How is Rudd still a hero?

Rudd's behaviour since resigning as Foreign Minister shows breathtaking gall. But why haven't journalists been quicker to highlight his failings?

Monday morning began with a rich irony – a media release from Labor senator Kate Lundy reminding the nation's scribes that at 8am she was playing in a friendly soccer match to raise awareness of, of all things, Harmony Day.

That might have raised a chuckle with Julia Gillard (probably less so with Kevin Rudd) as the Labor caucus lined up for its penalty shootout – the leadership ballot that was a genuine turning point in the history of the Labor Party and the nation. Roughly two thirds of Captain Gillard's team scored for her, as it happened.

That said, today's Newspoll will serve to remind the pro-Rudd forces that a Gillard victory at the next general election is not impossible – only, at this moment in time, improbable.

Labor's primary vote today stands at 35 per cent, having crept up from the benthic 26 per cent it reached last September.

Rather spookily, it's precisely the same Newspoll figure published before Rudd was dumped in 2010, though even the 'faceless men' who arranged that coup now admit they could have gone on to recover from that low and win the 2010 election under Rudd.

That, of course, is the key point in this contest – though Labor stands a better chance of winning under Rudd, two thirds of caucus simply can't stomach the idea. The line of Labor front benchers who have attacked Rudd in the past week have effectively been saying two things: Rudd's lying when he dismisses criticism of his reign as PM. And he's lying about his anti-Gillard campaigning since.

There have been moments in the past week in which Rudd's extraordinary oratorical skills have made me pause and wonder if those attacks were overdone. What if Rudd is telling the truth? What if this is all a dirty, baseless smear campaign pushing only the interests of Labor's powerful Right-faction leaders?

For my part I can say that every additional contact I've dug up to try and find flaws in the anti-Rudd argument has effectively said the same thing: "...the horror stories are true, and let me tell you one of my own."

I am certain this has been a common experience for many journalists, though at times you wouldn't know it.

A former public servant who now mixes in circles familiar to former Foreign Minister Rudd at the UN in New York told me yesterday: "It's remarkable that the media has been so willing to let Rudd get away with the rubbish he has been saying even though they know it is untrue."

As I argued last week, some of the comments made by Rudd in announcing his resignation and then his intention to challenge showed breathtaking gall. Nobody in Canberra, especially in the Press Gallery, believes Rudd has not acted many times to destabilise the Gillard government.

His frankly shocking hypocrisy in saying "there is no way – no way – that I will ever be party to a stealth attack on a sitting prime minister elected by the people" should have been the headline. As much as her enemies hate the idea, Julia Gillard's government, under the rules of our electoral system, was elected by the people.

When source after source after source – in Labor, the public service and even, I've found, among the Coalition – tells roughly the same story, it is not 'journalistic balance' to avoid printing, in bold type at the top of page one, the word 'LIE'.

That is not to argue that the Rudd horror stories have not been told at all – clearly they have. Rather, it's a matter of emphasis and a misplaced notion of what 'balance' is that have allowed mainstream audiences to labour for too long under the misapprehension that Rudd was an innocent victim of evil faceless men. That myth, at last, stands some chance of being exploded in the mass-public imagination.

Today's ballot is a turning point in Australian history. It will leave many open wounds in Australian public life and they will take a long time to heal.

But it should also be a turning point of a kind for journalists. Mass audiences may still love Kevin Rudd, but that is to an extent a failing of the nation's journalists. It might be easier to sell papers by showing 'balance' to the people's hero. But selling papers is not all journalists are here to do.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter

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