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Fifty minutes of rolled-gold high dudgeon

THE emergency lights start flashing in the Prime Minister's office long before dawn. One of her media team arrives at 4am to comb, with an eye to potential improvised explosive devices, the morning's newspapers and media reports.

Julia Gillard gets up early, too, and with The Lodge's coffee pot perking, she reaches for her iPad and the day's papers.

Rupert Murdoch's Australian has been top of the morning pile this week as its sleuths have stretched back to the early and mid-1990s, revealing in mind-numbing detail her early days with the Melbourne law firm Slater & Gordon, her relationship with a dodgy ex-boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, the establishment of a legal entity that became a repository for a river of money of dubious origin and even her exploits, assisted by colourful union identities, in home renovation.

As Canberra's rain-soaked morning emerged from an overnight thunderstorm, it was clear to Gillard and her staff The Australian had come a gutser off its own high horse.

Amid the printed verbiage was the claim that she had set up a trust fund for her old boyfriend, then a senior AWU operative over-fond of funds not necessarily legally obtained or used.

The money, Gillard later declared in an interview with alarmed high priests from the firm that employed her, amounted to a ''slush fund''.

But she hadn't set up a trust fund for him. As a young solicitor, she'd offered legal advice on establishing a legal entity believing, she maintains, it was to be used to assist union officials' re-election campaigns. And she hadn't signed the documents establishing it.

By 9.15am, she was in her office at Parliament House with a hot phone in her hand. She wanted to speak to the chief executive of News Ltd, publisher of The Australian, Kim Williams. He wasn't available, and Gillard was put through to editorial director, Campbell Reid.

It didn't take long for Reid to discern the awful depth and the potential consequences of Gillard's ire. When a prime minister utters the words ''highly defamatory'', news directors tend to grip the phone very tightly.

Worse, there was dreadful history here.

Only last August Gillard had forced News Ltd to apologise to her and to retract details of an article concerning the same subject. One of The Australian's columnists lost his job over it.

Hardly more than half an hour after Gillard's phone call, Reid had managed to rush an apology, no ifs or buts, onto The Australian's website.

Thus armed, locked and loaded - and aware that no one else had produced a smoking gun - Gillard felt the time had come to call out everyone in the media who still felt lucky.

She would use a technique known to devotees of the TV series The West Wing as the Arnold Vinick Showdown. In a 2006 episode, presidential candidate Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda, exhausted and defeated the US press corps by taking questions for hours after claims emerged that he had supported a nuclear facility that had almost melted down.

Gillard, magnificent in her dudgeon, assured everyone that she would answer every question they had. She had retained her silence for days, despite being defamed and hounded by an appalling and sexist campaign - including shock-horror circulated on the internet by old cartoonist and conspiracy theorist Larry Pickering - and she wasn't going to take it any more.

Here she was, promising to respond to everything.

And so she did, for close to 50 minutes, until the interrogation melted to an impotent silence. What a defence lawyer she might have been.

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