Garry Linnell was a nobody. An Age cadet fresh out of high school. A postman’s son from Geelong with a mullet hairdo. And yet there he was, at Melbourne’s Assembly Hall, giving 400 battle-hardened Melbourne reporters a sermon on industrial tactics. Not content with blasting Fairfax management, he gave the journalists’ union an almighty whack for ignoring the “exploitation” of junior reporters. From that day on, no one was in doubt: the boy has balls.
“I thought, wow — this kid’s got a lot of poise, a lot of confidence, a lot of chutzpah,” recalled Bruce Guthrie, then a reporter at The Melbourne Herald. “I remember thinking: this kid’s got a future.”
Plenty of Linnell’s contemporaries went on to big things, but none soared so high at the three dominant media companies of their era: Fairfax, News Limited and Kerry Packer’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited. Not that there hasn’t been turbulence along the way.
Three decades after that stop-work meeting, Linnell is again pounding the pulpit at Fairfax as director of news media — a position that makes him the ultimate editorial supremo of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age andThe Canberra Times. His mission, he says, is nothing short of rewiring the DNA of his newsrooms. It’s up to this self-described “old print creature” to usher in the digital-first era.
In the past year alone he’s overhauled editorial structures, overseen a redundancy program that led to the departure of hundreds of journalists, and steered the transition from broadsheet to “compact” formats. From this week, he’ll be monitoring the results from the metered paywall experiment on The Age and SMH websites.
“What I preach to the newsrooms is: get used to change,” Linnell told Crikey. “If you are uncomfortable with constant change, then journalism in the modern age probably isn’t the right job for you.”
Like anyone with strong opinions and a surplus of self-belief, Linnell polarises people. “He’s old school, aggro, confronting,” said a former colleague. “He’s got a macho style and will say, ‘F-ck you, get out of my way’.” Another said: “He’s a hard-arse.” “A big swinging d-ck,” reckoned a third.
“He loves the game,” said Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden. “He wants to get into the battle and take on News Limited and the ABC and prime ministers.”
Everyone knows when Gaz, as he’s universally known, enters the room. He’s tall and bald with bushy black eyebrows. There’s just a crease where a top lip should be. “He’s a big bloke, imposing, not warm, not cuddly,” said a former colleague.
So it was with some trepidation Crikey sat down to lunch with Linnell at The Century Chinese restaurant in Star Casino, five minutes away from Fairfax’s harbour-side Pyrmont headquarters. Thankfully, the Kiss groupie and Star Trek buff proves good fun and an entertaining raconteur.
Linnell’s favourite war story comes from his time as editor-in-chief of The Bulletin,when Packer summoned him to his office.The Bulletin had been critical of one of Packer’s mates, and Linnell hadn’t given Packer a heads-up.
“Son, were you born a dickhead or did you become one when I hired you?” asked Packer. After a five-minute roasting, the mogul spent the next two hours opening up about his family, his career, his life.
“So what do you want me to do with The Bulletin?” asked Linnell as the conversation drew to a close. “Do you want me to make it profitable? Lift circulation?” Packer’s response: “Son, just make ’em talk about it.”
“He was a newspaperman from the first day. I remember him seeing some incident on the train and pitching it as a news story when we were still finding out where the toilets were.”
It’s a line Linnell often uses on his own reporters. “That distills exactly what we should be doing,” he told Crikey. “Give ’em something they haven’t seen before.”
A platter of sang choy bow, salt and pepper prawns and fried rice is laid out before us, going cold. Thankfully, there’s no ox penis in sight. Linnell famously chowed down on four different types of animal penis for The Daily Telegraph during the Beijing Olympics (ox penis, he wrote, is “fatty, slightly chewy and awkward to swallow”). His fellow hacks have been ribbing him about it ever since.
“I’ll never live it down, and I don’t care about living it down,” he said. “Hello: make ’em talk about it.”
Linnell’s decision to become a journalist was a case of life imitating art. His favourite TV show growing up was Night Stalker, in which a Chicago reporter investigates supernatural occurrences. His favourite movie was All the President’s Men, about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s efforts to break the Watergate scandal.
“He was a newspaperman from the first day,” recalled Margaret Simons, who started as an Age cadet with Linnell in 1982. “I remember him seeing some incident on the train and pitching it as a news story when we were still finding out where the toilets were.”
A Geelong Cats diehard, he soon found his home on the sports desk as a writer and editor before Sunday Age editor Bruce Guthrie appointed him to run the features pages.
“The only trouble I had was slowing him down,” Guthrie said. Linnell was in such a hurry to put his stamp on the section he redesigned it from top to bottom without clearing it with the boss. “I had to get him in and give him a kicking. Although he moved too quickly and too boldly, a part of me was delighted he did it.”
Besides his foray into eating animal appendages, the Linnell story everyone remembers is a 1997 feature he wrote after months interviewing families at a children’s cancer ward in Melbourne. “Hope Lives Here” won a Walkley and is still republished in journalism textbooks today.
“I still have a copy,” said The Age‘s Andrew Holden. “It shows despite his persona as a bit of a bovver boy, as this hard guy from Lara, he has a gift for the craft.”
Simons, now director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said: “I’ve always thought that Garry’s great talent was writing. He’s one of the best writers in the country, and it’s a shame his management roles mean we have lost him to non-fiction writing.”
After two years at Good Weekend — where other writers remember him teasing them about being able to turn around two stories in the time it took them to write one — he took over The Bulletin. Linnell re-energised the magazine with a series of scoops (Tony Abbott on his “lost” son; Anita Keating on her marriage breakdown) and stunts (a $1.25 million reward for anyone who could capture a Tasmanian tiger). The punters talked about it; unfortunately, they didn’t buy it. The Bulletin was bleeding cash and circulation when he finished, as it was when he started.
Not to worry. The Packers were impressed by what they saw and decided to make him head of news and current affairs at Channel Nine.
“Great idea,” he said. “One problem: I don’t know anything about television.” Yet, Gaz being Gaz, he said yes. While some people stick to their strengths, he is always chasing something bigger, splitting the pack, arms outstretched for that next magical mark. Such vaulting ambition, his detractors point out, can lead to over-reach.
Five minutes before the press conference announcing his arrival at Nine, Linnell was handed a media release. His heart sank when he got to the last paragraph and discovered he would have to lay off almost 100 staff. What, he thought, have I gotten myself into?