Sky soars over the ABC on Labor Day

Sky News may have lost the Australia Network tender to the ABC, but they have certainly won the opening battle in the war to cover the Labor leadership crisis.

Thirty years ago I was the TV critic for The Australian newspaper, then switched to television to become foreign editor of the Seven Network (and worked at three networks after that), so I haven’t written about TV news since because of a possible conflict of interest.

Now that I am not working in television, and moved by the incredible events of last night when Kevin Rudd resigned as foreign minister, unleashing a catharsis of venom against the former Prime Minister, I decided to engage in a bit of criticism again. (And apologies to American readers of this blog who wonder how a Prime Minister can lose his or her job before his or her time is up. The Labor Caucus can call for a spill and vote for a new leader at any time during the term. Also, there is no fixed term in Federal politics, and many ways for an early election to be called on both sides of politics. Lauren Dubois explains what a spill is here: http://bit.ly/zexjDe)

When Rudd announced his resignation at Washington just after 1am US EST (5pm Aust EDT), most stations seemed to get the satellite feed okay, and I’m not sure if anyone got it first. To be frank, that doesn’t matter. It’s the sustained coverage that counts. And that’s where Sky News was the victor.

The ABC had Environment Minister Tony Burke for the Gillard team and Labor strategist Bruce Hawker for the Rudd team first, but Sky had their dynamic anchor duo of David Speers and Kieran Gilbert in Canberra, plus former Labor Minister and Sky commentator and presenter Graham Richardson, The Australian and Sky contributing editor Peter Van Onselen, and Labor historian Troy Bramston in Sydney.

Every time I turned to ABC24 (after the very good 730 on ABC 1) they were replaying the Rudd resignation speech or talking to political editor Lyndal Curtis in Canberra or North America correspondent Craig McMurtrie in Washington.

Sky, on the other hand, had their commentators like Richo complaining at 7.57pm about the lateness of Julia Gillard’s response to Rudd: “If she doesn’t come out soon, we’ll all have to do the statement for her.” That comment prompted some laughs, of course, and ten minutes later, both Sky and the ABC read out the PM’s statement.

Richo should have been presenting his own show, but he was now part of the rolling coverage, and asked Tony Burke if he was a “faceless man.” Burke laughed and admitted he had been on another show (730) to talk about the Murray-Darling Basin. Burke told the Sky panel, which now consisted of Richo, Speers, Gilbert and Van Onselen, that the undermining of the 2010 campaign had been done by Rudd: “It happened in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the campaign and it was the worst-kept secret in Canberra.” Burke said there was no doubt the damaging leaks were done by Rudd, and went on to talk about the problem of micro-management: “Australia is a big nation. One person can’t try to run the whole place, and it’s a fair criticism of us that we didn’t tell that story adequately at the time the leadership was changing.”

While Burke was talking on Sky about the leadership issue being like a brick wall preventing the communication of anything else at 8.17pm, Craig McMurtrie was reporting on Rudd in Washington at the local time of 4.17am on ABC24. It was a good report but not much was happening.

Both Sky and the ABC were breaking similar news at similar times, but Richo at 8.26pm told the panel not to get too carried by the lack of contact between Gillard and Rudd: “I remember when Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke, he didn’t ring Bob Hawke, he sent me in to tell him.”

About the only gaffe I saw on Sky was when Richo asked David Speers if they could have a chat with the Opposition Immigration Spokesman, Scott Morrison, one of his guests, who’d been waiting patiently, and Kieran Gilbert instead asked Peter Van Onselen a question. Kieran later apologised to Morrison as he had trouble hearing: “There’s been a bit of mayhem here,” which must have been the understatement of the night!

‘DEEPLY DEMEANING ATTITUDE’

Scott Morrison called the government a “sick farce,” as the ABC interviewed Rudd supporter, Senator Doug Cameron, and both networks came up with the statement of the night at about the same time, the Wayne Swan media release around 8.35pm. Kieran Gilbert and David Speers acted as a tag team, reading alternate pars of the statement by Rudd’s former deputy, Treasurer and high school classmate in Queensland.

You’ve probably heard about the release by now in which Swan, who’s cancelled his visit to Mexico for a G20 meeting this weekend to help Gillard boost her Caucus votes, said: “… for too long Kevin Rudd has been putting his own self-interest ahead of the interests of the broader labour movement … The party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities … and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision-making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people including our Caucus colleagues. He sought to tear down the 2010 campaign, deliberately risking an Abbott prime ministership, and now he undermines the government at every turn.” And there was more bile in every succeeding sentence!

Speers’ response at the end was: “Holy Moly;” Van Onselen said: “This is unbelievable;” and Richo added: “This is amazing.” It showed a whole new side to Wayne Swan, who can be one of the most boring interviewees in Australian politics.

Rhys Muldoon, actor, writer and a friend of Kevin Rudd, talked to the panel from Sky’s tiny Sydney CBD studio, and his first reaction was “Wow!” He responded to Swan’s comment that Rudd did not hold any Labor values with this: “I obviously disagree very much with what Swannie said about K Rudd … I think that’s outrageous, quite truthfully, and I think Kevin Rudd is clearly a good Labor man and hugely devoted to the party.”

Next guest on Sky was the Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, while Labor campaigner Bruce Hawker was on ABC24 followed by another excerpt of the Rudd resignation at 8.44pm. Sky was beating the ABC at this point, in spite of their lack of resources and staff. They had the guests and the commentators and a small bunch of producers in Sydney led by Steve Kidner (I could see him in the background) and the crew in the control room, the producers (like Brihony Speed) and technical staff in Canberra, and Sydney News Exchange (all of whom deserve a pay rise!). And they had another bright light, Ashleigh Gillon, political reporter in Perth, who called the Swan statement “extraordinary.”

 Sky really won the battle of the ballot with their next show, Paul Murray Live, and their main guest, the former Labor Leader and Prince of Venom, Mark Latham. He was ably supported by the panel: the Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand, former Liberal media adviser and now columnist with The Australian and Sky News Saturday Agenda presenter, Chris Kenny, and Radio 2UE’s John Stanley.

Latham, love him or loathe him, knows his Labor politics, and showed it with one of his first comments: “Rudd can’t be too confident about his numbers, because the normal practice would be to resign and challenge in the one motion … you wouldn’t be putting any money on this bludger getting the 40 votes he needs to be a credible challenger if in fact he contests the ballot next week.”

In response to Paul Murray asking whether Rudd would challenge again if he loses, Latham said all the former Foreign Minister’s destabilisation had put him in a bind and he invented this alibi: “That, of all things, Julia Gillard was disloyal to him. You’d have to believe in the Easter Bunny to swallow that one.” Latham said Rudd had to do something dramatic and that’s why he resigned, hoping he can “slink off to the backbench, and say ‘Oh it wasn’t the right time to have a ballot, Anna Bligh’s interests have got to come first.”

‘HAND IN YOUR BADGE’

When Chris Kenny suggested Rudd had a chance because “the polls will help him, a lot of the public talk on talk-back radio and letters to the paper will help him, and he’ll be hoping this creates a bit of momentum to convince those waverers in the Caucus that really he’s the best option.”

To which Latham replied: “You’ve got absolutely no idea. For someone to get on national tv and say that letters to the editor influence the caucus vote, mate, hand in your badge.”

There was a healthy exchange between Kenny and Latham for the rest of the show, with incisive comments from Hildebrand, Stanley and Murray, one of the best (and least known) current affairs presenters in the business. The show was so riveting I forgot to switch over to the ABC until 9.33pm when they were again replaying the Rudd resignation.

Latham also welcomed Swan to the Anti-Rudd Club, for saying things he and others had been saying for six years about the former Prime Minister. He reminded viewers that he broke the news on Paul Murray Live last year that Kevin Rudd was the leaker who nearly destroyed the 2010 Labor campaign. Update: Friday 24/2 Upon his return to Australia on Friday morning, Rudd said the allegation that he sabotaged the 2010 election was “fundamentally untrue.”

By 10pm, it was all quiet on the leadership front, and both Sky and ABC24 were going to other news. The last item I saw on ABC24 was at 9.51pm – an earlier interview in a Parliament House corridor with Tony Burke. And, of course, Lateline on ABC1 had its usual excellent lineup with a breakout on the news of the day and interviews with Trade and Acting Foreign Minister, Craig Emerson, for Gillard; Senator Doug Cameron for Rudd; and former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie saying whoever loses the leadership ballot must accept the decision and get on with it.

But the undermanned Sky won the opening skirmish in the Labor Leadership stoush with ABC24.

PS I wasn’t able to watch all of Ten’s new Breakfast show this morning, but I applaud the decision to launch the program four days ahead of schedule, due to the leadership crisis, and to stay on air for Julia Gillard’s press conference, which began an hour after their out time. They should have kept going until the end of the reporters’ questions, when the PM showed real passion and got stuck into a rude journalist.  But I’m surprised they were allowed to run over by 79 minutes and then have The Circle program do two interviews with Ten’s political editor Hugh Riminton and Health Minister Nicola Roxon soon afterwards. A healthy sign for news and current affairs. Let’s hope it continues.

PPS A special credit to Sky’s David Speers for pointing out that Gillard supporters considered Kevin Rudd’s shock at personal attacks against him by Labor politicians back home as “pious waffle.” At his second Washington press conference, Rudd pretended he was above the fray and not taking part in any of these attacks, and, while not endorsing those comments, Speers said: “Kevin Rudd does that (delivery) pretty well.” All I can think of when I hear such Rudd denials is e.e. cummings’ poem: “A politician is an arse upon/ which everyone has sat except a man.”

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