Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why Was A Press Release About Peter Slipper Deleted From The Liberal Party Website?

Advance Summary

1. This post examines claims that a 2012 press release about former Speaker Peter Slipper was deleted from the Liberal Party website "overnight" on the night of 17 July.

2. This post finds that all press releases from July 2010 to December 2012, not just those mentioning Peter Slipper, were recently deleted.

3. Google cache evidence suggests that while the mass deletion of press releases clearly occurred in the last 11 days, it probably predates the Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal.


A topic of discussion today on Twitter has been a claim that a press release about Peter Slipper was deleted.  This forms a minor part of the ongoing Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal, which in recent days has significantly deprived the government of the friendly media cycle they enjoyed when news was dominated by Bill Shorten's TURC appearance and a leak of internal Labor carbon pricing discussions.

The topic appears to have first arisen in this tweet by a sparsely active but well-established (ie it didn't just spring up overnight, and appears genuine) Twitter account:

Click here for link to original tweet.

This tweet was retweeted by van Onselen and at present van Onselen's retweet has been retweeted almost 600 times and favourited over 200 times.  A subsequent similar tweet by @JohnWren1950, crediting the original source in a later tweet, has itself been retweeted over 200 times.  So this claim is well and truly doing the rounds.

The impression being given by numerous Twitter lefties who have jumped gleefully on this apparent "smoking gun" is that the Liberal Party website deleted press releases in which Tony Abbott had said scathing things about Slipper's use of expenses, because the application of the same words to the current Bronwyn Bishop scandal would be embarrassing.

The matter has also reached the attention of New Matilda. The NM piece includes the full text of the original press release and opens with the (in my view correct) assumption that "someone in the Liberal Party has decided to do some winter cleaning."

I have looked into this matter and established the following:

1. The Liberal Party website press releases section currently shows no press releases prior to January 2, 2013.  (Nor do any appear in the search function on the site).

2. Despite this, the Slipper press release was being picked up at a slightly different URL by Google Cache until very recently (25 May 2015, to be precise).

3. However, that also applies to Google Caches for several press releases unrelated to Peter Slipper - for example this one.

4. Where URLs ended in .aspx, saved versions of them are not available past the end of 2012 in the Wayback Machine.  (In some cases, later Wayback hits on the URLs exist, but all of those go to file-not-found pages rather than the original articles). This was probably caused by a content management change around that time.

5. However, URL versions of 2012 press releases not ending in .aspx are often available in the Wayback Machine from 2013 onwards.  This is again consistent with a change in site and pages being migrated.

6. The most recent Wayback capture for a working 2012 press release page was on June 20 2015.

7. Some 2012 press release pages have slightly more recent Google cache dates.

It is clearly not the case that certain press releases relating to Peter Slipper were removed, and not any others.  Rather, there has been a recent removal of all 2012 press releases.  But with the defeat of one conspiracist hypothesis, a replacement will always spring up in its place.  Such as: well, of course, they wouldn't have just deleted one, as that would have attracted obvious suspicion; better to delete a whole bunch then, and make it look innocent.

When did the deletion happen?

Let's suppose that someone had decided to delete all the 2012 pages from the Liberal Party website yesterday in order to avoid drawing attention to posts criticising Peter Slipper.  We should then expect that if we examine the Google caches for sufficient 2012 press release pages, we should find some that were up and most recently cached in the past few days.

Using the common search term "Abbott" I searched for Google hits for pages containing "".  This search retrieves about 160 documents.  I kept going through them in order to get the date of the cache for pages; after a while I got put on CAPTCHA screening to check that I wasn't a robot.  Eventually I got blocked from using Google Cache altogether, which looks like this:

(Seems it isn't permanent, luckily - I'm now back to only being on CAPTCHA.)

Anyway at that point I had been through most of the sample and the following graph shows how many pages I recorded from the first hundred or so hits that were cached each number of days ago:

The 10 July data point (8 days old) bugs me a bit.  It's an outlier to a very much walled-looking distribution that otherwise seems to cut out at 7 July, and I worried that it might be a clerical mistake on my part. I later wanted to post a link to that cache, but when I went back and rechecked the first few pages of Google hits, where I had seen it, I couldn't find it again.  The point, with or without that data point (which should be regarded as unverified unless somebody else can get the same), is that the Google cache hits for 2012 press releases on the Liberal Party page dry up several days ago.

If, by comparison, we examine the most recent Google caches for the 2013 press releases, which are still online, the first ten I checked all dated from 16 or 17 July.  Something like that is what we should expect to find if, as is being asserted, the 2012 press releases were taken down "overnight".  I don't find that, and I don't find anything consistent with the pages being taken down since the Bishop expenses scandal broke on July 15.  Most likely the pages had already been taken down a few to several days before.

Of course, the conspiracy mindset could now retreat to another claim: maybe the pages were taken down a few days before the Bishop expenses scandal broke because somebody knew what was coming, anticipated unfavourable comparisons with Tony Abbott's response to Peter Slipper, and wanted to manage the fallout?

But, quite aside from further descending the slope towards unfalsifiability, it's a daft idea anyway.  We're supposed to believe someone had the intelligence and skill to anticipate all of that, and come up with the idea of removing all the other pre-2013 pages as well, but not to credit that internet users would just find copies of the pages via Wayback, Google cache and other records of the time?

Unless someone has some startling technical revelation about the workings of Google Cache that unsettles the above (in which case I'm happy to be educated and to educate readers on the matter), the most likely explanation is pure coincidence: that old press release material just happened to be deleted within the past couple of weeks by someone who had no idea that mouldering old press releases from 2012 cluttering up the party website would be of special interest very soon.

But a fair slice of the left on Twitter is both desperate for anything they can use to bring down Bishop and Abbott, and gullible when it comes to retweeting claims that support their prejudices.

This Is Not The Way

I am no fan at all of the current Speaker.  Speakers frequently have been rather biased and the lack of neutrality in the Speakership has long been a blot on our federal political system. They tend to boot far more Opposition MPs than Government ones, and while that doesn't prove anything by itself (since Opposition MPs tend to misbehave more, and have more opportunities in Question Time to do so) Bishop is statistically the most lopsided in her booting ratio.  While she has in the past displayed more knowledge of parliamentary rules and procedures than most on her side, I've not been impressed with her performance when I've listened to Parliament and I've not seen any evidence that she has been much more "provoked" than others before her.

I will not shed any tear if our Speaker is brought down by perceptions over things she has said and done over this matter, even if some of those perceptions are unkind takes made so by her behaviour in the Chair or the media's constant drive for a big scalp.  But I draw the line at the use of blatantly unproven claims that appear on closer inspection to be false.  Not for the first time, I wonder why so many left-wing Twitter users are so utterly gullible when it comes to a claim that material was deleted "overnight", when no proof yet exists that this was so, and close inspection suggests it may not be.  For instance, if you dislike Abbott because he denies the facts about climate change, on what leg do you stand if you spend your time on social media gullibly spreading nonfacts about him and his government?  If you dislike Abbott because he is unfair on same-sex marriage, on what leg do you stand if you make unfair silly claims about him?

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said "A lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on."  In proof of the truth of the statement, he didn't actually say it, but it is now widely falsely believed he did anyway. Nor did Mark Twain coin a different version regarding boots.  But when Jonathan Swift (surely a worthy enough source) made much the same observation back in 1710, he was observing a world where news could take months to cross continents.  These days, falsehood doesn't so much fly like a bird; it has much faster ways to get around.  Including, of course, helicopters.

Update Sunday: The Pandora archive, which retains complete copies of party websites (another reason why the idea that the material was deliberately deleted to avoid scrutiny is nuts) was offline yesterday but is now online again.  It has many archived versions of the Liberal Party website.  The most recent is dated 18 April 2015 and shows that at that time press releases back to 17 July 2010 were stored, this having been the case for at least three years.

Party comparison:  Since the Liberals are receiving some flak for the removal of 4-year-old press releases from their website (with the assumption in many circles that this was done to hide things from the internet) I thought a comparison with other parties might be interesting.

The Greens' press release archive goes back to October 2008.

The Nationals press release archive goes back to September 2010.

The Labor press release archive ... yes, hmmm.   I couldn't find one, and nor could I find evidence that one has been on the ALP site at any time since Bill Shorten became Opposition Leader.  Various archives existed during the Prime Ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, but they went back a few years at most.  All I could find on the ALP site was the Our Stories section which contains the most recent half-dozen or so items.  I also found archives on campaign sites, but only for each campaign.

So if the Liberal Party deletes stuff that is over three and a half years old then the timing is suspicious if a scandal erupts shortly after, and this is all evidence that the Liberals are trying to hide things from the internet, but the apparent fact that the ALP doesn't keep press releases on its main site for even a few months anymore (or at least store them somewhere reasonably obvious) is not?

Note added Tuesday: I just saw another popular Twitter version of this rumour:

 This one, also started around the same time as the others, has over 650 retweets and 300 favourites.  However, once again,  deletion on the night of 17 July has been asserted as fact without evidence.

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