By Paul Sheehan
News Limited was willing to pay dearly for this story not to be published. It first offered a $110,000 payment, plus a private apology, to avoid going to court. But the price it demanded was that the matter be kept confidential. The company was told to take a jump. See you in court.
The Daily Telegraph had published four stories about Michael Towke which he believed had defamed him, destroyed his political career, and caused untold stress to his family. ”These stories sent my mother to hospital,” he told me. ”They demonised me. I wanted to confront them in court.”
Michael Towke’s preselection for the federal Liberal seat of Cook in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire was scuttled by a smear campaign. Credit:Jon Reid
But a court was not where News wanted to see Towke. ”They spent a lot of money fighting me,” he said. ”Their lawyers made me jump through every hoop. They asked me 30 pages of questions.”
Near the eve of the court date, lawyers for the subsidiary which publishes the Telegraph, Nationwide News Pty Ltd, offered the confidentiality package, which Towke emphatically rejected.
On the eve of the trial, Nationwide came up with another offer: $50,000, plus costs, plus removing the offending articles from the internet and dropping the confidentiality requirement. On the advice of counsel, Towke accepted.
He was never willing to accept any settlement that was confidential, despite the risk that entailed. ”I was willing to bankrupt myself to clear my name,” he said.
Here is his story
Michael Towke is 34. He attended Marcellin College, Randwick. He is a Lebanese Christian, a practising Catholic and the eldest of eight children. He has a first-class honours degree in engineering and a BA, both from the University of Sydney, and won the Alan Davis Prize, the top prize for sociology.
He has an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. At 17, he joined the Army Reserve and served for 20 months. He is president of the Sylvania conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society and has been volunteering for Vinnies since he was 15. He works as a telecommunications engineer. He has lived in the Sutherland Shire for 10 years.
Towke is also a long-serving member of the Liberal Party. In July 2007 he won preselection for the then safe federal Liberal seat of Cook. He was set to replace the outgoing member, Bruce Baird. The contest attracted a large field, including Paul Fletcher, who recently won Liberal preselection for Bradfield (vacated by the former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson), and a former state director of the NSW Liberal party, Scott Morrison.
Towke won easily. On the first ballot, he polled 10 times as many votes as Morrison, 82 votes to 8, who was eliminated in the first round. His victory meant that a Lebanese Australian would represent the Liberal Party in the seat where the Cronulla riot and revenge raids had taken place 18 months earlier, in December 2005. ”The campaign against me started four days after preselection,” Towke said.
Two senior people within the Liberal Party, whose identity is known to a widening circle within the party, went through Towke’s nomination papers to find every possible discrepancy and weakness. Then they started calling selected journalists to tell them Towke was a liar. The first story appeared in The Daily Telegraph on July 18, 2007, under the headline, ”Liberal ballot scandal in Howard’s backyard.” Three days later, on July 21, a second story appeared in the Telegraph: ”Towke future on hold.” The next day, in The Sunday Telegraph, a third story: ”Party split as Liberal candidate faces jail.”
”That was the story that sent my mother to hospital,” Towke told me.
Then came a fourth story in the Telegraph, on July 25: ”Towke lied, but just by degrees.” Four different Telegraph journalists, two of them very senior, wrote those four stories, so the campaign of leaks and smears was assiduous. There is insufficient space to detail all the claims made and disputed. Towke was portrayed as a serial liar, an exaggerator. He disputed every such imputation with factual evidence. After it was obvious his political credibility had been destroyed by these stories, he started defamation proceedings. A year of legal attrition ensued.
Shortly before the matter was to begin in court this month, Nationwide News paid and settled.
It is telling that experienced Telegraph journalists appear to have based their stories on sources they trusted, suggesting those doing the leaking were both senior figures and seasoned in dealing with the media.
Though Towke would eventually win his legal war, the damage had been done. The adverse media coverage set in train a reaction within the party to get rid of him. A second ballot was ordered, in which the balance of power was shifted away from the grassroots in Cook and to the state executive. The second ballot gave the preselection to Scott Morrison. Amazing. He had been parachuted into the seat over Towke’s political carcass. Morrison clearly had backers who wanted him to get the seat. ”These guys were prepared to ruin my life,” Towke said.
Why? There was a view among some senior Liberals that a Lebanese Australian could not win Cook in a tight election.
Two years later, Towke’s honour has been restored. His name has been cleared, his standing in the party rehabilitated, and his ties to the electorate broadened. Justice will be served when the two assassins within the party are politically terminated. That process has begun. The circle will only be complete if this Lebanese Australian represents the shire in Federal Parliament.