Malcolm Turnbull in middle of media frenzy

When he was opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull advised press gallery hacks never to be ''dull''.

He lived up to his own advice this week, with a riveting face-off against Sydney radio's reigning shock jock Alan Jones on Thursday morning, and a lacerating dismissal of conservative columnist Andrew Bolt as ''demented.''

Bolt and Jones are particularly shrill members of a media squad which sees its job as forming a defensive perimeter around Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But the idea that Turnbull's decision to take the pair on represents proxy undermining of Abbott is a conspiracy theory too far.

Bolt and Jones convinced themselves that Turnbull was guilty of treachery by choosing to dine, in the middle of a parliamentary sitting week, with the increasingly outlandish Clive Palmer, a trenchant Abbott critic. The dinner took place before Palmer's indefensible attack on Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, over the paid parental leave scheme.

Initially the Turnbull office chose to make light of the dinner, even hatching a plan to offer a ''secret'' dinner with Palmer, Turnbull, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as a prize at the upcoming press gallery ball.

But Bolt kicked leadership speculation into high gear on Sunday when he asked Abbott if Turnbull was angling for the Prime Minister's job.

By Monday, with TV cameras camped outside Turnbull's Canberra flat, it was clear the Bolt thesis was whipping like wildfire through the wilder fringes of the commentariat, with Jones' broadcasts fanning the flames.

''It's not in Malcolm's nature to walk away from direct personal attacks on him,'' said someone who knows Turnbull well.

''Jones has a big audience and, unless you take him on, he will pour a bucket of shit over you day after day after day.''

Jones began his Thursday morning encounter with Turnbull in gladiatorial fashion, demanding the Communications Minister pledge he was ''totally supportive'' of the Abbott-Hockey budget strategy. Turnbull returned serve: ''Alan I'm not going to take dictation from you.''

And so it went for the next 23 minutes, Turnbull for the most part maintaining an icy calm.

Despite the poor polls, this Liberal Party room does not want Turnbull back in the leadership. He knows that, even though politics will always be part waiting game. In her quarterly essay on Turnbull, Annabel Crabb wrote that colleagues often talked about ''good Malcolm'' and ''bad Malcolm''.

This week we saw Malcolm in the middle - the disciplined half, wrestling with the sometimes volatile, always proud side of a man who built his own empire before entering politics. Other than striking back in his own defence, what is Turnbull up to? Almost certainly, nothing.

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