the justice dealt out to Peter Reith. Below is his review as it appeared in the Canberra Times.


By Jack Waterford
(Editor-in-Chief of The Canberra Times)

Addendum, The Canberra Times, 14 July 2001

Aha, I thought, as I saw the book. Another tome on the infamy of the media, this, perhaps, with ourselves on centre stage.

Gerard Charles Wilson, some sort of political philosopher, has written The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching, dealing with last year’s story of how Peter Reith, then Minister for Workplace Relations, was embarrassed about the misuse of his government-issued Telecard.

It was an episode that looked like ending the career of one of the most talented and effective ministers in the Howard Government, Gerard Charles Wilson says.

‘While Peter Reith was undergoing a sort of medieval torture ritual at the hands of the media, the Labor Party could not believe what was flowing their way,’ he writes.

Now, while the media and the Labor Party have Peter Reith battered and strung up as a public warning, I am going to argue that the Telecard Affair is not about Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith. It is not about Parliamentary entitlements. It is not about MPs’ rorts. It is not about the usual ‘snouts in the trough’.

It is essentially about the media as the sharpest corrupting influence in our social and political life. It is about those media groups who function as amoral commercial enterprises. It is about those journalists who betray their calling and are seduced, or coerced, by people who rule themselves according to their materialist objectives. It’s about the slow death of the processes of public justice.

That all sounds very promising, but I don’t think he develops his thesis very far or that the reader will find it anything but a piece of nitpicking advocacy, at every stage of the way, for a person in Reith’s position, based on the assumption that he is a brave and decent man and that he should not be held responsible for the consequences of errors of judgment that he made. At one stage, Gerard Charles Wilson gets close to arguing that since many ordinary Australians rort their expenses, it’s not such a big deal anyway.

One reason I particularly interested was that this was a story originally broken by Emma MacDonald in The Canberra Times—a fact that Wilson mentions in his first sentence. Alas, neither The Canberra Times nor MacDonald rates a subsequent mention as Wilson turns immediately to parsing every sentence written or spoken afterwards by the Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, as well as to television commentary [sic] by Laurie Oakes.

Perhaps we were not part of the conspiracy. Or perhaps it would not greatly suit his thesis to show that the range of information, commentary and opinion on the subject was such that it was hardly likely to have been coordinated, whether in the Press Gallery or with the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch or elsewhere.

Reith’s recent announcement that he will not be standing at the next election was in part a reflection of the fact that, after the damage of the Telecard Affair, his prospects of going any further in the Liberal Party were extremely limited. In some respects, however, his survival through the actual affair was a measure of the fact that, once it was clearly going to come out, he ‘fessed up.

But probably, he did not ‘fess up enough (or perhaps did not at that stage know enough about what had occurred) because, as the days wore on, fresh, embarrassing information seemed to come out every day. The Government might then hose that down but always seemed to be on the back foot.

In fact, Reith had known about the time bomb ticking over him for at least a year before it became public knowledge. His first attack of candour was when, via MacDonald, it became obvious that it was not unimportant because if there are two things that nurture a story and inspire a public and media feeding frenzy, they tend to be suggestions of hypocrisy and of a cover-up. There was nothing Reith, or even self-appointed champions such as Wilson, could do about the former; had the other been there too, it is doubtful that Reith would have been able to survive.

Was Reith a hypocrite? To be able to be accused of it, one has to be on record as being opposed to the sort of conduct in question. More often than not, this involves some form of sex scandal: a conservative MP who publicly tells people how they should live is always much more vulnerable when caught in the wrong bed than one who is not on the record of opposing it.

Reith might almost have preferred a sex scandal, as being more likely to humanise him. One might never have heard him specifically on the subject of Telecards, but it was Reith who coined the phrase ‘a rort a day’ in relation to the waterside workers, and he was a member of a government that had been making some mean and tricky mileage from welfare cheating. On top of that, Wilson and I might agree, he was particularly detested by people in the labour movement because of his effectiveness as a minister.

There was not only a personal vulnerability, but a more general one. Reith was never implicated in any of the many scandals about rorting by MPs or MPs’ perks and entitlements, but he would have had to be a big mug not to realise that it was an important issue, not least out of the electorate, and any suggestion of special deals, arrangement negotiated behind closed doors, or blatant use of entitlements for other than public purposes was political dynamite.

It is also far worse, as many a politician will attest, if it involves relatively simple things well within the ken of ordinary voters. At the end of the day, we punters might admit that we do not know much about submarine contracts, or the outsourcing of major government operations, and thus that resolving whether a minister has been competent is a matter of judgment. But most of us know what happens if one gives someone else the PIN. And most of us know that our bank is not going to be as forgiving as the Solicitor-General about liability for fraudulent charges racked up as a result of one’s own carelessness or misfeasance.

What was killing Reith through the affair was not the condemnation of journalists but the fact that the talk-back lines on the radio were full of people often incoherent with rage at the pathetic excuses being made. This was damaging not only Reith but the Government and politicians generally.

In some respects, one might deplore government by talk-back radio—of which there has been too much over the past decade. But this was not so much an interesting relationship between populist newspapers and radio demagogues to manipulate public opinion. The third party—the public—were playing too, and all the evidence was that what people were saying on air was much the same as was being said in ordinary lounge rooms. In that sense, it is hardly surprising that the press stayed with the story. Reith lynched himself.


My reply

I say, however, that Waterford’s attack is representative of the quality of commentary by media figures at his level and unwittingly demonstrates the main thrust of the book he attempts to rubbish. Opening with a gratuitous sneer about my being ‘some sort of political philosopher’, Waterford, with minimal evidence, evidently thought he had gone on to disqualify my book from having anything substantial to say in the public debate about the ‘infamy of the media’ (his words).

It is marvellous how media people like Waterford switch positions to suit the occasion. He and his class comrades are ever ready to disqualify the ordinary person who stands up to them as ignorant and uneducated. They don’t know what they are talking about. This is easy. Ordinary, down-to-earth people trying to organise themselves and their families are not usually ‘university educated’. But when confronted with someone who can match them on the same educational level or even better and is rash enough to criticise them, the tactic is to sneer at and discredit them. In both cases, Waterford and his pals sidestep the challenge to provide a reasoned response to criticism.

So, as I say, far from achieving the aim of disqualification, he has unwittingly confirmed the thrust of the book: that the people of the media (particularly at his level) are, for the most part, closed in upon themselves, that the media world is like an asylum where the inmates suspend the rules of reason wherever it suits their whim and purpose, and busy themselves in a feverish confrontation with their individual and collective fantasies. The media as an asylum was one of the main images in the book. It was an image that Waterford made no mention of.

Having sneered at my tertiary qualifications (MA in philosophy), he sets up his case by quoting a passage from the opening chapter of the book, which, in summary, says that the Telecard Affair was not about Peter Reith or rorting politicians but about ‘the media as the sharpest corrupting influence in our social and political life’. The substance of Waterford’s case, which he at no time attempts to justify by citing from the text, is found in the paragraph I quoted in the first chapter. It is essential to repeat it as it is a key criticism in his review and is meant to dismiss my analysis of the arguments the media offered to the public about the misuse of Peter Reith’s Telecard:

That all sounds very promising, but I don’t think he develops his thesis very far, or that the reader will find it anything but a piece of nitpicking advocacy, at every stage of the way, for a person in Reith’s position, based on the assumption that he is a brave and decent man and that he should not be held responsible for the consequences of the errors of judgment that he made. At one stage, Wilson gets close to arguing that since many ordinary Australians rort their expenses, it’s not such a big deal anyway.

I have to own up that each time I read this paragraph in drafting my response, I was momentarily left staring in incomprehension. My thought on the first reading was: He’s kidding. He cannot have read the book. For it seemed not possible that a person of normal intelligence could read the whole 75,000 words attentively and make such a preposterous claim.

The Telecard Affair is chock-full of detailed argument in response to the detailed analyses offered by media heavyweights like Dennis Shannahan and the laborious dissections of George Megaloganis’s ‘Reality Check’. Any intelligent, fair-minded reader may challenge the arguments and, indeed, may be satisfied they have ripped them apart, but it is mocking reality to assert that there is nothing substantial in the book to challenge or refute.

Waterford’s commentary raises a serious question not only about the arguments I deploy in the text (and others found and commented on), but about a correct reading of the text itself. A competent critical analysis of a text presupposes that the reader has understood what is actually on the page and that he has not replaced the text’s meaning with what he imagines is there or not there. Waterford’s piece represents a paradigm case of one of the very problems I attack in The Telecard Affair and my earlier book, The Media of the Republic. Now, let me go back to the beginning to justify these claims and deal with Waterford’s main objections.

The uninformed reader may not be sure why the biographical detail about my academic background (found on the back cover) should raise a gratuitous sneer. Indeed, Waterford may not be clear about it himself. But such inclinations in journalists like the editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times are explicable enough. It has to do with ideology and the media. My philosophical interests and training are directly relevant to my analysis of media events. For in all commentary that aspires to be a serious analysis of Australia’s social and political scene, there are unavoidable metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. These philosophical issues were the focus of my analysis in The Media of the Republic and deserve brief mention here.

It is a great advantage to understand the conscious or (mostly) unconscious philosophical assumptions of journalists, for that will explain their starting position and indicate the tendency of their commentary. In fact, knowing those assumptions will enlighten the reader not only as to what they will most likely say on a particular subject but also what philosophical views they have disqualified. That presents a pretty tricky business. For what justification, the reader may well ask, do journalists have in accepting specific philosophical claims and rejecting others—without explanation or justification?

And it is not a matter merely of a prior rejection of a particular framework of thought. It is also importantly a question of the denunciation of that framework of thought and those that hold it, as pernicious and immoral. But surely, the intellectual and moral repugnancy comes in passing cavalierly over such assumptions as if they did not exist, or the ‘public debate’ has been settled in favour of journalists’ most cherished political and moral opinions.

Now, one often hears about the Marxist tendencies of leftist journalists, the public service, the educational sector, the ABC and other such people and institutions. And it’s true; the Marxist tendencies grow by the day. In The Media of the Republic, however, I argued that Hegel and Marx and other such philosophers are too complex for most people to have the time to read and understand—even for high-profile journalists. Far more accessible, far more seductive, and wonderfully combinable are some key propositions of some of the major figures of the Enlightenment. I argued in a deliberately provocative but clear manner (The Media of the Republic, Chapter 2) that the most important influences in the ‘liberalism’ of most journalists were the works of philosophers David Hume and Thomas Hobbes—even if they have never read them.

Out of these works arise the easily comprehended and propagated claims that the ‘real’ is the material (metaphysics), that not only can one not know anything but the material (epistemology), but that there is nothing beyond the material to know. The moral and political conclusions are that we all possess a radical freedom and equality and that there is no moral and political order other than that created by an act of will of a group of persons consenting (consensus) to form a commonwealth. This is the key to understanding what ‘political correctness’ and ‘wokeness’ precisely entails. Political correctness or wokeness are nothing but the range of dogma generated by a group of people who have consented to set up state and society and, in the end, form a like-minded ruling class to promulgate, police and protect that dogma. It is a virtual conspiracy of like minds.

I need not discuss here the range of dogma that prevails in our modern society and the way it is linked to those key Enlightenment ideas. It appears daily in the media as the mouthpiece of that ruling class. It is relevant, however, to make one crucial point about the dogma of the woke class. Some of their most cherished dogma relate to the issues of the ‘republic’, the aboriginals and white settlement, IVF, refugees and border protection, and the rights of women and homosexuals.

Now, it is clear enough that a great many people in the community have views about these matters that deviate sharply from the woke position. One form of ‘deviation’ arises from a philosophical vision that can be viewed as a direct opposition to the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the politically correct. That vision, known as ‘classical realism’, has a pedigree that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, who are considered to be among the greatest of philosophers.

It is a testimony to the ignorance and sense of justice (or lack of it) of the politically correct, among whom are journalists in vast numbers, that not only do they not know that another substantial manner of regarding the world exists, but they condemn any deviation from their dogma as corrupt, racist, insensitive, ignorant, and selfish. Isolation is the sentence for anyone who rises in any substantial way to challenge the present political hegemony. In this context, talk about free speech is a joke; free speech is an effective right reserved for the media. I suggest that all this is the background to Waterford’s little sneer about my being ‘some sort of political philosopher’.

In The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching, such metaphysical and epistemological considerations, although clearly presupposed in the background, were not the focus. Something underwriting these considerations and fundamental to philosophical inquiry was involved: the nature of the rules of reason.

A brief reading of a selection of media commentaries on the Telecard Affair should make this plain: Peter Reith was held responsible for the fraud on his government-funded Telecard because he gave the card’s PIN to his son, Paul Reith. The issue did not become a philosophical discussion about responsibility where two opposing moral frameworks (relativist/subjectivist vs. objectivist) loom large, but an investigation of the strength of the arguments that were proposed to demonstrate that Peter Reith was responsible. I looked at the arguments from both the relativist/subjectivist and objectivist positions.

The first three chapters present, among other things, a cumulative examination of the different ways Peter Reith could be held responsible. I suggested that the responsibility could be looked at from the following perspectives: transgression of non-legal rules (the Remuneration Tribunal guidelines); legal liability (civil negligence); criminal liability (fraud); and moral responsibility. I don’t know what Waterford’s brain was doing while he was turning the pages of those first chapters, but the analysis is there and tightly presented—as other readers freely acknowledge. Of course, I cannot present in a few hundred words what took several chapters to say. Nevertheless, to demonstrate what I mean, I will make two brief points.

In the above quotation from Waterford’s commentary, he says that I come ‘close to arguing that since many ordinary Australians rort their expenses, it’s not such a big deal anyway’. This comment is typical of his failure to understand what he is reading. It is not the case that I ‘get close to arguing’. I present a full argument over six pages under the heading, ‘Ripping off the employer: an Australian custom?’

The argument loses something in summary, but the essential point is clear. Most working Australians take advantage of the employer’s property to some extent (I give several appropriate examples). From the relativist’s position, a certain degree of that use can be considered (morally) condoned by custom. If this is so, then the relativist has no complaint about Peter Reith’s actions. Indeed, on this argument, the relativist has nothing more to say. To do so would risk ideological inconsistency.

On the other hand, if one holds to an objectivist position, then one must be careful not to appear hypocritical. This raised the relevant issue, also covered in detail, of community prejudice and double standards. No mention of this by Waterford. The central charge, however, directed at Peter Reith and on which the whole media campaign hung, was that of moral responsibility. Again, at the risk of losing some force in the summary, I argued that moral responsibility (assuming the objectivist position) entails two essential ingredients: the moral agent has to be conscious of the moral act he is performing; and secondly, the moral agent has to freely perform that moral act.

It is clear that Peter Reith does not satisfy these conditions in the actual fraud on his government-funded Telecard. He didn’t do it, and he didn’t know about it. Other autonomous moral agents were the willing, conscious performers of that fraud. It makes no difference to assert that Peter Reith’s actions led to the fraud. There is no moral causal link between Reith’s giving his son the PIN and the independent actions of other moral agents. We all create a variety of circumstances in which moral agents perform moral actions. Few of us would be ready to take moral responsibility for actions willingly and freely performed by others in those circumstances.

Waterford and others may not agree with these arguments, but even on the above summary, you must question a person’s thinking processes if they assert the arguments are not substantial in the context and don’t need to be refuted to make the charges against Reith stick. I employ the same sort of detailed examination in assessing the other categories of responsibility mentioned above. This is hardly what you would call ‘a piece of nitpicking advocacy’—unless, of course, you did not bother to read the text carefully and were intent on responding to the ever-changing episodes of your imagination. But there’s more to this than the arguments I have summarised. It is the question of the strict application of the rules of reason—otherwise known as ‘logic’ to those wishing to engage in serious philosophical discourse.

There seemed to be no end to the arguments generated in the media to demonstrate that the despicable politician, Peter Reith, was guilty of applying double standards, attempting to cover up, avoiding responsibility, contradicting himself, being inconsistent in his explanations, and so on ad nauseam. Wherever I could, I examined the logic of these charges, from Dr Simon Longstaff’s article in the Australian on the question of ‘principle’, through the rorts-a-day example, the credit card comparison, the comparison with past examples of pollie rorting, through to the embarrassing nonsense George Megalogenis continually wrote in the Australian under the amusing rubric of ‘Reality Check’. Again, Waterford does not utter a word about the close examination I undertook of Megalogenis’s pieces.

In all cases, I took the time to point out the fallacious reasoning that was involved. This mostly arose because an analogical argument, which is a form of inductive reasoning, was being treated as giving a necessary conclusion in the manner of a deductive argument. Now this straightforward explanation about the categories of logic may be very boring for people whose concentration span does not extend past 1,000 words, but it does not alter the fact that an analogical argument (as in the comparison of Reith’s giving his PIN to his son, with Reith’s rort-a-day on the waterfront charge) demands a tight similarity in the cases being compared, in order to be valid. I show that the required degree of similarity does not exist in any of the analogical arguments used in the Telecard Affair.

It is utterly astounding that Waterford, after claiming that my case against the media is nitpicking advocacy and based on the assumed good character of Peter Reith, spends more than half his commentary regurgitating the very charges against Peter Reith that I deal with extensively—and refute. It’s as if this all successively disappears on the page when he sets his gaze upon it.

If I am right about this, then the reader may wonder why the editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times was so determined to make a fool of himself. The answer, or at least part of the answer, may be in an admission he makes about a third of the way into his piece:

One reason I was particularly interested was that this was a story originally broken by Emma MacDonald in The Canberra Times – a fact that Wilson mentions in his first sentence. Alas, neither The Canberra Times nor MacDonald rates a subsequent mention as Charles turns immediately to parsing every sentence written or spoken afterwards by the Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, as well as to television commentary [sic] by Laurie Oakes.

Was Waterford too miffed about my ignoring the Canberra Times to read the book carefully and offer a considered response? I suppose responding with feeling to a perceived snub of his newspaper would lessen the degree of incompetence. A rash opinion given in the heat of defending one’s near and dear is likely to mitigate the rashness—provided the reader is aware of such laudable feeling. Be that as it may, there is a good reason why I did not include the Canberra Times in my examination. I explain at the end of the first chapter:

In covering a media event like the Telecard Affair, one has to be selective in one’s examination of the reporting. I have merely taken, for the most part, what I, as a media consumer, was exposed to in my daily life over the three weeks of the frenzy. A brief survey of other media instruments revealed at the time that the media formed an unbroken block in their treatment of Peter Reith’s ‘crime’.

Jack Waterford may not be aware, but the Canberra Times, as great a newspaper as it undoubtedly is, comes some way down the media food chain. It seemed more important to me, and consistent with my views about the Murdoch group, to concentrate on those media instruments that were leading the media pack in the frenzy. I was convinced, and still am, that Col Allan, the then editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, was leading the charge and that he was providing the feed to the other Murdoch instruments—particularly to the Australian.

Vexed as he might be that his newspaper was being ignored, Waterford attempted to cover his bruised feelings with an explanation as to why such an important newspaper as the Canberra Times was left out of consideration:

Perhaps we [The Canberra Times] were not part of the conspiracy. Or perhaps it would not greatly suit his thesis to show that the range of information, commentary and opinion on the subject was such that it was hardly like to have been coordinated, whether in the Press Gallery or with the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch or elsewhere.

Here, we have a stock cop-out stratagem that the media bring out of their box of tricks whenever they are accused of behaving like a mindless pack of barking dogs. The trick is to ridicule the charge by making out that critics (people like me) are claiming that a conspiracy was got up in a dark, smoke-filled room by the media’s leading players and their stooges. Of course, that’s not what is meant.

What Waterford sneeringly calls ‘parsing’ was a close examination of the sequence of reports coming from a selection of media outlets. Although the concentration was on the Daily Telegraph, the Australian and Laurie Oakes at the Nine Network, I also examined the reports from the ABC and Channel 10. I continually checked other outlets to see if there was any deviation from the general line. There wasn’t.

The first purpose of the close examination of the reporting was to gauge whether the arguments held up; the second was to establish the unbroken block all media outlets formed in their ‘reporting’ of the Telecard Affair. The proof and evidence are in my book, and I challenge the (now retired) editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times to show me where my arguments or my evidence break down. If he can show me a selection of sequential reports from the Canberra Times that deviated from the general reporting at the time, I will be only too happy to acknowledge publicly that my book was deficient in that respect. I do not expect to hear from Waterford.

Finally, Waterford’s most potent argument that Reith was guilty as the media declared and that he had ‘lynched himself’ was the ‘often incoherent rage’ that filled the ‘talk-back lines on the radio’. Rage—any emotion—is no argument. I will grant, however, that the strong feeling among ordinary people is often an indicator of the approximate place of the truth. On the other hand, I will assert that in the Telecard Affair, the rage was generated yet again by the leftist activist groups who came into action, working the phones, filling radio talk-back lines, writing to the newspapers, forming ‘spontaneous’ marches, wearing T-shirts, doorknocking, and so on—all according to the Saul Alinsky’s playbook Rules for Radicals.

In Australia, there has been a proliferation of far-left activist groups like GetUp! They direct their rage at people and issues the fanatical left calls right-wing. Peter Reith’s success in destroying union control of the docks marked him as a dead man walking. They would get him in the end. How can I be confident that the media assault on Reith came from the far left, sucking in ordinary people? In chapter 12, I included a report from Dennis Shannahan that the media rage against Peter Reith did not affect the popularity of the Howard Government. Indeed, Howard’s conservative government marginally increased its popularity.

A combination of like-minded left-wing groups manipulated the media to lynch ‘a brave and decent man’.




Writer … and still in the fifties