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Sunday Age Akerman profile and nudist MP attacks

Piers Akerman is a hard man who is backing the PM’s stance on the Tampa more aggressively than almost anyone else. Well, Piers, if you’re going to go in so hard, we’d like to remind Crikey’s readers of a few things that have been said about you over the years.

RICHARD JONES: “Piers Akerman wrote a number of articles during the past few weeks. In an article on 10 August he stated: ‘As for the notion that junkies, if given free smack, will be able to hold down a regular job - what a joke!’

It has been proved that they have done so. In another article on 24 August he wrote: ‘Small wonder then Mr Howard’s decision to derail the ACT’s unscientific free heroin handout was attacked by apologists for drug addicts and pushers.’

On and on he goes, attacking it. In an article on 27 July he said: ‘Society itself has to re-enforce the no-drugs message and make it harder for the drug merchants to survive.’

The joke is that Piers Akerman, when he lived in Albion Street in the 1970s, used LSD and marijuana regularly. He also used cocaine regularly when he was in the United States of America, in Los Angeles and Washington. I have spoken to someone who shared a number of cocaine lines with Piers Akerman. He was a drug addict. He also sexually harassed young female employees of News Limited in Washington and was sent back to the United Kingdom, where he tried to become the editor of the London Times but was denied that. He tried to get a job recently with the Sydney Morning Herald but was denied that, too. Here we have this hypocrite who is working hard to oppose what would have been a very useful reform in the drug fight in this country and now he is working against the interests of the community by torpedoing that. He himself was a drug addict and he still is a drug addict on legal drugs to this very day.

ENDS

Second Coward’s Castle Attack by Richard Jones

Richard Jones: I draw the attention of the House to yet another highly defamatory attack by Piers Akerman on me and my crossbench colleague the Hon. Franca Arena. In today’s Daily Telegraph, referring to the Hon. Franca Arena, Piers Akerman said:

As a member of parliament, however, she should be aware that many members of the public think that she, and those of her parliamentary colleagues who have also abused parliamentary privilege to make scurrilous personal attacks on members of the public, are also guilty of a form of blackmail.’

The article continued: ‘Nudist MLC Richard Jones, for example, or the Victorian Federal MP Kelvin Thomson, both supporters of the aborted ACT heroin trial, have also used their privileged positions to make false allegations about those whose views do not coincide with their own.’

But he does not refer to the fact that he is the one about whom I was making the allegations, not anybody else. In an article in a Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph he confirmed that he had indeed used several of the drugs mentioned in the allegations. I do not know whether it was one, two, three, or four different types of drugs, but he did make that admission. He did not, of course, admit ever being addicted to those drugs, but he did admit to using them. He attacked us in the general sense that we - I in particular - abused parliamentary privilege when in fact I did not. I drew the attention of the House to a matter of public interest: the man who was condemning the heroin trial, who writes about drugs time and again, and who writes article after article on pot, himself had been a long-time pot user. He had also used cocaine and perhaps other drugs such as LSD. According to the information that I had he did indeed use LSD and cocaine. We know he used cocaine many times both here and in the United States of America, yet he campaigns against drugs, which makes a joke of the whole thing.

The article continued: ‘The shameful activities of politicians such as Mrs Arena, Mr Jones and Mr Thomson, all operating under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, have done as much to discredit the reputations of our politicians…’

Piers Akerman has done a lot to discredit the reputation of journalists. He has discredited his newspaper by making allegations about our abusing parliamentary privilege. He has abused his position as a journalist by making false allegations about us. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. By this stage he must have a few broken windows.

ends

And now let’s have a look at this 1991 Sunday Age article by the singularly excellent journalist Caroline Wilson, who is now the paper’s chief football writer. Many Sydneysiders who have put up with Akerman’s rantings for the past 7 years will be most interested in this:

Sunday Age profile on Akerman

POWER in Victoria operates at many levels. One of those levels is Peter Janson’s four-storey converted warehouse in the city’s Highlander Lane where, six nights ago, Mr Janson hosted a cocktail party for the incoming Chief Justice of Victoria, John Phillips.

The guest list was vintage Janson. It included pollster Gary Morgan, Australian tourism boss John Haddad, magazine queen Dulcie Boling, former swimming champion turned businessman-about-town John Konrads, Lady (Claire) Baillieu and `The Sunday Age’ Spy columnist, Lawrence Money. There was a state Liberal candidate, a former Hong Kong Bank chief and a corporate head-hunter.

And, of course, there was Piers Akerman who, despite settling in this state only 17 months ago, now helps dictate the way Victorians think. If you are not a friend or enemy of Piers Akerman and if you do not move in media or political social circles, his name is not likely to mean much. But of all the people on Mr Janson’s list, he was probably the most powerful.

Mr Akerman has been editor-in-chief of Australia’s most widely read newspaper, `The Herald-Sun’, since it was launched in October last year. He is the man who oversaw the disposal - both voluntary and otherwise - of 70 Herald and Weekly Times journalists after the closure of `The Sunday Herald’ in April.

An aggressive hands-on executive, he has turned the ever-popular tabloid, formerly `The Sun News-Pictorial’, from an entertaining community hot-water bottle into, among other things, a vigorous political mouthpiece.

The most powerful media proprietor in the world, Rupert Murdoch, recently described Mr Akerman as one of News Limited’s greatest assets. “That’s because he’s prepared to hurt people,” said Damien Murphy, a former senior writer for `The Sunday Herald’, now at `Time Australia’.

Most of us are too lazy and don’t like the stress, and yet he appears to enjoy the stress.” Added a former editor of `The Sunday Herald’ color magazine, Jo Wiles: “His behavior is symptomatic of the corporate culture of News Limited. The top executives don’t mind if their executives are hated, and he is their hatchet man. Wherever he moves he creates tension. I suppose it’s a compliment to him that he can invoke such hatred.”

But Mr Akerman described the closure of `The Sunday Herald’ and the subsequent retrenchments as the most devastating experience of his 26-year journalistic career. When told by `The Sunday Age’ that he had been described by a series of employees - past and present - as a “hit man”, he accused this newspaper of setting out to portray him in a negative fashion and stressed that before `The Sunday Herald’ closed he had never sacked or made redundant a single employee.

At a previous interview, while pondering the depth of emotion the mention of his name provokes in many journalists, Mr Akerman said: “I’m used to being an alien in an unknown environment. I believe Australia suffers from a lemming-like rush for people to mythologise or demonise individuals. I deplore it, but that’s the way culture is. They look for scapegoats, and if I become the whipping boy then so be it.”

Mr Akerman appears to be regarded by the Murdochs in the way affectionate parents would regard their naughty, bullying child. At a boardroom lunch during Mr Akerman’s brief editorship of `The Sunday Herald’ a senior staff member asked Janet Calvert-Jones, the chairman of The Herald and Weekly Times and Mr Murdoch’s sister, why Mr Akerman was not yet present.

Mrs Calvert-Jones smiled. “He’s probably knocking two heads together in a corridor somewhere,” she said.

Mr Akerman is the man whose blatant anti-Joan Kirner stand late last year helped push the Victorian Premier to chase support via the TV news broadcasts instead, that saw her popularity rating soar. And yet only last month Mrs Kirner invited Mr Akerman to join her Public Safety and Anti-Crime Council, the peak Victorian body formed to co-ordinate police and community crime prevention programs.

The staff who worked on the 1989 election campaigns of the South Australian Premier, John Bannon, and his Liberal opponent, John Olsen, both contend that it was Mr Akerman’s determination to hand Mr Olsen victory in the final week of the campaign that moved the electorate into sticking with Mr Bannon.

Mr Akerman was editor of `The Adelaide Advertiser’ at the time, a 21-month tenure that turned the newspaper and its staff on their heads. Mr Akerman built up an amazing loyalty from some journalists in Adelaide, and made sworn, lifelong enemies of others. His newspaper was also accused by `The Adelaide Review’ of plagiarising editorials. Mr Akerman said the accusation concerned him, but said that plagiarism had not been intended by his staff.

The South Australian ALP newpaper, `The Herald’, wrote after his departure: “From the moment this bombastic Billy Bunter of a man bounced into Adelaide from London one unnaturally quiet Sunday afternoon, until his departure on July 20 (1990) … the whole town sat up in shock and bemusement.”

When Mr Akerman arrived in Melbourne last year it was officially to assume the editorship of `The Sunday Herald’. But it was only five weeks later that he began work on “Project X”, the 24-hour `Herald-Sun’.

A larger-than-life reputation preceded Mr Akerman, a reputation built up during a 26-year career which began at `The West Australian’. From there he moved to the ill-fated `Newsday’ in Victoria as the trade union roundsman. His rapid rise with News Limited began at Sydney’s `Daily Mirror’ and continued at `The Australian’, along with 10 years in the US as a foreign correspondent in New York and Los Angeles and a spell at `The Times’ in London.

It was in the US, while covering the America’s Cup at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1974 that he met his future wife, Suzanne, now a solicitor instructing the royal commission of inquiry into Tricontinental. They were married in Connecticut several years later and have two children, Tess, 8, and Pia, 6.

Born in New Guinea, Piers Akerman was raised in Perth by his parents, John and Eve Akerman. His father, now deceased, was a prominent doctor and his mother a writer who is well known in WA as a newspaper columnist and reviewer. He is the third son in a family of four children.

Mr Akerman was schooled at Guildford and Christ Church in Perth. He was asked to leave Guildford, and said this week that he did not see eye-to-eye with his headmaster. He ended his schooldays, although not completing his final-year exams, as a boarder at Christ Church.

He took great delight at playing along with Janet Holmes a Court at the opening of `Phantom’ (of the Opera) last year,” recalled Damien Murphy, “when she thought she remembered him from the University of Western Australia. She was obviously thinking of one of his brothers, but he was quite chuffed and played along.”

He was a naughty boy who incurred the wrath of several headmasters,” recalled a long-time Akerman acquaintance, the Australian author and former newspaperman Robert Drewe. “I went to another school, but he was fairly well known. He was 21 for many years, then he was 25 for five or six years. Now he’s probably 28.”

Among his critics there is no shortage of rumors, even extending to previous cocaine and alcohol abuse. Asked about this allegation Mr Akerman, who is clearly overweight, replied: “My appearance belies that story, don’t you think?” Former `Sunday Herald’ staff remember many things about Mr Akerman’s style. They remember his obsession with the novel `The Silence of the Lambs’ and his feeling that its cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, was the most remarkable character he had come across.

Five former employees, three of whom agreed to be named, said they witnessed Mr Akerman sexually harass female members of his staff, namely Corinna Hente, Gabrielle Derrick and Catherine Lambert. Two days after the first birthday party for `The Sunday Herald’, held at the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra, a group of women staff met and agreed to protect each other in the office.

We all knew about the Corinna (Hente) episode,” said former advertising manager Jane Chisholm. “We just decided we’ve got to watch out for him because he was such a creep.” Damien Murphy recalled: “He invades your space. He looks people up and down of any sex and it’s a sort of flagrant thing. Guys just don’t understand about harassment, they can’t relate to it, and if Piers was in full throttle we wouldn’t know what to do, partly because we’d be too terrified for our jobs.”

Added Jo Wiles, currently a drivetime commentator for 3AW: “One reacts to him (Mr Akerman) on lots of different levels. At first I couldn’t understand his appalling reputation. He seemed urbane, articulate, a good newspaperman, and I liked his speed. He was quite dynamic and vigorous, quick at summing up and sort of a man of action.

But I couldn’t believe the way he treated women. And it was always the women who were subordinate to him - sub-editors, cadets. I saw him kiss one woman to the end of her fingertips. She just didn’t know how to react. In a social situation once I saw him place his arm under the arm of a sub-editor and on to her breast.

When she asked him to stop he seemed quite surprised - he felt he was just letting her know she was attractive,” Ms Wiles said.

`The Sunday Age’ contacted Ms Hente and Ms Derrick, whom Mr Akerman alternatively nicknames “Bo” or “Brenda Starr”. Both refused to comment on the allegations. Mr Akerman would only say: “If you tell me that I am alleged (pause) and the people involved say that they don’t wish to speak about these allegations, then I have no wish to speak about these allegations either. That’s it.”

Asked by `The Sunday Age’ about allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Akerman, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian Journalists’ Association, Mr Mike Sutherland, replied: “I’ve heard the allegations informally. They have not been made as formal complaints. I have spoken to members concerned and asked if they wished to make formal complaints.

They’ve said no _ partly because of the traumatic nature of the events and because there are no jobs in journalism and they fear for their jobs. It (sexual harassment) is an assault, and we would expect any executive who did it for the company concerned to sack him.” `The Sunday Herald’ staff also remember an early decree to senior staff to steer clear of gratuitous “bleeding heart” stories involving such groups as homosexuals, the unemployed and environmentalists. They remember him removing references to homosexuals in the book review section.

I would take anything that I found particularly offensive out of a book review,” Mr Akerman said, “out of a news story, out of a feature story and scrap it … because I consider that they depict either gratuitous violence or scenes that are totally distasteful.

It applies across the paper, that is what an editor does. Now it may be difficult to understand at `The Age’ or `The Sunday Age’ because of the way, the nature of the company and the fact that those papers are not well edited. The fact that they’re not well edited has been raised by a number of commentators recently including the Governor General, the Minister for Communications among others.”

The parliamentary inquiry into print media has heard allegations that Mr Akerman conducted a campaign against the Kirner Government, allegations denied by Mr Akerman. The Trades Hall Council sent a circular to its affiliates 13 months ago accusing `The Herald-Sun’ of reaching new heights in union bias during the Hoechst dispute.

Mr Akerman’s reaction? “It was the Melbourne `Herald’ which broke the VEDC story while `The Age’ virtually ignored it,” he said. “If I’m ever accused of bias I would roll on the floor laughing.

For a major newspaper (`The Age’) to be so uncritical of a sitting government for so many years… unless every journalist was blind and the editor as well you’d have to accuse them of bias. I mean the dogs were barking in the streets.”

Mr Akerman lunched with Damien Murphy on his first Tuesday in Melbourne. During the lunch he described the then Premier, John Cain, as a “dead body” and a “stinking corpse” which had to be “dragged off”.

Journalist Keith Dunstan says `The Herald-Sun’ is politically much more aggressive under Mr Akerman. Mr Dunstan was a stalwart of `The Sun’ who now contributes to Fairfax publications including `The Sunday Age’.

Piers Akerman has reintroduced the editorials, and I think the newspaper’s extremely conservative views show through in the news columns,” Mr Dunstan said.

The paper takes delight in embarrassing federal and state governments, the features section is messy and over-written, the sports coverage is excellent, and if you ignore the first three pages it’s actually not a bad paper. It covers a lot more news than `The Age’.”

Mr Akerman said he believed the now defunct `Herald’ had “left its run too late” and had to go, while `The Sun’ was “too masculine and lacked an edge; football heroes in hoaxy or contrived situations”.

As for his own editing style and newspaper philosophy: “I’m a stayer. I go the distance. I don’t rush in and make bosom buddies with people in a matter of minutes.” Said Jo Wiles, a News Limited employee for eight years before she resigned late last year: “He has overseen the destruction of the most successful newspaper in Australia and created a hybrid that is neither one thing nor the other.”

`The Sunday Age’ has questioned 12 staff who worked under Mr Akerman at `The Sunday Herald’. His detractors from that time far outweigh the admirers.

Said Mr Murphy: “He is a very good newspaperman, except somewhere along the line he got polluted by ambition to become a corporate person. I don’t believe his newspaper has any loyalty to Melbourne or the people of Melbourne.” Yet a senior `Herald-Sun’ journalist, who refused to be named, described him as the toughest and best editor for whom she had worked. The journalist said that Mr Akerman never allowed journalists to rest on their laurels, and was an invigorating, challenging employer.

The hysteria which Mr Akerman’s name provoked during the industrial dispute over the `Herald-Sun’ redundancies earlier this year saw a large group of picketing striking employees chant at him to “jump, jump, jump” upon seeing his face at his office window.

Although Mr Akerman left Adelaide 17 months ago, his legacy remains, as do a series of dark allegations. One of the most controversial was his alleged threat to assault the literary editor of `The Advertiser’, Shirley Stott Despoja.

The dispute began with Mr Akerman’s attempt to switch Ms Stott Despoja’s Saturday column to a different section of the newspaper. It ended before a full bench of the Supreme Court where the newspaper appealed against Ms Stott Despoja’s successful worker’s compensation claim for stress-related sickleave pay.

The court was told that the stress was due to an incident at work on 8 December 1988. Ms Stott Despoja alleged: “I was physically threatened by the editor while alone with him in an office in a dispute over my work.”

The appeal by `The Advertiser’ was dismissed and Ms Stott Despoja won her $4000 claim. When asked about Ms Stott Despoja’s allegations, Mr Akerman warned `The Sunday Age’ to “be very careful”.

When contacted by `The Sunday Age’ regarding Mr Akerman, Ms Stott Despoja gasped and said “Oh God.” She added: “All I have left is my house and my children. I cannot risk losing my house. I cannot comment.”

Ms Stott Despoja turned to several journalists and politicians for support during that time and received little. One who did champion her cause was former Australian Democrats leader Janine Haines.

We were already off side,” Ms Haines recalled. “He didn’t like me and he didn’t like my party.” Ms Haines had a column in `The Sunday Herald’ which, she said, Mr Akerman dropped soon after assuming editorship of the newspaper.

Mr Akerman sued the Australian Journalists Association and `The Sydney Morning Herald’ after both bodies made references to unrest at `The Advertiser’ during his tenure. The federal office of the AJA settled out of court for $20,000, a move which prompted the South Australian branch to record its strong disapproval. Former state secretary Bill Rust described the settlement as “the greatest sell-out in the history of the union”.

`The Sydney Morning Herald’ action is still pending, as is legal action taken by Mr Akerman against the publisher of `The Age’, David Syme and Co. Limited. Mr Akerman has alleged he was defamed in a News Diary column (15 March 1991) which he said cast a cloud over his taste and judgment in foreign affairs.

Mr Akerman initially refused to be interviewed because of `The Age’ defamation action. He later agreed after `The Sunday Age’ attempted to confront him outside `The Herald-Sun’ building. He said he was “saddened” by this attempt - this from a man who once telephoned John Bannon’s wife, Angela, on her private line in the early hours of the morning about a story regarding the mental health of the then Attorney General of South Australia, Chris Sumner, and accused Mr Bannon of a political cover-up.

Another alleged incident involved `Adelaide Advertiser’ journalist Michaelangelo Rucci. Mr Rucci was a sports journalist laying out the sports pages on the night of the alleged incident. Katrina Power, an Aboriginal woman, was working for the newspaper as a sports cadet at the time.

It was late at night and Piers walked in and I could tell by his body language he was ropeable,” she said. “I didn’t like his manner so I made sure he didn’t see me. I often did that when I saw him coming. It was during the 1988 Olympics and the sports editor wasn’t there.

He (Mr Akerman) grabbed Rucci by the ear, moved his head down and then pulled it up and said: `Come with me’. He physically forced Rucci with his right hand on his ear and picked him up.

As an Aboriginal person I’d witnessed those tactics before when they were employed by police. I could not believe that this could happen in a civilised society.” Mr Rucci told an executive of `The Advertiser’ that no apology was necessary. He did not register a complaint, although the South Australian branch of the AJA obtained a sworn affadavit from him that Mr Akerman grabbed him by the ear. A B-grade journalist at the time of the incident, Mr Rucci was posted to News Limited’s New York bureau several months later. When contacted by `The Sunday Age’, Mr Rucci gave an “off-the-record” account of the incident and later sent a transcript of our conversation to Mr Akerman.

One former staffer who is still a friend described Mr Akerman as a man “made up of extremely beautiful humane qualities, an ability to love and care coupled with some quite atrocious shortcomings”.

When this was put to Mr Akerman he replied: “I should pay you for analysis.” Certainly he is charming, articulate and intelligent, a man who is adored by most of his personal secretaries, who demands fresh flowers in his office.

Another former employee, the wine and food writer for `The Advertiser’, Paul Lloyd, said: “He’s a very complex man with a very rare brain. I have a feeling a very remarkable man passed this way and we’ll never see the likes of him again.” Four journalists said they had considering writing profiles of Mr Akerman but had either been too frightened of falling out with News Limited, which controls more than 60 per cent of Australian newspapers, or felt they could not write about him in an unbiased fashion.

One journalist who fell into the second category was John Laws’ biographer and New York correspondent of `The Sydney Morning Herald’, John Lyons. “I will never again agree to join a newspaper on which Piers Akerman has any role whatsoever,” said Mr Lyons, who worked as national chief of staff under Mr Akerman at `The Australian’ during 1986 and 1987.

Steve Gibbons, who worked as night editor of `The Advertiser’ and now edits `The Rockhampton Courier’, felt Mr Akerman was unpredictable, bull-at-a-gate and rarely translated his message clearly.

Some people would call it bullying,” said Mr Gibbons, who once departed the office in tears following a showdown with Mr Akerman. “I don’t look back on that time with any pleasure and yet I learnt from it. I’m a better editor because of it.

And anyway, he must be doing something right because Rupert likes him.”

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