A couple of hours later, Bolt posted on his blog an image of Marr with pursed lips, seemingly in mid-sentence, with the invitation to his many followers to click on it and watch the segment. Over the next few hours 133 comments were posted, some remarking on Marr’s apparent rudeness, others commenting on the picture itself.
“I saw an expression like that on an egg-bound chook once,” said ‘Jackie of Gaia!’.
“Poor fellow is chronically constipated,” responded Fay of Charlestown.
“I doubt that, Fay,” chimed in Alan Jansen. “Given what Marr proudly admits to, constipation is unlikely to be a problem.”
Marr was outraged when he was alerted to these remarks two days later. “We’d been talking about opera and then you go on and get this blinding thing,” he told me. He immediately rang Bolt, who had the offending comment ‘snipped’, formally apologised to Marr and posted the following statement on the blog: “David has alerted me to a comment which snuck through our moderation and which abuses him in homophobic terms. I am mortified it got through, and have instantly removed it. I apologise to David and have banned the person who put it up.”
Marr accepted Bolt’s apology and his assurance he had not seen the posts. What Bolt did not disclose was that the person who was moderating the blog and past whom these comments had “snuck” was his wife, Sally Morrell. “It was an official arrangement, for his wife to moderate his blog,” Phil Gardner, editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, told me. That arrangement ended about a year ago, he said, and Bolt’s blog is now moderated in house at the Herald Sun.
[ED: Sally Morrell has assured the Monthly that she had no part in moderating the blog posts that referred to David Marr and Annabel Crabb. The Monthly accepts that assurance and apologises to her for any embarrassment in saying that she did. The author has also received a communication from Andrew Bolt which includes the following: “I did much of the moderating myself on those days and through sheer carelessness through pressure of work, I almost certainly let those through myself. Sally helped on the blog for just a couple of hours a day and did not work the particular shift on which those mistakes were made. I deeply regret my error.”]
A few months earlier, on 5 July, a similar thing had happened to Annabel Crabb after she, too, had had an argument with Bolt on air during Insiders. Some of the comments were “grotty, sexist stuff”, Crabb told me, “about my appearance, or what my sexual performance would be like after a few drinks”. The episode in which the fight occurred marked the eighth anniversary of Insiders, and the ABC took the guests to lunch at a restaurant in Carlton afterwards: “The unnerving thing was that [the comments were] all going up while Andrew and I were having lunch together,” said Crabb. “I found it confronting because we’d always got on well together.”
Such attacks became so common, Michael Bodey reported in the Australian in April this year, that some people were unwilling to appear on Insiders with him, “because Bolt’s minions harass them afterwards”. Jason Wilson, a lecturer in digital communications at the University of Wollongong, described being “Bolted” in early August 2009 after he criticised Bolt’s performance on Insiders. Bolt’s post the next day featured a photograph of Wilson and an inaccurate description of him as working for GetUp!, and it accused him of using the Pravda model of journalism. For the next week Wilson was subject to abusive emails, many of which contained Bolt’s post cut-and-pasted into the message. One was even c.c.’d to Bolt, like a dog bringing a stick back to its master. Some of the emails threatened violence although most simply offered abuse, calling Wilson “a prick”, “an insignificant, parasitic socialist wally”, “a smug little shit” and a “leftoid, as in haemorrhoid, as in a continual pain in the arse …”
These incidents illustrate how readily readers of the blog can be revved up without Bolt explicitly directing them. “He was influenced by Howard’s nod and a wink,” says Jonathan Green, editor of the ABC online journal The Drum and a colleague of Bolt’s at the Herald in the late 1980s. “That’s why the blogosphere works so well. You don’t have to say much; you keep your hands clean but it comes out in the comments. You are setting up the discussion.” By claiming not to read the comments, Bolt was able to absolve himself of responsibility for what was said, apologise and remove posts if a complaint was made. But always after the event.
Although Bolt has been writing two or more provocative columns per week for the Herald Sun since the late 1990s, it has only been in the past five or so years that he has expanded his reach – and his influence – to the huge national audience he has today. He is now syndicated in Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin and Adelaide. Almost 12 million people around Australia pick up the newspapers that carry Bolt’s columns, and 3.5 million actually read those columns. His blog, which he only started in 2006 and which he updates as often as 12 times per day, received just over 3 million page views from 272,000 unique visitors in August this year. But Bolt’s ambition is not confined to print. He seems to understand the greater influence that comes from radio and television and, at the same time as he started to harness the power of the internet to promote his conservative views, he began his quest to become the Bill O’Reilly of Australia.
Bill O’Reilly is the combative and inflammatory ‘conservative with a capital-C’ star performer on the Murdoch-owned Fox News network in the US. The O’Reilly Factor is the most watched cable news program on American television. O’Reilly is also a syndicated columnist, author and commentator, who until 2009 also had a high-rating syndicated radio program. O’Reilly was hired by Roger Ailes in 1996, when Fox News was starting up, and the two men are synonymous with the stunning success of the network.
In 2006, through a third party, Andrew Bolt sought guidance from Roger Ailes on how he could replicate the Fox News model Down Under. “He saw the political power that comes from right-wing ranting,” says a colleague of Bolt’s, “and he appointed himself to do it.” Roger Ailes, formerly “one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican Party”, according to a 2011 Rolling Stone profile, is the chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group. He is responsible for the network outstripping CNN and all other rivals to become the number one cable network in the US and, to quote theNew York Times, for making Fox News “the profit engine of the News Corporation”. Although Murdoch publicly defends Ailes, his family begs to differ: “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to,” Matthew Freud, who is married to Elisabeth Murdoch, said last year.
Bolt had been introduced to Ailes earlier in 2006 at a three-day, high-level gathering of News Corporation editors, managers, columnists and their spouses hosted by Rupert Murdoch at the legendary Pebble Beach Resorts, on the Monterey Peninsula in California. ‘Imagining the Future’ enabled key News staff to hear world leaders address the big issues: the invited speakers included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Shimon Peres, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, Bono and former US Vice President Al Gore, who showed his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Afterwards, Bolt and fellow conservative columnist Piers Akerman asked Gore some confronting questions, disputing the information contained in the film. Maybe Bolt saw himself as auditioning for bigger things because the exchange deteriorated into “a full-on barney”, according to someone present, with Gore shouting at Bolt.
Roger Ailes rebuffed the approach from Bolt, who had to wait until May this year to get his start on television. Some have been surprised that Sky News (part owned by News Corporation) had not picked him up. It was Network Ten that started The Bolt Report, a half-hour political show airing at 10 am on Sundays – just after Insiders, Bolt’s television launching pad. In November last year Bolt had written a column referring to “my strong and not entirely uninformed hunch” about mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s reasons for buying a sufficient stake in the Ten Network to get herself a seat on the board. “Rinehart is on a mission,” he wrote. “Channel 10 is just the vehicle.” One of Bolt’s former colleagues thought it read like a job application. This impression was reinforced by a reader comment on Bolt’s blog. “If Ms Gina Rinehart is reading this column, or someone in her office is, then I’d like to pass on this piece of advice,” posted Rosemary of Queensland. “Australia desperately needs Conservative voices in the media – especially in free-to-air media. In America they have Fox News …” Whether or not there was a connection, five months later Andrew Bolt had his own show on Ten.
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