Saturday, November 26, 2011

Radio attack dogs fail to shake lawman

Sean Nicholls | SMH | 26 November 2011

There are two inevitable rites of passage for any new NSW attorney-general.

One is a war of words with the Director of Public Prosecutions over funding and the merits of ''tough on crime'' legislation. The other, ironically, is being periodically bludgeoned by talkback radio hosts for being too ''soft on crime''.

In his first nine months in the job, the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, has managed to neatly sidestep the first, thanks largely to the retirement of Nicholas Cowdery and the appointment of the far less outspoken Lloyd Babb as the state's DPP.

But the lack of fireworks in this area has been more than compensated for by a spectacular clash with 2GB's morning presenter, Ray Hadley.

To recap: Smith, the member for Epping, is accused of making sneering comments about Hadley's audience and the readers of the Sydney Daily Telegraph at a Liberal Party Christmas function a week ago.

Hadley's audience were ''red necks'', while Tele readers were ''bigoted fools'', Smith is alleged to have said.

No doubt there are many who would wholeheartedly agree with the former assessment, especially given the quality of the debate generated by Hadley's relentless pursuit of the asylum seekers issue.

But naturally, and understandably, the radio host has taken deep offence at the slur on behalf of his listeners and has proceeded to tear strips off Smith in a series of blistering tirades, despite the A-G's strenuous denials.

(It should be noted that Hadley's three ''sources'' have not been named and none has been willing to go on the record to contradict Smith's version of events. This has been put down to the Liberal Party rule that threatens expulsion for members who discuss internal party matters in public - but it is quite a stretch to classify a Christmas party bash as official party business.)

While Hadley's complaints have focused on defending his audience's reputation, the dispute appears to have emerged from both men's very different relationship with the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner, Ron Woodham. Last month it was announced that Woodham, a veteran in the position, would have his contract renewed for only six months. This followed some pointed comments by Smith on the need for ''culture change'' in the NSW prison system to improve the treatment of prisoners, recently revisited by him over two deaths in custody that have become the subject of inquests.

It is the impression that Smith is critical of the culture that has flourished under Woodham's leadership, and that he is planning to get rid of Woodham to change it, that appears to have enraged Hadley.

Intriguingly, the attack on Smith has coincided with a stampede by media organisations for the right to document the life and times of the prisons boss. The ABC's Australian Story is believed to have been chasing Woodham with a proposal for a profile, as has Foxtel. The third bidder is Graham McNeice Productions, which wants to pitch a program to Channel Nine. Hadley is understood to have introduced Woodham to the production company.

Smith has so far weathered the storm with dignity and has refused to be cowed by Hadley's attacks. He has given as good as he has received and deserves to be congratulated for that. There seems to be a feeling among Sydney's talkback hosts that if they go hard enough, they will eventually get their way. And why wouldn't they, given how well it has worked in the past?

Smith, nine months into his term as Attorney-General, has an early opportunity to change that.

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