A few weeks ago Ross Jones and Dave Donovan, of Independent Australia, sent me messages asking me to review Ross’s book on the Ashbygate saga. Despite being as crook as Rookwood I was more than happy to agree, and in due course a copy appeared in my letterbox. I was in the middle of reading it very, very late one night when I happened to notice “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” being run on one of the Fox channels and started to watch it. You know how you are in that semi-somnolent state when something is triggered, a penny drops, and suddenly you are alert and alive.
What got me going? It suddenly occurred to me 40 years hadn’t passed me by. Both these ‘…gates’ were made from the same foundry.
The similarities between the break-in at Watergate, and its subsequent cover-up, which brought down a US President and sent a horde to gaol, versus the plot leading to the political demise of Peter Slipper by James Ashby and others, sent my alarm bells ringing.
If there was any lingering doubt about adding the term ‘gate’ to Ashby it was put to rest. A cliché it may be nowadays, however, after some 40 years the Ashbygate saga resonates with Watergate.
They are both about a sense of entitlement to the acquisition and retention of political power requiring the total annihilation of your political opponents irrespective of the law, breaches of the constitution, compromising the roles of the police, military and press, and at a huge cost to the nation, ethically, morally as well as financially.
Of course to test my thesis I had to revisit a very old and battered copy of the novel written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It is a dense read requiring an index of who’s who at the end of the book to keep you informed of the players involved. This delayed writing the review, much to the hair-pulling frustration of both Ross and Dave, as I had to carefully re-read the Woodstein book, and I hadn’t read it for 40 years. It is so long and so very detailed.
Two items mirroring the ASHBY saga immediately sprang to mind. Firstly, the analysis of those working in the White House by Woodward’s essential source, Deep Throat, and secondly, the level and extent of ‘ratfucking’ by those in the Nixon camp in an attempt to destroy their opponents.
‘Ratfucking’ is a slang term for engaging in dirty tricks and political sabotage with the aim of effectively destroying your political opponent. Does this not sound familiar?
Nixon had a whole ‘ratfucking’ division to run amok in the lead up to the 1972 US Presidential elections. Included in their repertoire of dirty deeds were fake letters written on stolen Democratic letterhead, false and malicious gossip campaigns, putting plants into rival campaign headquarters, hiring agitators to disrupt political town-hall meetings, cancelling hall meetings & press conferences, push polling, vote rigging, and the list goes on. It cost Muskie the Democratic nomination, which was won by McGovern, perceived by Nixon’s White House as the preferred, weaker Democratic candidate. It is interesting to note that Karl Rove was involved in Donald Segretti’s group of ‘ratfuckers’. It seems now an integral part of the GOP playbook.
The other item that resonated was something Deep Throat says to Bob Woodward at one of their 2am garage meetings. The Washington Post was stuck. The story and their sources had dried up primarily because they were starting to make inroads into the White House, and their informants were running scared. Woodward was going over what they had in terms of the people who were starting to be named. Deep Throat tells him they must always follow the money as it’ll gradually lead them to the inevitable conclusion. When Woodward says why people in power would be involved with this. Deep Throat answers, “…what you have to understand is that these guys in the White House are not that smart …and things just got out of control…”
It is the long-held view in our household that the guys occupying the front bench of the LNP Government aren’t that smart, and their performance since coming to office continually supports the proposition.
So what do we have with the cast of Ashbygate? A ‘ratfucking’ band who were working for people who are not that smart, certainly not as smart as they think they are, and for whom things just got out of control.
These people, just like those in the Watergate saga, are driven by a sense of entitlement to behave without any fear of the consequences of their actions; the breaches of the law, the legacy of destroyed ethics and morality, and the corruption of our democratic institutions, the courts, the parliament and the police.
Ross Jones and his band of helpers have done a fantastic job in telling the ASHBYGATE story, drawing out the characters and maintaining the narrative timeline. The narrative is told simply and elegantly. Most importantly it is a very useful historical resource as Ross has let the primary documents tell the story.
In what must have been a laborious task to search through the mountains of emails, letters and text messages as well as all evidence given in the original and never completed case of Ashby v Slipper, Ross has picked the eyes out of it all to tell the story. It is so effective as it adds to the validity of the narrative.
Ross’s role as the narrator is reduced to building narrative bridges when a break in the story must be crossed, providing an historic context, or exposition to evidence that is couched in language where knowledge is assumed.
It is a difficult means of story telling because of the daunting amount of research it requires to be told well, but it is the most credible. In ASHBYGATE the story is told well.
If there is one criticism I have it is how the book is laid out. The book is difficult to read because of it. I rarely think about how a book is presented. I concentrate on the content and whether it is well written. As a result, I have always under-estimated the work editors and publishers do. They provide the seemingly transparent packaging that allows one to get on with easily reading a good yarn. The layout can’t make a good read better, but it can make a good read more difficult. This is the flaw in ASHBYGATE. It is physically difficult to read.
It is an understandable problem for all who self-publish. When you can’t easily tell the difference between the narration and the primary source material being quoted that drives the story, it becomes a major source of irritation. I found myself having to re-read paragraphs, and all for the want of indentation and different fonts. Once you get the hang of it, it does become easier, but it detracts from a ruddy good and easy read and it shouldn’t.
I am more forgiving than most in these situations, especially so in ASHBYGATE’s case. This story would have disappeared but for the work of those outside the club, that political inner sanctum where most of the mainstream’s political journalists reside at risk of becoming participants rather than observers, and who long ago decided this story was dead in the water.
ASHBYGATE, like the Kathy Jackson story, has remained an irksome thorn in the political flesh of the Government because of the dedication of minions. People like Ross Jones and a dedicated few kept working the story in on-line journals like No Fibs and Independent Australia, and all on the smell of an oily rag, to keep this story alive.
In many ways this is a further parallel to Watergate. That story kept growing legs because Woodward and Bernstein were not members of the Washington’s political beltway, the politics covering, media elite who thought the story trivial. Woodward was a newbie, wet behind his ears, and Bernstein was a chain-smoking hack covering the Washington leftovers. If it had been left to the White House media there would have been no Watergate story.
What has driven those of us who have continued to report on Ashby is our outrage that people can get away with trashing the joint without fear of being held accountable to anyone. It’s out of belief politics isn’t a game, and shouldn’t be covered by the media as a sporting event, something the mainstream media seems to forget. Nor are we inflicted with a form of media driven, political attention deficit disorder where stories have a life akin to that of a gnat.
We do this on oxygen and coffee. There are no expense accounts, not even for the coffee. It is a commitment to a story that you know is important and, for whatever reason, the mainstream media has let fall between the cracks.
What Ross and the team at Independent Australia has given us is a comprehensive, detailed narrative of the ASHBYGATE Saga up until this week. It will always be a useful resource for those interested in the story. I am so grateful to Ross for researching and writing this book. ASHBYGATE now sits next to Watergate’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.
Both tell the sorry tale of what happens when the fourth estate has an afternoon nap and lets unfettered, political ambition mixed with a sense of entitlement, arrogance and stupidity gain power at any cost with no concern for the consequences left behind in the wake.