‘At a certain point, you go, there’s a human-being here and you would think this must be incredibly bruising.’ Greg San Miguel is looking at me intently, trying to decide how this interview is going to turn out.San Miguel is one of Tony Abbott’s oldest friends; the lawyer cares about how the mate he’s known since school is faring. He has disagreed with Abbott on many things including the knighthood of Prince Philip – hell, on knighthoods altogether. But he doesn’t feel the need to tell him. ‘My god the man is so completely deluged with gratuitous feedback, I’m sure he doesn’t need anymore,’ he says over a long coffee on Tuesday afternoon. ‘It has actually caused me to move so far beyond a view of the political and my main interest is the bloke himself. He and I have had some ding-dong arguments over the years but I notice the personal has prevailed over the political, which is quite interesting for me. I do feel for him, but I don’t need to. He’s actually in ridiculously good shape. He’s always so completely functional, engaged and with the easy humour. There’s no sense that he’s not rocking up at work the next day in his blue-tie totally doing the business.’ San Miguel suspects Abbott is actually energised by all the hatred – he thinks the idea that he would be wilting under the pressure is far wide of the mark. When San Miguel catches up with Abbott, as he did the Friday night before for a beer, the PM is not on his phone the whole time, compulsively seeking updates on the latest issue in the 24 hour news cycle. He was present and relaxed. How is it that the PM is at ease not obsessively checking for news updates, yet I feel anxious when I haven’t checked mine in five minutes? As I switch my phone off aeroplane mode, there are emails from Chris Mitchell and Graham Lloyd about the Media Watch stitch-up the night before on Lloyd’s wind turbine story. Paul Barry fronted an appalling segment full of inaccuracies. Unsurprising, really. Barry has misconstrued, misedited and miquoted the Australian on numerous occasions over the past year. We discuss doing a media watch on Media Watch. Media Watch Watch. That night on Peter Van Onselen’s Sky News show, PVO texts a few times while we’re on air. Clearly he must be far busier than Mr Abbott.
‘Mark Scott doesn’t seem to want to speak to me anymore,’ Maurice Newman points out over lunch at Rockpool on Wednesday. ‘Why,’ I ask, ‘I thought you had a good relationship?’ ‘We did. Until you interviewed me for all of those stories on the ABC,’ the former ABC and ASX chairman says, somewhat accusatorily. I wince, remembering the half dozen occasions where Newman’s inclination was to avoid commentary on an ABC atrocity, but I hassled and hustled him into talking on-the-record. I apologise half-heartedly but he shrugs me off and laughs. Pushing away the momentary bite of guilt, I remind him Mark Scott will be gone the following year and argue his comments about the ABC have been far too cautious, particularly about Scott’s performance. He doesn’t make a habit of viewing Media Watch but agrees the wind turbine story was appalling. As he orders a glass of wine, Newman says it’s not appropriate for a former chairman to unleash on an organisation he worked with.
The following day, amidst dirty martinis on a date, conversation turns to Islamic State and the revelations about child abuse at Yeshiva College. Religion is the root cause of all of these problems, my date argues. ‘What biblical texts say matter. People who take them literally, of all religions, should concern those of us who want to preserve western values.’ He thinks IS is a literal interpretation of the Koran, and we shouldn’t pretend that religion isn’t a part of the terrorism we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria. If he were on the ABC’s The Drum, these statements would cause a meltdown, both on-set and on twitter. He pulls up on youtube a clip of Christopher Hitchens talking about Islamism. As I watch Hitchens, I wonder whether this is an improvement on the date or a deterioration.
Across town, some of Australia’s media elite are listening to John Howard share his private views on the political landscape. It’s an intimate dinner of 12 at the beautiful Vaucluse home of producer Harry Michaels. Howard says Abbott has not successfully managed the transition into government, and hasn’t changed mindsets from opposition leader to PM. While not criticising Credlin, Howard says how well Arthur Sinodinos ran his office. Someone in the room texts me as I’m leaving my date. When I call Howard’s office next day about the comments, his adviser tells me the former PM is annoyed the conversation has leaked. But there are no denials. In a room full of media execs, he must have known his comments would become public. Perhaps it was his strategy all along.
On Chris Kenny’s Sky News show that night, there’s an argument about David Hicks: Is he a terrorist? Has he been published enough? Should he receive compensation? The SMH’s Jacqueline Maley’s lawyerly comments infuriate me. Hicks met with Bin Laden and was training with Al Qaeda – a group planning to kill untold numbers of westerners. Yet Hicks has the temerity to demand compensation for being tortured in Guantanamo Bay. Torture away, I say. Yet, in terms of treatment by the left-leaning media, Abbott is getting a rougher time for knighting Prince Philip than Hicks is for training with terrorists. San Miguel is right, we forget Abbott is a human. Off-air, my twitter has gone mental. I seem to have been too strong even for Sky’s right-leaning audience. I sigh. Another week in the world of Australian media debate.
Sharri Markson is the Australian’s media editor and writes Media Diary