Was Bob Brown offered $1 mil media bribe?

http://www.bobbrown.org.au/assets/200_bob.jpgBelow the fold is Crikey’s ruminations on Bob Brown’s story that he was offered $1 mil in coverage if he would support a particular media proprietor get stuff through the Senate.

The thing that bugged me about Brown’s story was that he said that he didn’t disclose it at the time for threats of defamation. That’s bollocks. Unless something’s happened to it when I wasn’t watching, parliamentary privilege deals with Bob’s problem admirably. Just pop into the Senate and make your allegations and you’re untouchable by the law of defamation. Sure enough the guy who’s offered the bribe might deny it and it would be Bob’s word against his (or hers). But that’s the case now – except that we don’t know who should be denying it.

Then again, perhaps they don’t know themselves. But not having dobbed them in at the time, and with such a quickly produced, but ultimately unconvincing excuse I’m wondering about the veracity of what Brown’s claiming. What would be the objection to his giving further details next time he’s on his feet in the other chamber?

Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane writes:

Bob Brown’s remarkable revelation on the ABCs Background Briefing program that he was directly offered a $1m bribe of free media coverage in exchange for supporting media ownership reform in 2000, has placed a question mark over every major media company in the country.

Brown has since declined to state who made the offer, either under privilege or outside Parliament, on the basis that it would be defamatory.

Lets pick this apart and see what we can work out.

For a start, there were no media ownership laws being reformed in 2000. There were significant changes to the broadcasting regulatory framework to finalise the digital television laws in 2000 (think Richard Alstons brilliant datacasting idea), but these were passed with the grudging support of the Opposition. Independent senators like the Greens had no role in blocking or approving the digital television laws.

Browns office has confirmed the Senator is not totally sure of the dates, and that it might have been later. He may be thinking of 2002, when Richard Alston tried to get the Governments first media ownership reforms through the Senate by getting the support of cross-bench Senators. The attempt eventually foundered, but not before most of the major media companies sent their heaviest hitters to Canberra including James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch to lobby recalcitrant Senators to pass the Governments reforms.

The reform package would have freed up ownership laws for newspapers, radio and television, with a series of clumsy restrictions such as two out of three, the 4/5 test and editorial separation inserted as diversity safeguards.

Theres one media group we can rule out: the Seven Network, which was opposed to the changes and worked to undermine them as part of Kerry Stokess rivalry with PBL and News Ltd. That gets one of the three TV company witches, as they were known, off the hook Sevens Bridget Godwin. Every other major media company, however, was in favour of the changes.

An anonymous tipster has pointed out to Crikey that weve seen something similar before from News. In 2001, News offered the ALP special coverage to sell the concept of Knowledge Nation (remember the spaghetti?) to the electorate via News Limited publications. Media Watch picked up on this story a couple of years later.

The Knowledge Nation deal required payment, albeit at a discounted rate, and so it could be argued as indeed News did argue to Media Watch that it had proposed a simple advertising deal.

However, Browns comments suggest he was offered coverage free which is a different matter altogether. Even the most charitable interpretation suggests a media company was willing to give free advertising to a political party in exchange for support for media reform. A more serious interpretation is that the media company concerned was prepared to skew its editorial content in favour of the Greens.

Section 141.1 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to promise a benefit to a Commonwealth public official, including a Member of Parliament We checked with the Australian Federal Police about the matter. The AFP said they were checking the transcript from yesterdays broadcast, but waiting for a complaint from the Australian Electoral Commission or Brown himself. But the AEC confirms there is no offence under the Commonwealth Electoral Act about bribing MPs only voters. They wont be getting one from the AEC or, it appears, Senator Brown.

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14 years ago

I recall writing to Bob Brown in late 2000 with a major concern I had with the misuse of government funded employment programs. I never got a reply so I guess that if this occurred in 2002 and he is only now responding then I should not hold my breath for a prior whistle blow. I just hope he comes through this time.

14 years ago

Bob Brown explained that point in an interview on ABC that he doesn’t believe in using parliamentary privelege to make statements he could not make in public. Having seen that privelege abused at times he might have a point. It is actually testable as to whether he believes in that principal. He has been in the Senate long enough that the Hansard could be checked to see if he has used parliamentary privelege.

14 years ago

I’ve never seen him credibly exposed as anything but honest and consistent. I suppose it’s ad hominem then, but I believe him.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

In any case, it’s not always necessarily appropriate for an official to name the person who bribed or threatened him, if he’s making a general point about corruption and whether the existing rules and procedures are enough to discourage it. That is, his interest might be in improving governance, increasing accountability, protecting whistle blowers and so on, and the point of the anecdote is to highlight the problem, rather than to punish one particular offender.

14 years ago

Firstly how do you actually quantify “$1m bribe of free media coverage”? By advertising rates? Q ratings movement? or by some subtle and confusing Media Monitors onscreen minutes and column inches weighted by ratings algorithm?

Secondly, no one these days blatantly offers money to federal Australian pollies for services to be rendered. We’re not the UK, US or France. It’s all done here within a much smaller pool of interconnected players who know the value of an elliptical long lunch conversation to build mateship zaibatsus. Bob probably only woke up only the other day going “Holy shit! They were trying to bribe me back then and I never realised it until now!”

Thirdly, regardless of what you think of Bob Brown’s politics and policies, there’s no doubt he’s a pretty smart and politically shrewd bloke.

So fourthly, one could assume he’s playing some games here with a very specific target, using the media to send a public but deniable message.

Or fifthly, maybe like many pollies he’s just gone a little bit whacko after too many years in the job. It’s not a sanity-inducing trade you know.