Melaleuca Media
Crikey! Name behind column comes clean

When Hillary Bray, Crikey.com.au's pseudonymous political gossip columnist, finally revealed her identity and her story it was to Susan Brown for this front page Sunday Age article.

It all started as a way to tell the public the truth about what was going on behind the scenes in the political and media world. It was fermented over a drink in a pub in Sydney with maverick Victorian journalist Stephen Mayne. It was named after an identity used by James Bond in a spy novel. And it became Australia's most notorious tell-all political column.

On the Crikey.com.au site since its first publication in 2000, Hillary Bray's funkily written grab bag of tidbits, gossip and stories caused blow ups, political pile ups, shunnings and shamings.

Similar to the hunt for the anonymous author of Primary Colours in the US, the investigation in Australia for the well placed gossip columnist took on a life of its own. A string of hapless politicians, staffers, journalists and others stood accused of being the real Hillary Bray while media organisations devoted time and resources to the quest.

Leads pointed to someone very well connected in the Liberal party, or possibly in the Press Gallery or maybe a lobbyist. Everyone had a theory.

But now the real Hillary has drawn up his six foot two inch frame and 'fessed up to the Sunday Age, telling a remarkable story of political pressure which took him to the bottom of the bottle and back out again.

Backroom boy Christian Kerr, 39, former staffer to a string of Federal Liberals and a State premier has spent four years stirring the Australian political and media world with a constant stream of delicious and sometimes highly vicious gossip.

Writing runs in the blood. He comes from three generations of journalists and by 14 was seriously interested in the confrontational tactics of punk rock, political image making and getting a grounding in the explosive mix of satire, gossip and investigative journalism by reading Private Eye.

Kerr calls himself “a weird Liberal - an economic dry who needed the social dimension”. He did party office bearing stints, worked for a string of moderates and in campaign headquarters in the 1996 federal election. Former employer Senator Robert Hill earns the rating of “a secular saint”, his time with Senator Amanda Vanstone was “terribly frustrating” and advising former SA Premier John Olsen was “soul destroying stuff”.

Despite the excitement of the work, the pressures started mounting. A social drug (a bit of ecstacy, a bit of cocaine) habit had morphed into the beginnings of an alcohol problem as he started getting caught up in more and more compromise. “I felt I was doing the wrong things.”

“On the surface I was pretending to be cool and unrattled. I wore a double breasted suit, french cuffs and a f--k you tie during the day”.

He wasn't alone. He says any number of staffers were out of their depth, under pressure to make major decisions, not necessarily with the skills to do so. The answer was “don't worry, have another glass of red. We lived on wine and takeaway at night in order to cope during the day.” He started suffering “depression and huge self doubt” in a world where “there are no support mechanisms”.

By 1999 he was sick, “burnt out, disillusioned, didn't see the point, felt what we were doing lacked integrity” and left.

In just such a mood he told journalist and former Jeff Kennett press secretary Stephen Mayne that he hated what Mayne was doing on the jeffed.com site but “loved the way it was said. It was erratic, passionate and took enormous courage”. The spin and the sheer amount of information kept from the public and understated by the media concerned them both.

Mr Mayne offered Kerr the gig as Crikey.com.au's political gossip columnist. By then he had a corporate affairs job meant he could only take it anonymously. It was “a bit of a lark, I wasn't doing anything else Sunday afternoons”. They were stunned at the result.

From the moment it debuted with email address dangling tantalisingly at the end, the gossip came flying in from “Minsters, CEO's, insiders and outsiders”. Mr Kerr used his extensive historical and policy knowledge to add information and pull it together with devastating effect. Virtually nothing was off limits – personal and lobbying relationships, spin and damage control laid bare with the full histories and histronics of various characters.

“Hillary became a grotesque caricature, she used too much alliteration, her style was tabloid infused with pop culture and historical references. She became a monster,” Mr Kerr said.

He says two years into it, Hillary was almost out of control. While the information was pouring in, the columns were pouring out, he was pouring down the grog, writing “enough” (he won't say how many) columns drunk. “I think you will find there are enough journalists who do that”.

“Hillary was a manifestation of how unhappy I was.” Mr Kerr had “absolutely hit the wall” trying to cure anger and disillusionment with both the bottle and the pen .

Mr Mayne pulled his star columnist up during the hard times “he was incredibly supportive”. Mr Kerr went teetotal about 15 months ago when “there were only two ways I could go”. He points out Hillary became more responsible and analytical and is now marketed as a “Versatile Political Brand”

He does have regrets – losing himself, hurting some people with stories and the isolation. “I did Hillary because I had a lack of belief in myself – that is why I am coming out now.”

Some stories under the byline weren't his, some were wrong. Mr Kerr says he didn't knowingly publish anything that was untrue. Though asking if a Senator had ordered Campari in a rural pub recently was a margin call.

Citing the speech Robert Kennedy gave the night Martin Luther King was shot, Mr Kerr says his motivating factor is unpacking politics and shaking out the secrets and lies. “It's terribly important to me. It's what politics can be unspun - Kennedy was running late, got the news on the way and then ad-libbed to what was essentially a race riot waiting to happen. It is stunning in its humility and humanity.”

Coming out isn't the end of Hillary Bray. But Christian Kerr says he is relieved he has reclaimed himself. He is doing a masters degree in politics at Adelaide University and after being described as Australia's most feared columnist has decided to take a tilt at mainstream journalism.

Now that's scary.