The ICAC investigation into the business dealings of the Obeid family and Ian Macdonald has been compelling and disturbing. Every day, TV runs the same footage: the witness of the hour waddling down that section of Castlereagh Street behind David Jones, then the day's revelations, cut to a bit of recreated back-and-forth between the Commissioner/Counsel Assisting and the witness, followed by a pack of journalists following the witness walking away and pursuing him with banalities like "Did you have a nice day?" or "Are you a crook?".
Inside the ICAC hearing room, there is an area set aside for journalists and an area set aside for members of the public to sit and watch proceedings. All the journalists have to do is listen to what is said, write it down, and then describe it in the format relevant to their employer. I wonder if any journalist attending that hearing scans the public gallery and realises that what they are doing is not beyond the competence of anyone else who walked in off the street to attend that hearing.
Ten years ago, Macdonald and Obeid were ministers in the Carr government. Ten years ago, there were plenty of journalists who were paid to cover NSW state politics. They all reported that the government was brilliant, capitalising on all those opportunities from the Olympics, chock-full of bright rising talent and so far ahead of the stumblebum opposition that they weren't even worth talking about. There was no sustained critical coverage of the Carr government by the media, not of Obeid or Macdonald or anyone else. Any criticism was occasional and jumped on with both feet by the then government; it was always the media who backed down whenever the government shrieked at them.
Where, I wonder, were all those top-notch Walkley-wining investigative journalists when the deeds under investigation were actually underway? What was stopping them putting all that stuff to air/on the front page when Macdonald and Obeid and all the hangers-on were up to whatever it was they were up to?
A quick trawl back to those days reveals exactly where they were: traipsing around north-western Sydney with Carl Scully. Twenty years ago, when the Coalition were last in government in NSW, there was a proposal to run a rail line between Parramatta and Chatswood via Epping, but nothing was done about it because a) Olympics and b) we don't do forward planning for infrastructure in Sydney, we do half-arsed compromises decades after the need becomes acute, if at all. Scully, who was Transport Minister and a Cabinet colleague of Obeid and Macdonald, announced and reannounced that proposal more than sixty times. Every time he did it, a bunch of journos would happily follow him and record their adventures. Some of the more daring ones would ask Scully if he wanted to be Premier.
Scully was a loyal member of the Terrigals, the Obeid sub-faction. He did a good job in dulling the senses of all those super-sleuths from the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery. If you're going to get supposedly hard-headed and relentlessly questioning investigators away from a place where things are happening, a windswept vacant block of land by a dull but busy road in Carlingford is the place to do it.
Not one journalist from that era has realised just how badly they were duped by the formidable state government media machine of that time. Bob Carr, then Premier, used to ring state press gallery journalists and tell them where they got their stories "wrong", and what they should have done instead. You show me a NSW State politics journo who wasn't in tight with Macca and Eddie, and I'll show you someone who lacked the connections to get the sorts of stories the editors at the time considered good enough.
The then State political reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald was hopeless as state politics reporter, doing quick and unquestioning summaries of government press releases (well, I'm sure Bob Carr and other members of that government thought she was very good). Reading her articles showed me what a bludge journalism could be if you couldn't be bothered digging for stories. She was equally bad in Washington, doing quick and unquestioning summaries of The Washington Post and The New York Times, not realising that people who follow US politics read those papers too. She showed me that a poor journalist could not cruise into an important-sounding job but stay there, and then get promoted. I did a quick search for that journo, assuming she'd long since dropped out of journalism and/or been purged by rounds of Fairfax cost-cutting; imagine my surprise to find she is that masthead's Investigations Editor.
On discovering that I thought: the joke's on me, the journalistic ugly-duckling of Macquarie Street has transformed into this swan of investigative reporting. I remember the Bulldogs scandal (and would have read about it in the SMH) but had no idea Davies was involved in any way. If she and McClymont had devoted a fraction of the effort to Macdonald-Obeid that they devoted to the Bulldogs or the Bush Administration, who knows what they might have uncovered at the time? Who knows how things might have been different?
Let there be no nonsense about limited media resources or the dreaded social media. In 2003 the only facebooking going on was when people nodded off in the Parliamentary Library. Journalists could and did go about their jobs while ignoring media consumers, and their employers still surfed the 'rivers of gold'. Back then the Bylong Valley would have been full of small-t twittering, but it wouldn't have impeded Macdonald and the Obeids any more than the press gallery did.
I think about John Brogden, who was (along with Joe Hockey) the most promising Young Liberal of my generation; ten years ago he was Leader of the NSW Opposition. Imagine if he, or those he appointed to shadow Macdonald and Obeid, had dug for what has since come before ICAC. Imagine they had laid it all out in Question Time and called for their heads. How would Davies and the press gallery reported it - they would have waited for Carr's quip in response, something stale from Cactus Jack Garner or Boss Tweed perhaps, and run that. Brogden might have become Premier; Scully, Iemma, Rees and Keneally would still be promising and unsullied members of a viable alternative government. Maybe the Doggies would have fared better in the NRL.
When he was in student politics, Ian Macdonald stiff-armed the left. He entered NSW Parliament in 1988, forgiven and backed by the Labor left, in clear breach of one of the most binding laws in Labor politics: The If They'll Rat On You Once They'll Rat On You Twice Act. In his first speech he denounced the very idea of the ICAC when it was first proposed, without a scrap of irony. I still say he reached his parliamentary peak soon afterwards when he smuggled Kylie Minogue into a speech on superannuation, and made canine-related puns in a speech on the Dog Bill.
Labor Left people fancy themselves as salty, hard-to-impress types, utterly unmoved by NSW Right popinjays; yet Macdonald managed to herd them behind Obeid when required. The people who voted the way Macdonald told them to are the same people who think that the decline of the NSW Labor Right is good for Labor's left. I don't know how he persuaded left members like he did, and it probably won't come out in ICAC, so Walkley-winning investigative journalists and anyone else who was not a member of the ALP in NSW back then will never know how it was done.
Are Eddie Obeid and his scions more or less full of born-to-rule entitlement than, say, Tony Abbott? Does anyone doubt that Ian Macdonald, if challenged/asked nicely and pumped full of red wine, could stand on a chair and sing Solidarity Forever with the best of them? Do he and Obeid still bear the title "The Honourable"?
The media and what is now the main part of the government of NSW did nothing to stop the twists and turns of the Obeid-Macdonald juggernaut: no check, no balance, no investigation. Yet here they all are, providing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff after it is all too late, and it has nowhere to take the damaged body politic anyway.