Andrew Bolt and the making of an opportunist
The Bolt factor
Andrew Bolt as a young journalist working for the 'Age', c.1980.
On the morning of Sunday, 11 October 2009 the guests appearing on that day’s Insiders program gathered in the green room at the ABC TV’s Southbank headquarters in Melbourne before the show. Annabel Crabb was there, as were David Marr and Andrew Bolt. Marr, who had just returned from Bayreuth, Germany, chatted amicably with Bolt, who is a huge Wagner fan. “He is very intelligent about opera,” Marr told me. Soon they were in the studio, ready for the live broadcast.
Host Barrie Cassidy introduced the first segment, ‘The Sunday Papers’, in which guests comment on a story from that day’s newspaper given to them by the producers. Bolt ignored his item and instead started talking about a report on the BBC that, Bolt claimed, demonstrated the Earth was not warming. Marr remonstrated with him, both for deviating from the script and for the absurdity of his claims. When Bolt persisted, Marr picked up a newspaper and in a show of mock exasperation turned his back on Bolt.
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.
At one minute past midnight on 30 August, Andrew Bolt posted the following tantalising words on his blog: “No politics until further notice. Principles to weigh up. Faith to keep. Sorry.” The usually prolific opinionator went on a one-man strike for 24 hours. His followers went berserk: “An Andrew Bolt blog without politics is like Masterchef without food!” was one of 732 comments that mostly supported Bolt as he addressed his quandary. The next day his column, titled ‘How Gillard Tried to Kill a Story’, told his readers: “I was considering resigning as a News Limited columnist.” The reason? “I thought this company that I love, that I have long admired for its defence of free speech, had caved in to pressure from a Prime Minister to close down reporting of a matter of public interest.” That matter was a 16-year-old – and much denied – claim involving aspects of Julia Gillard’s former relationship with a former AWU union official, Bruce Wilson. Bolt had headlined a Saturday post: “A tip on something that may force Gillard to resign”. He reported that a witness with a statutory declaration “will come forward and directly implicate Julia Gillard in another scandal involving the misuse of union funds”. Thus alerted, the prime minister contacted News Limited Chairman and CEO John Hartigan, thus setting in train the events that led to Bolt’s strike. Bolt’s response was remarkable. He accused his employer, News Limited, of “an overreaction” in removing an article by Glenn Milne from the Australian’s website, and railed against News Limited for deleting his own posts on the subject. Milne’s article, which had also canvassed the Bruce Wilson matter, had prompted the prime ministerial rage, an apparent threat of a defamation action and had led to an elaborate apology from News Limited. This is not the first time Bolt has argued with his bosses. He took on the chairman about climate change during a Murdoch visit to Melbourne, says Bruce Guthrie, who was editor-in-chief of the Herald Sun in 2007 and 2008. They ended up agreeing to differ. “In some ways he is quite brave to take on the Murdochs on that issue,” says Stephen Mayne, long-time Murdoch watcher who was business editor at the Herald when Bolt was opinion editor. “It is very unusual for a News person to take on management.” Nevertheless, it is one thing to have a private argument with Rupert Murdoch, quite another to accuse publicly John Hartigan of overreacting to a prime ministerial complaint. Is he perhaps concerned that his employer’s commitment to free speech – his in particular – is not quite as solid as he had assumed?
Bolt has reason to be anxious about this. He is awaiting a judgement from the Federal Court on a charge of racial vilification following a 2009 column, ‘White is the New Black’. “Meet the white face of a new black race – the political Aborigine,” the column began sneeringly. He accused a number of prominent light-skinned Aborigines (who he maintained were or could pass for Caucasian) of opting for an identity “that has political and career clout”. Bolt showed no understanding or sympathy for the anguish the issue of skin colour causes in many Indigenous communities. He portrayed the matter as merely one of opportunism based on the benefits associated with being “an official Aborigine”. (He made no mention of the disadvantages.)
But he was careless with his research. He accused lawyer and writer Larissa Behrendt of being “a professional Aborigine … despite looking almost as German as her father”; her late father was Aboriginal. Writer Anita Heiss was accused of taking “a job reserved for Aborigines” at Koori Radio, where she was in fact a volunteer.
Bolt has quite a reputation for factual errors in his writing. Sydney academic Catharine Lumby provided me with several examples of how Bolt consistently got facts about her wrong, in ways that suited his agenda. In 2002 Victorian magistrate Jelena Popovic successfully pursued a libel claim in relation to a Bolt article; the judgement cost Bolt’s employers almost $250,000 in damages to Popovic, as well as the costs of the trial and an unsuccessful appeal to the High Court. The racial vilification judgement was expected in late September, as we were going to press. The plaintiffs are not seeking money, but want an apology from the Herald Sun, and an injunction to prevent Bolt writing similar material in future.
If the judgement is in Bolt’s favour, he will claim vindication and a victory for free speech. And he had assumed that, if it went against him, News Limited would mount a strenuous free speech campaign on his behalf. But the landscape looks a little different now, following the prime minister’s claim to have been defamed by the Australian. Cabinet has been considering “going to war” with News Limited, possibly by withholding government advertising, and on 14 September the government announced an inquiry into the media in Australia. In such a climate, will News rethink its strategy?
The emergence of Andrew Bolt as a powerful right-wing commentator has surprised many people who have known him over the years. Certainly the Andrew Bolt of today bears very little resemblance to the shy 20 year old who took up a cadetship at the Age in 1979, or to the polite young man who was hired as an assistant features editor on Eric Beecher’s Herald in the late 1980s. Those who knew him then are startled by the transformation. One colleague from the Age said she never found him to be opinionated and was utterly amazed to return to Melbourne after a few years overseas to “find that he was such a personality”. “He was forceful but he was not as right-wing then or we would not have got on so well,” says journalist Shelley Gare, who as features editor at the Herald in the late 1980s was Bolt’s boss. Bruce Guthrie was similarly surprised: “When I left the Herald in ’89 he was a very attentive assistant to an editor and when I returned in 2007 he was not only the most powerful person within the paper but also within News. It was truly a metamorphosis.”
For many, it is not an entirely convincing reinvention. “It’s a performance piece,” says Catherine Deveny, comedian and writer (whose columns Bolt has, surprisingly, said he reads). “If it wasn’t so dangerous it would be hilarious.” A woman who lived with Bolt in the early 1980s says, “He certainly was not the conservative figure he is now. It’s like he found a niche.” Later that same decade the writer and academic Robert Manne wrote for Bolt when he was editor of the opinion pages. “He was conservative but so was I,” says Manne. Ten years later – Manne’s politics having changed – Bolt attacked him at a multicultural conference: “I was astonished he was the same man,” Manne told me. “He obviously saw there was reputation and money to be made from being conservative. There were no examples of such people in Australia. In the mid ’90s this type emerged and he was one of the first.”
So is Andrew Bolt the opinionator a construct, the creation of a media-savvy brain that saw the opportunities offered by the internet and by the absence of significant right-wing voices among the commentariat in the mid 1990s? A great many people think so. A former journalist who has worked with Bolt says, “A big part of me admires Bolt for having built all this out of nothing. But it is so cynical because that is not who he is.” Steve Harris, editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times Group from 1992 to 1997, remembers a conversation with Bolt: “There was no shortage of people filling the left-hand side, I told him, but there was a shortage of people of the Right. He responded by saying, ‘Yes, there is a shortage in that area, maybe I can help fill that space.’”
And he has filled it in spades. But, unlike an earlier generation of conservative print columnists, who explored ideas, Bolt understands that to succeed in today’s media you need to create controversy. The media is increasingly dominated by commentary and opinion, by The Drum and The Punch, by Q&A and Can of Worms, by personal blogs and newspaper reader comments online. Media and politics today are less a contest of ideas and more a continuing conflict of opinion. “Bolt’s genius is that he’s always finding the fault lines and finding an argument,” Lachlan Harris, press secretary to Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister, told me. The resultant toxicity of our politics is only going to get worse. “In 2004, we estimated that people were getting 70% of political information from news outlets, television or papers,” says Harris. “Now it is flipped: most people get most of their political information from opinion, from a medium that is dependent upon division of opinion.”
Although Bolt describes himself as a conservative columnist, he is less a William Safire than a Billy Graham. He is like an evangelist, providing fixed points of reference for people who feel confused in a world where certainty has eroded. He tells people what they should be thinking – and hordes of followers lap it up.
Like the Fox jocks, Bolt tends to stick to just a few themes – “no stolen generation”, “honour the Churches”, “frown on divorce”, “crack down on welfare”, “stop the cult of victimhood”, “stop immigration”, “end multiculturalism” – and to hammer them over and over. Top of the list in the right-wing songbook, though, is the non-existence of climate change. Bolt is utterly obdurate when it comes to the subject. “I thought he wrote too much about climate change,” says Bruce Guthrie, “but he was immoveable.”
Bolt is credited with being an important factor in the collapse of the political consensus for action on climate change that existed with the major parties in 2007. Just five years ago, the Lowy Institute poll found 68% of respondents agreed that global warming was a serious and pressing problem, and that “we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.” In 2011, that number had fallen to 41%. “The strange distortion of the climate change debate is down to a few people and he’s one of them,” says Jonathan Green. Bolt gives no quarter, dismissing “warmists”, the scientific consensus on climate change and, in 2008 quoting Christopher Monckton, one of his preferred sources: “The correct policy approach to a non-problem is to have the courage to do nothing.”
You would never guess Bolt used to write for the ‘Environs’ column in the Age. Or that his younger brother, Richard, helped develop Australia’s first comprehensive national cap-and-trade scheme. “Climate change threatens the world’s and Australia’s economic activities, communities and ecosystems,” was the key message of the former National Emissions Trading Taskforce’s final framework report, released in December 2007. “It is in Australia’s interests to promote international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Richard Bolt was deputy chair of this taskforce and, in May 2010, the Gillard government appointed him to the advisory board of the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy.
Andrew Bolt would not speak to me for this article, not even to confirm details of his biography. “If I help to get some things right I will give authority to the rest,” he told me in an email. I have had to rely on my own research and interviews with people who know Bolt. Along the way, I have encountered the widely held opinion that Bolt is South African. “It sounds like an Afrikaner accent,” says Shelley Gare. “I just assumed he was South African.” She is not the only one to have made this assumption; some people even attribute his opinions to these supposed origins.
In 1957 Mijndert Huibert Bolt and his fiancée, Margaretha Korenstra, applied to migrate to Australia. Mijndert Bolt, then aged 24, from Utrecht in the Netherlands, had trained as a teacher, although he described himself as a clerk on his immigration application form. Korenstra, aged 26, was a shorthand typist and came from Aalsmeer, a town 13 kilometres south-west of Amsterdam famous for its flower market, the largest in the world, and notorious for having had a Nazi mayor during World War II. The couple undertook to marry before embarkation. The selection officer who interviewed Bolt said the applicant had created a “favourable impression on appearance and attitude” and that he “should assimilate readily enough”. Both applicants underwent medical and other checks. They were found to be in good health and to have no criminal record; they were confirmed not to have engaged in “political delinquency during occupation 1940–45”; and their “political reliability” was assessed as “good”.
The couple married on 16 January 1958 and travelled from Holland in March with an assisted passage under the Netherlands Australia Migration Agreement of 1951. Once they arrived in Adelaide, they changed their names to Mike and Margaret. Mike set about getting his qualifications to teach in Australia while working in a brush factory and as a bus conductor. Andrew, the first of their four children, was born on 26 September 1959. Once Mike got his teaching certificate, the family began what would become years of moving around according to his postings. They went first to Elizabeth, a satellite town of mostly English migrants north of Adelaide, then to Darwin for six years, on to Tarcoola on the edge of the Nullarbor – where Mike obtained his first job as principal – to Warramboo on Eyre Peninsula and, finally, to Tailem Bend, a small town on the Murray River, 100 kilometres south-east of Adelaide.
Between 1951 and 1970 about 160,000 Dutch nationals migrated to Australia. Today the Dutch make up 2.6% of the overseas-born population of Australia, and a further 240,000 people, such as Andrew Bolt and his siblings, claim Dutch ancestry. The Dutch were known as “model migrants”, according to Nonja Peters in a paper on Dutch settlement issued by the National Archives of Australia: “Anglo-conformity became the hallmark of Dutch identity in Australia.” They had a word for it: Aanpassen (‘fitting in’). Mike and Margaret Bolt exemplified this, and it appears to have profoundly influenced their oldest child. In August this year, after the London riots, Andrew Bolt wrote that Australia should “cut immigration until we get better at integrating the people we’ve brought in already”.
When he was 16, Andrew Bolt formed a band that used to play at dances in the area surrounding Murray Bridge, the largest town on the river. He played the drums. The budding musicians wore red vests, grey shirts, polka-dot bow ties and black trousers, and played songs such as ‘A Swingin’ Safari’, ‘Pearly Shells’ and ‘Running Bear’. Many years later, Bolt recalled those gigs: “We’d play while the women put their plates in the side room, and the men chatted at the front entrance … We’d play while dads danced with their daughters, and aunts taught steps to their nephews … There were no drunks, and we none of us ever imagined people actually took drugs. There were no fights, either, of course.”
This was “my Australia – with more heart, more life and greater decency than many artists credit,” wrote Bolt in 2004. “I know at times it could seem dull, and how often our cultural elite seem in horror of that evenness of our temperament and history, trying to make us more dramatic by inventing genocides that never happened, satanic legions of racists that never lived, and rebellions out of a few shots.”
In this same Australia, one of the mums told the boys in the band that they should visit “the transsexual” who lived on the edge of town to learn to play dance music. The word “transsexual” was not used, Bolt said, “so it took me a while to wonder why the woman who taught us to play every dance from the military two step to the ‘Pride of Erin’ had such a low voice and hid her face behind her hand.” But the boys got used to it: “No fuss, no politics,” Bolt wrote. It apparently never occurred to him how lonely a life “the only gay in the village” probably led, and that much of the “fuss” and the “politics” around sexuality and other matters Bolt would rather keep under wraps is all about enabling people to feel included while freely expressing their differences, not concealing them.
I could find only two profiles where Bolt had co-operated with the writers, both of them appearing in the Institute of Public Affairs Review. In June 2004 he gave an interview to Andrew McIntyre, then the IPA’s public relations manager and, in January this year, a more than 9000-word profile of Bolt by Tony Barry appeared. At the time Barry was the institute’s director of finance and operations, before which he had been press secretary to Malcolm Turnbull, then Opposition leader. Barry was let go after he was notoriously filmed by Australian Story using Google to look up the meaning of ‘concoct’ during the Godwin Grech emails affair. Bolt confided many previously undisclosed details of his life to Barry, including the revelation that he had once been “a minder for a belly-dancer”. If this titbit was designed to make Bolt seem more exotic and interesting to his fans, it infuriated the woman who was once engaged to Bolt and who lived with him for the best part of six years.
I met the former belly dancer at Mr Tulk, the buzzy cafe inside the State Library of Victoria. Sophia Wilson, as I will call her (she does not want her name used), an attractive, articulate dark-haired woman now in her early fifties, works as a business consultant and executive coach. She was enraged that Bolt had characterised her only by the part-time dancing job that helped finance her study to become a teacher. “Belly dancing has a connotation of salaciousness but it is a traditional dance,” Wilson told me as we sipped herbal teas. “As if I needed a minder!”
“It suggests a stereotypical image of Middle Eastern men trying to paw me. It’s inaccurate and frankly ridiculous,” she said. She was also deeply offended that Bolt had used her to add some spice to his public image when she had supported him through the 1980 journalists’ strike and his mother’s protracted terminal illness. “Whilst Andrew might have a high IQ, his EQ [emotional intelligence] is obviously underdeveloped, he appears to be blind to the impact that his actions have on others and then takes it personally when they respond. It is as though his public persona has become enmeshed with his personal identity, which is quite sad.” She got in touch with Bolt, who immediately and profusely apologised.
Wilson and Bolt met when she was working as a secretary to one of the editors of the Age and he was a cadet journalist. She remembers him as being quite introverted, romantic, restless and argumentative, and he always enjoyed being the devil’s advocate. He also had strong ethics and a sense of social justice. He opposed sensationalist journalism, once refusing an assignment to doorknock a Vietnamese family on the anniversary of the murder of their small child in an inner-city public housing estate. Bolt read widely, perhaps trying to make up for dropping out of university after just one year. He introduced Wilson to his World Record Club collection of music, especially opera, while she overhauled his wardrobe and broadened his culinary experience. The relationship eventually foundered, mainly because of “interminable arguments, which ended up in a battle of wills”. Wilson instigated the break. “We are fundamentally different and, whilst we had some great times together,” she told me, “I was not cast in the mould of the ‘little woman’ that I think he was secretly craving.”
In late 1983, the year his mother died from cancer, Bolt took leave without pay from the Age and headed for Europe. He spent some time working at the flower market at Aalsmeer, meeting up with his mother’s relatives, and travelled to Germany and Ireland. Wilson showed me the Claddagh ring Bolt sent her from Ireland (a traditional ring worn one way for love, then turned after marriage), and the small diamond engagement ring he’d given her earlier. As he travelled, he imagined himself as Peer Gynt – the hero of one of his favourite operas – addressing Wilson in his letters as Solveig, the woman who waited while Peer Gynt roamed the world. “I think that in some ways he probably saw himself on some romantic quest to achieve something,” Wilson said, “which I guess, depending on your criteria, he has.” The theatre writer Alison Croggon has described Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play on which the opera was based, as “a pitiless self-portrait of a man fleeing the most essential conflicts within himself, endlessly seduced by his own trolls”.
Bolt returned to Australia and followed his by now ex-fiancée to Darwin, where she had a six-week stint belly dancing at the Palmerston Tavern. At a loose end, he went to the local Commonwealth Employment Service and came away with a job as a political staffer to John Reeves, the ALP federal member for the Northern Territory. The job lasted only a few months as Reeves lost his seat to Paul Everingham in the December 1984 election, but Bolt had befriended Gary Gray (now special minister of state in the Gillard government), then on the staff of NT Opposition leader Bob Collins, making a connection that would prove useful down the track.
Bolt returned to journalism in Melbourne, first at the Age and then in November 1985 at Neil Mitchell’s Herald, where he met Sally Morrell, another journalist. But he was still restless, and left the Herald to travel to India to freelance for a year. He returned in 1987 and followed Morrell to Canberra where she was working in the press gallery. He called up his old mate Gary Gray, now an organiser for the federal ALP, who got him a job with the National Media Liaison Service (the infamous aNiMaLS government media management agency). It was a short stint. Bolt left after the July 1987 election when Bob Hawke was re-elected, and headed back to Adelaide to become publicity director of the South Australian Opera.
Again it was a short-lived job. The company was in a state of near collapse with administrative and financial problems; for a time Bolt was acting general manager, while arts consultant Justin MacDonnell was brought in to sort out the mess. He remembers Bolt as polite and well dressed. “I thought he was bright and shrewd,” MacDonnell told me. “I would have been happy for him to stay on.” But journalism called. In mid 1988 Bolt took a job as assistant features manager on the Eric Beecher Herald. Rupert Murdoch had acquired the Herald and Weekly Times Group in 1987, and in 1990 he appointed Piers Akerman to oversee the merger of the paper with the down-market, high-circulation tabloid the Sun News Pictorial. The resultant paper, the Herald Sun (or the ‘Hun’ as it is popularly called) has been Andrew Bolt’s home ever since.
In 1989 Bolt married Sally Morrell. Today they have three children aged between ten and 16. These days, in whatever spare time he has, he grows tulips and engages his passion for opera. A friend of the belly-dancing Sophia Wilson compared her relationship with Andrew Bolt to his current one this way: “You were his moonwalk phase, before he settled down at the Little House on the Prairie.”
Bolt seemed to be a fan of Julia Gillard’s while she was deputy but since she became prime minister his tirades against her have been so obsessive they hint at a fundamental discomfort with women in leadership roles. Back in 2002 Bolt opposed Labor’s decision to guarantee that 40% of all winnable seats went to women because “women are more likely to act irrationally”. Bolt argued that the greater likelihood of women (as compared with men) to favour alternative medicines, yoga, horoscopes, feng shui and the like made them unfit for holding office. Not only were female politicians more likely to be “superstitious New Agers” but “more dangerously, they’ll tend to show … an irrational fear of useful things like nuclear power and genetically engineered crops”. Bolt asserted that the ALP quotas would produce dud sheilas: “given so many talented women, particularly mothers, actually prefer not to have full-on careers or buck-stops-here jobs”. But his greatest fear – I kid you not – was the possibility that our parliament would become populated by witches. Noting that the latest census had found the number of witches in Australia had jumped more than four-fold in just six years, he stated that the risk of having a woman at the top was just too great. “We’ve had enough ministers practise voodoo economics and do vanishing tricks with our money,” he wrote, “without Labor putting a witch in charge.”
These days, with his operatic wanderlust over, Andrew Bolt deals with trolls of an entirely different nature. The term is used today to describe people who post abusive or off-message material on blogs or in chat rooms. It has also become a general term of abuse on Bolt’s blog: “Go home troll. Your village is missing an idiot,” was a posting in March 2009 by the same man who made the offensive comments about David Marr. The comments that are made on blogs or on Twitter are often quite startling for their crudeness.
For newspapers, such banter presents a particular challenge because it is deemed to be published just as any other journalist-generated content is. Reader comments and, importantly, links to articles and videos made by readers are subject to the same laws of defamation, and most newspapers are now trying to come to grips with how to encourage reader participation while preventing abuses of law and taste. The problem is exacerbated by people using fake names, or inventive ‘handles’ – “far canal of perf”, “bigfatpaganprincess of Queensland”, “finally had enough” and “rightwingnucleararmeddeathrabbit” are just several of Bolt’s trolls – and not being obliged to disclose their real identities.
That is about to change.
“We are moving towards a position of having greater control over what people leave on our website and we will be in a position to trace back comments if we have to,” says Phil Gardner. Two important changes have already occurred. The Herald and Weekly Times Group now has a ‘pre-moderation policy’, whereby posts are directed to a holding site where they will sit for anything up to half an hour until they can be checked. And this is done in house – by sub-editors who can be required to moderate upwards of several thousand comments per day.
Bolt’s television start has been shaky, and his daily radio stint on MTR with shock-jock Steve Price gets less than a 2% share of Melbourne’s morning ratings. On television Bolt is stilted and awkward and does not look comfortable in front of the camera but he is getting plenty of help. The Melbourne-based The Bolt Report is well resourced, with three local producers. “He gets a fair bit of coaching,” says a Ten insider, “but they are confident he can eventually do it.” That confidence does not yet extend to filming the show live. They start shooting the three segments hours before the program goes to air. Insiders is filmed live, as is Meet The Press, which follows The Bolt Report and which has received a welcome ratings boost from its new timeslot. (It was previously at the unfriendly hour of 8 am.) “We call it the Bolt-led recovery,” says Tom Krause, Meet The Press supervising producer. Critics have noted that the “furious agreement” between host and panellists on The Bolt Report does not make for great television. “He was best when being challenged,” says Barrie Cassidy of his Insiders appearances. “Preaching down the barrel of a camera is not very persuasive.” Bolt’s guests have included Tony Abbott, John Howard, Peter Costello and regular Michael Kroger, as well as Labor outsiders such as Michael Costa, Belinda Neal and Mark Latham, but no federal government minister has yet appeared. Unlike Insiders, where host Cassidy interviews guests and encourages divergence on his panel of journalists, Bolt declaims and opines, inviting guests to simply agree with him.
It seems Bolt has a solid, if fluctuating, audience. The show debuted with 163,000 viewers (and another 123,000 at the encore on Sunday afternoon), dipped to 100,000 in June but stacked up a solid 168,000 on 4 September, just 20,000 viewers shy of the Insiders audience, although on 18 September it crashed to just 86,000. Bolt has started hinting he’d like the show to be extended to an hour. He already does commentary on the Ten Network news and if, as is being speculated within Ten, he improves his performance sufficiently to handle live to air, The Bolt Report (with a name change to The Bolt Factor, perhaps?) will move to prime time. It is widely believed that MTR owner John Singleton is seeking to buy the top-rating 3AW from Fairfax. “If Bolt ends up on 3AW that would give him enormous power,” says Eric Beecher, owner of Crikey. “A 15% rating; for a lot of people that would be very scary.”
Taken together, the columns, the blogs, the radio and the television constitute a formidable media presence and a powerful voice that seems destined to just keep growing. Bolt does not use Facebook but in recent weeks has begun to tweet links to his blogs. On 21 September he had just 465 followers (compared with Annabel Crabb’s 38,894 and Laurie Oakes’s 33,887 on the same day) but the potential is there for his reach to grow exponentially once his followers sign up and start re-tweeting him. It’s a far cry from the junior sports reporter for the Age who in 1982 covered the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane by riding inside Matilda, the giant kangaroo mascot.
On 9 September The Power Index, a publication of Crikey, anointed Andrew Bolt as the nation’s most influential ‘megaphone’. “Print, TV, radio: there’s no medium this conservative can’t conquer” was the citation. They added: “Bolt bites … his willingness to bully, bait and ridicule is crucial to understanding his power.” Bolt’s response was to blog: “Gosh, world domination is easier than I thought … Basically I just type stuff at a keyboard in my study with an imprudent lack of concern for the consequences …”
– 21 September