The Telecard Affair reviews

By John Young

This book details a particular case to demonstrate a general principle. The case is the misuse of Peter Reith’s Telecard and the extent of his responsibility. The principle is the misuse of power by dominant sections of the mass media.

In October 2000, the story broke about the misuse of Peter Reith’s government-funded Telecard. He had given his son the PIN number, and $50,000 of unauthorised calls had later been rung up. The story was headline news for over two weeks, with the then Workplace Relations Minister being severely condemned by editorial writers, political commentators, radio talkback hosts and others.

Gerard Charles [Wilson] maintains that the Telecard Affair ‘is not about parliamentary entitlements. It is not about MP’s 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.’

He analyses in considerable detail the media coverage, pointing out the subtle, and not so subtle, techniques used against Reith. From the start he was presumed to be guilty of a serious offence: this was strongly implied in the first reports, and it was done through emphasis, suppression and innuendo.

Mr [Gerard] Charles [Wilson} argues that Reith transgressed guidelines – not laws. He had good intentions in giving his son the PIN number: so that his son could easily keep in touch. In this he showed himself a good father. The amount run up by his son was about $950 over five years. The $50,000 scam was done by others who, in an unknown way, got the PIN number. ([Gerard] Charles [Wilson] asks: why didn’t the media go all out to find these culprits?)

Compared with many other rorts in Australian society, he insists, the actions of Peter Reith are mild indeed. He had been wrongly singled out for behaviour that is very common. ‘In the context of the widespread larceny and fraud by employees of the companies they work for, Peter Reith’s actions do not rate a mention.’ The author suggests that those who feel indignant about Reith should ask themselves whether they themselves have sometimes been mildly dishonest, as in taking stationery or other goods belonging to their employer, or in making personal phone calls at the boss’s expense. ‘I have seen employees drink $200 worth of employer’s beer over a week!’

Such actions are objectively wrong, states [Gerard] Charles [Wilson] , and those guilty of them should correct their behaviour. ‘It is not for Peter Reith to be singled out nationally for what is, from this point of view, common immoral behaviour in the community.’

Gerard Charles [Wilson] has performed a valuable service in analysing the techniques used in this instance by so much of the media. However, it should be kept in mind that parliamentarians have a special responsibility to be strictly honest, for any dishonesty on their part tends to damage the common good of society more than comparable acts by the ordinary citizen. For this reason, the media does have a duty to focus on the misuse of the system by public figures. But in this case, as in numerous others, they have acted unjustly by blowing the case up out of all proportion to the reality.

As a major factor in the formation of public opinion, the media’s manipulative techniques need to be closely watched; for by doing so we can guard against them. Radically, the underlying philosophy of most of the mass media bosses is flawed, as is that of so many journalists; and it is through this philosophy that they interpret events. Their attitude to abortion is a particularly revealing example. Despite the sensationalism displayed so excessively elsewhere, they remain almost completely silent about the gruesome reality of cutting an unborn baby to pieces. How often have you seen the remains of an aborted baby on television?

Not only is there a wrong philosophy; a major driving force behind the presentation is the desire to boost sales, and to this end superficiality, partiality, appeal to prejudice and emotion are freely employed.

A disquieting fact is that journalists have the power to ruin a politician’s career or to bring down a political party, and some will unscrupulously use that power. A result is fear by our representatives to express what they really believe when it lacks the media’s imprimatur. Power used in that way is an attack on democracy.

Realising these things, Mr [Gerard] Charles [Wilson] has written a vigorous critique of media deceit. His honest anger is apparent, and adds force and interest to his presentation. In my opinion, though, it occasionally leads him to overstate his case and even, when criticising Col Allan and others, to become too personal. Whatever one’s opinion of that, the book is a very commendable achievement, of real value in assessing the mass media and guarding against the brainwashing to which we might otherwise fall victim.

By R.J. Stove


The Telecard Affair follows the same format as its author’s The Media of the Republic (saluted by John Young in News Weekly on February 13, 1999) That is, it faithfully chronicles tabloid rant on a day-to-day basis, this time concerning not the Princess of Wales’ obsequies, but Peter Reith’s downfall in October-November 2000. Gerard Charles writes, what is more, from a standpoint of a genuine intellectual: one whose deep philosophical expertise ensures that mass-circulation sloganeering tortures him as much as graffiti tortures a serious art-connoisseur.

Even by Australian standards of public morality, the Telecard affair represented something new. Not only did Reith’s continued survival as a future prime minister menace so many vested interests that he had to go; his family had to be made an equally conspicuous laughing stock.

Pre-Telecard, an unwritten law held that while leaders’ own indiscretions were fair game, their families were off-limits. (Remember the public outrage when Ian Sinclair sniped at Dallas Hayden’s expense?) In the brave new post-Telecard world, this pettifogging distinction no longer operates. Why anyone neither homicidally arrogant nor psychotically masochistic would condemn family members to the lynch-mob by seeking political office in a post-Telecard climate is not clear. Might as well lynch the family members oneself and have done with it.

Among the Federal Government’s unofficial triumvirate from 1996, only Reith possessed the discernible backbone. Reckless he might sometimes be; mendacious he is not.

Of that sub-Clintonesque linguistic bravado by which Howard enriched English prose with the concepts ‘core promises’ and ‘non-core promises’, Reith is incapable.

Howard’s mind – in Lloyd George’s phrase – ‘always bears the impress of the last man who sat on him’. Not so Reith’s.

For years Reith has dared to believe in things, and to expound a coherent world-view behind such beliefs. To be, in short, ‘a conviction politician’. On that account alone he was marked down well before the waterfront did its worst. By dragging maritime unionists into…well, let’s be optimistic and say the 15th century, he aggravated his offensiveness, but by no means caused it.

From hectic films and plays of the ‘Front Page’ type we often, erroneously, conclude that sordid journos revel in their sordor. [Gerard] Charles [Wilson] reveals a different picture: one of journos, incredibly but indubitably, deluding themselves that they inhabit the moral high ground. We are asked to accept that Providence has endowed tabloid hacks with an omniscience that the Directorate of Public Prosecutions’ mere fumbling amateurs could never hope to attain.

Even basically civilised spirits, the Michelle Grattans and Malcolm Farrs, stand convicted in [Gerard] Charles [Wilson]’s pages of the same attitudinal vices that – much more predictably – abound far lower down the food-chain: in, for example, the babble of the Australian’s George Megalogenis, perhaps best known for gloating (April 24, 2001) over Eminem’s distinctive chivalric code.

Sometimes, reading [Gerard] Charles [Wilson]’s eloquent attacks upon Murdoch media pundits, I feared the consequences of using his own formidable sledgehammer to crack these intellectually modest nuts.

I wasn’t altogether convinced by The Media of the Republic’s eagerness to cite Hume’s, Kant’s and William of Ockham’s fallacies as causing agents for Paul Kelly’s drivelling; nor am I fully persuaded that pointing out Journos’ slatternly pseudo-logic will give them a taste for true logic. Cannibals, by definition, are impervious to vegetarianism’s charms. In any case, we can take heart from demographics: five years hence Internet developments and further print-media collapses will have made Laurie Oakes and Co. even less relevant to serious mental activity than they are now.

A regrettable shortcoming in Charles’ assessment is the absence of a control group, by which to judge the Murdoch’s stables antics.

Did The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age behave any better in the Telecard Affair? If so, how and why? And what of overseas comparison? Surely tabloid terrorism, far from being a Murdoch invention, was inescapable in the media empires of tyrants like William Randolph (‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war) Hearst? Does not the extreme rarity of such media lynchings in Continental Europe indicate the worth of European privacy laws, as against the mindless Anglophone First Amendment-ism? And so on.

A whole new book could be usefully devoted to such questions. Gerard Charles [Wilson] would be a good man to write it.

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

Addendum, The Canberra Times, 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 Gerard Charles [Wilson] mentions in his first sentence. Alas, neither The Canberra Times nor MacDonald rates a subsequent mention as Charles [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 Gerard Charles [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, Gerard Charles 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. 

The author replies to Jack Waterford

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