ABC and the AFR begin the rehabilitation of Mike Pezzullo

Many politicians and public servants in Australia enjoy an incestuous relationship with journalists and have long done so.

Such relationships often leave the journalist compromised when some hidden detail about an interview or story is exposed, but those in this category do not mind being outed as long as they get what they deem to be an “exclusive”.

Mike Pezzullo, the former Home Affairs secretary who was terminated last year following 14 breaches of the public service code of conduct, is one person who could never be described as humble, not even by his best mate.

Thus I was surprised to see the first secretary to be sacked for conduct breaches turning up for an interview with Sarah Ferguson on the ABC’s 7.30 program on April 22. Ferguson is known for her acid tongue and thus many politicians and public service workers avoid her. But it looked like Pezzullo was prepared to put up with anything as he tries to rehabilitate himself after being sacked following an independent inquiry that found he had breached the government’s code of conduct at least 14 times.

What’s more Pezzullo was sitting there and answering questions with all the ferociousness of a kid caught stealing jam from his mummy’s kitchen cupboard. His humility had to be seen to be believed and it was difficult to watch without speculating as to why a man, who could only be charitably described as the epitome of arrogance, was behaving like a creature without a spine.

The epitome of humiltiy: Mike Pezzullo answering Sarah Ferguson’s queries on the 7.30 program. Photo: courtesy ABC

Prior to this, Pezzullo had given a speech to an invitation-only security seminar on April 11. This was written up in Guardian Australia, with another Canberra veteran, Karen Middleton, giving Pezzullo’s words a good run. Australian leaders, Pezzullo was said to have declaimed, needed to resurrect a practice adopted in the 1930s and prepare “a war book” which clearly allocated roles and responsibilities in the event of a conflict.

“As a practical suggestion to focus relevant effort, we should consider modernising the earlier practices from the 1930s and then again from the 1950s, of the preparation of a war book,” Pezzullo told the seminar hosted by the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

As the ABC interview progressed, it was not difficult to hazard a guess as to what kind of a deal had been struck to get Pezzullo to front up and face the cameras. Journalists often make deals with people to get an interview – and this looked like one which had come about as a result of a deal. Ferguson was able to boast at the start of the program that later on Pezzullo’s first interview since he was thrown out on his backside would be screened.

The hard questions only went on for a short while after which Ferguson gave Pezzullo his head and allowed him to spout whatever he wanted. It was clear to me that this was something of a deal – “I’ll grill you for a short time and hang you out to dry. After that, you’ll get the chance to ventilate your opinions. It will all look genuine.” On national TV, that is indeed a good deal.

Now journalists often cut deals with people to get stories. I have done so myself, though the only thing that I ever agreed to was a particular date for publication which the sources involved wanted. I was never asked for anything more.

One of the early instances I noticed on the ABC was when Andrew Denton interviewed former US president Bill Clinton. Denton, of course, is not a journalist, but an entertainer. After the interview, it came out that in order to get Clinton to show up on Enough Rope, his much-overrated interview program, Denton had to agree not to ask any questions about Monica Lewinsky or that famous blue dress.

Ferguson, one suspects, did a deal to get Hillary Clinton for an interview in October 2017 at a time when such an encounter had no news value at all. What’s more, it was screened during the slot allotted for Four Corners, the ABC’s main investigative program. It was hyped — as much of the ABC’s content is — as follows: “In a special edition of Four Corners, Hillary Clinton, in her only Australian television interview, talks with Sarah Ferguson. This riveting conversation, recorded in New York, takes us into the heart and mind of the woman at the centre of the most stunning election loss in modern US history.

This is a very different Hillary Clinton to the managed political performer. Candid, open and at times angry, the former presidential candidate talks about what went wrong and her fears for the future. An unmissable interview.”

The interview was deemed such a big deal that the ABC also provided an article detailing how Ferguson had prepared for the interview. It was filed under Investigative Journalism, a misnomer if ever there was one. One must bear in mind that the “stunning election loss” referred to had occurred in November 2016, nearly a year earlier. Every detail of that loss had been squeezed out by the American and other Western media. A second article glossed over how Clinton had changed after her defeat.

I sent a complaint to the ABC about the interview as it contained a number of falsehoods, especially about WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange. Though I received a reply, it glossed over everything I had raised. But then I had not expected anything different.

Back to Pezzullo. Three days after the ABC interview, the AFR wrote a long screed about the man. A very positive screed one must add, with the writer Tom Burton calling the 7.30 interview a “very public admission of his mistakes and regrets over his disgrace”.

Burton laid it on thick: “Pezzullo is a deeply spiritual man, and his comeback television interview on Monday was a genuine attempt at contrition.”

And he added: “Unless there is a war, Pezzullo knows he will not be working with the Commonwealth for some time. But there is a vast arena of allies, think tanks, academia, media, international agencies and businesses that will be hungry for his undoubted sharp analytical skills about the rapidly changing security landscape.”

With friends like this in the media, don’t be surprised to see Pezzullo turn up in government or semi-government circles soon. As usual, the ordinary Australian will be the last to know how he has spun his way back into the public space.

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