Amanda Vanstone has for some time now been engaged by Fairfax to provide commentary for their publications. Formerly a minister in John Howard’s Coalition government, she is a fairly transparent nod to the notion of political balance; the reality is that she has remained true to her political ideals, and her articles reflect this without exception. When it comes to politics, anyone reading a Vanstone opinion column knows what they’re going to get.
But today saw something different. Today saw an exercise in character assassination wrapped up in the guise of balance, a convoluted fiction of fair play. Today’s Vanstone column is opinion at its most odious; commentary at its most vile.
“Imagine if Tony Abbott had been accused of rape”, the headline declared. It’s a clickbait headline, and don’t for a moment think that Vanstone had nothing to do with it. This was an opinion article, not a news story, and that was the key point.
The premise supposedly revolved around the treatment Bill Shorten has received from the media et al since being accused, and cleared, of rape. What if it had been Abbott, Vanstone asks. Imagine the howls of outrage, the “handbag hit squad… fanning the fires”, the hatred. Imagine it!
But there’s a problem with this article. In fact, there’s several. And they’re deliberate.
Most glaringly: if this is an article about Tony Abbott, then why does Vanstone spend the first two thirds of it talking about Bill Shorten? Rehashing the circumstances surrounding the rape allegation, pointing out that the finding (of “insufficient evidence”) would leave doubt in the minds of many, even suggesting that Shorten may have worried about how he would look under the pressure of an investigation… Vanstone diminishes rape to a device that could be linked to the prime minister, merely to get people reading about Shorten and the disproved allegations.
It’s puerile stuff. Sadly, Fairfax websites such as The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald gave it top billing for several hours today, ensuring a steady stream of readers.
After the headline, Tony Abbott is not mentioned by name, nor referred to at all, until the last few paragraphs. Any student of journalism will tell you that writers load their articles up front with the details they NEED you to read; it’s a rare column or article that is consistently read through to the end. Vanstone put Shorten in the headlights, knowing that most of her readers wouldn’t even reach the part of the article that compelled them to read in the first place.
Then there are the omissions, the most telling of which being this: Vanstone talks of Abbott’s “punching the wall” revelations, but in an article ostensibly about the prejudiced treatment he would have received if accused of rape, she curiously neglects to mention that Abbott had been charged and cleared of sexual assault decades earlier.
In striving for false balance, Fairfax has given a mouthpiece to a voice that is demonstrably more interested in smear than in truth. It’s time they took that mouthpiece back and gave it to somebody else.