Every political cycle has rare moments when an otherwise disengaged electorate tunes in to politics. The Godwin Grech moment in 2009 was one such. Leadership stoushes are another. Political journalists understandably ride them for all they’re worth. Craig Thomson’s defence yesterday was one such moment.
It was, even Thomson’s few defenders would admit, not exactly up there with Nixon’s "Checkers” speech in successfully wriggling out of a tight spot, although, like Nixon, Thomson offered plenty of detail about his early career in order to, well, humanise the figure behind the scandal.
But Thomson managed to throw up plenty of confusion, especially about the operation of Fair Work Australia in the conduct of its investigation, and offer a narrative of persecution by internal enemies that, oddly, exactly complements one of the stories the Coalition has been running in relation to the affair, that there’s something innately crooked about unions. And it’s only a few weeks since Tony Abbott smeared the whole industry superannuation sector with his reference to "gravy trains” and "venal” union officials.
The media are part of this story, of course: Thomson spent quite some time discussing the media’s role, first singling out some journalists for praise and then getting stuck into Fairfax, declaring he wished he hadn’t settled his defamation suit, and lapsing into tears as he related how the Seven Network had dispatched a camera crew beneath the bathroom window where Thomson’s wife – his "pregnant wife” for the love of god – stood mortified. Seven denies any knowledge of such events, although such behaviour would seem positively tame compared to the great tradition of tabloid media intrusions.
Thomson’s point, to the extent that he had one, was that some in the media weren’t objective analysts or reporters, but participants themselves. No kidding, Craig.
The circle was, however, complete the moment Thomson, having earlier invoked CSI, began talking about phone cloning and how drug dealers evaded wiretaps. For a moment we drifted into The Wire, possibly into Stringer Bell’s funeral parlour-ment, albeit with less reliance on "motherf-cker” to address one’s colleagues. "I have here 30 or 40 pages from various websites saying how easy it is,” said Thomson about phone cloning.
Thomson’s case now exactly resembled a police procedural, with hi-tech dastardry, calls for footage from surveillance cameras, long-ago threats from enemies and a conspiracy theory of revenge against a crusading young official. Not since Godwin Grech and the mystery of the missing email has such tension gripped the capital. One looked vainly for Bunk Moreland, Bobby Goren or Sarah Linden to sort it out.
This finally yielded some meaning for an otherwise meaningless saga. What does the Thomson affair tell us? That unions are corrupt? That we’re a lynch mob ready to drop the pretence of due process? What it definitely tells us is that the media and their audiences are far more comfortable with personalities and scandal than the "real issues” everyone says they prefer in political coverage.
The Thomson saga is, of course, Important, no doubt; the government, after all, Could Fall; big issues are at stake, such as The Future Of The Union Movement. The saga is not for trivialising. And yet it now looks nothing less or more than a torn-from-the-headlines crime drama missing only the characteristic doink! of Law & Order, the much longed-for transformation of boring politics into prime-time drama.
Thus has minority government served us; its hothouse atmosphere encouraging the hypertrophy of the more grotesque organs of the body politic, each to be placed on display by the media. It’s not so much that we’ve become judge, jury and executioner, but judge, jury and showman, reproving and castigating that which we’re delighted to display. That’s entertainment.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on May 22. Republished with permission.