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A shitfight in Brisbane, The Oz rattles David Aspinell’s skeletons, Bondy shafts Rupert, the Press Council targets websites and the Perth tunnel saga drags. Check our frontwindow for all this and more.

Are journalists a little thin-skinned or just proud of what they do. Check out this exchange between The Courier Mail’s deputy chief of staff and veteran investigative reporter Paul Whittaker and Paul Syvret, The Bulletin’s Brisbane correspondent who was spinning for Queensland Treasurer David Hamill until earlier this year.

It started with this little item by Syvret in last week’s Bulletin.

Profit And Gloss

“News Ltd and Fairfax may have recently agreed to a newspaper war ceasefire, and abandoned plans to launch rival afternoon publications in Sydney and Melbourne, but News is still beavering away quietly at new product plans.

Queensland Newspapers, the great cash cow which is still majority-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s family company Cruden Investments, is in the advanced stages of planning the launch of a Saturday magazine insert for its Courier-Mail flagship (the last metropolitan daily broadsheet – and with a monopoly at that – left in News’ Australian stable).

The mag will be modelled on the insert in News’ Saturday edition of The Australian and Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine. Lachlan Murdoch was in Brisbane earlier this month discuss the planned magazine launch with editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, who is said to be pushing hard for the new product as part of his long-running campaign to lift the “serious” content of the local rag.

The magazine’s editor-in-waiting is C-M hack Hedley Thomas, a member of Mitchell’s investigative team known unkindly around the corridors of Queensland Newspapers as the “Secret Squirrels” or the “Grassy Knoll” for their determined pursuit of various conspiracy theories (now just where is Professor Manning Clark’s Order of Lenin medal?)

Apparently, the final green light is yet to be given, but there are persistent rumours of a launch early in the new financial year. In the betting stakes for first cover story, low odds are being offered for something involving either the Brisbane Broncos or bikinis. Or both.

ENDS

Syvret and the “Secret Squirrels” clashed heavily last year over the Net Bet affair that temporarily claimed the scalp of Queensland Treasurer David Hamill.

Anyway, this is the longish letter penned by Whittaker in response which we suspect will not see the light of day in The Bulletin, particularly now that we have published it first.

May 24, 2000

The Letters Editor,

The Bulletin,

Sydney, NSW 1028

Dear Sir/Madam:

I write in response to the article by your Brisbane correspondent Paul Syvret (”Profit and gloss”, Bulletin, May 30).

As the head of The Courier-Mail’s investigative unit for four years until taking up a position on the paper’s news desk in January this year, I take exception to Syvret’s mocking dismissal of this team of dedicated reporters as “Secret Squirrels” and the “Grassy Knoll”.

Even Syvret’s supposed inside information is seriously suspect: the team has been referred to by some wags (a name perpetuated by some of our subjects) as “MI5” but not any of the abovementioned names.

The unit, established in 1995 by Queensland Newspapers editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, is the only such team operating in Australia, a sad indictment on the commitment of the Australian media to investigative journalism.

In 1996, former Greiner Government adviser and the architect of NSW’s ICAC legislation Gary Sturgess, commenting on the decline of investigative journalism in Australia in a column in The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:”…with the recent departure of Colleen Ryan to the United States, there is (in my opinion) only one group of investigative journalists presently at work in Australia – the team at Brisbane’s Courier-Mail…”

More recently, as a judge for last year’s Walkley Awards, Paul Barry said he was impressed by the standard of The Courier-Mail’s entries (The newspaper won three awards).

The unit’s “determined pursuit of various conspiracy theories” (Syvret’s words) has seen The Courier-Mail bag a host of journalism prizes including two prestigious Walkley awards for investigative reporting; the first in 1995 for a story on former Labor Cabinet minister (and later Bulletin columnist) Graham Richardson making representations outside his portfolio to a giant US defence contractor on behalf of Gold Coast businessmen accused of supplying him with prostitutes.

And last year fellow “hack” Hedley Thomas (who has never been a member of the investigative team as Syvret asserted) and I won the investigative reporting Walkley for ”The Net Bet Affair”, a series of stories which revealed that three prominent Labor figures held a lucrative stake in a company awarded the State’s first Internet gambling licence by the Beattie Government.

Syvret had intimate knowledge of the affair as the then principal media adviser to Treasurer David Hamill, who was stood down from the ministry over his handling of the matter pending the outcome of two inquiries.

How many times has Syvret, who apparently holds himself out as an authority on investigative journalism, declared his hand when writing his ”hard-hitting” exposes on the Beattie Government in Bulletin?

Yours sincerely,

Paul Whittaker

Deputy Chief of Staff

The Courier-Mail

The Worst Australian And The Northbridge Tunnel

We had a few emails over the Northbridge tunnel house cracking saga in Perth – a story that the West Australian has refused to cover properly.

Here is a couple of them:

Dear Crikey,

Further to your piece on The West’s failure to report on the woes of inner city home-owners whose houses have been decimated by work on the Northbridge tunnel, I thought you might like to know it is now the newspaper’s official policy not to do any stories on those “loopy locals”, or report on the concerns of Opposition Transport spokeswoman Alannah MacTiernan.

This memo from West COS Tony Barrass was sent to all reporters last Thursday (18/5):

“Please, no more tunnel stories. Apart from them being brain-numbingly dull, the tunnel has been built, it’s open and it’s working. No more MacTiernans, no more loopy locals, no more car stats. Unless the bloody thing collapses or there is a major traffic stuff-up, let’s move on and concentrate on the things that matter.”

Please keep my identity confidential.

Dear Crikey,

Your story on the Northbridge Tunnel misses a crucial point. The West Australian’s Trevor Robb thought he had an exclusive, but the residents’ spokesman went (before their scheduled meeting) and gave the entire story to the Australian…and then expected the West to run the whole thing. While the West lacks daily competition in Perth, the Oz is the closest thing and Trevor wasn’t going to catch the second tide on a done story. Sounds tough on the residents, but we all know how it works in this game. I think your conspiracy theory is off beam, though I agree that the West is crying out for competition.

Ex-West hack, who was in the newsroom at the time.

PS. I seem to remember reporter Gay McNamara writing several stories about cracked walls and the N’bridge tunnel.

G’day Stephen,

Your tunnel story has made quite a splash – news here is that the West’s chief of staff, Tony Barrass, has circulated a memo to all reporters banning them from doing stories on the house-cracking tunnel people (not that they’d been doing them, anyway). We hear the memo says reporters should not listen to the “loony locals” (who contacted Media Watch as well as Crikey), that the tunnel has been built and is working well, so get over it. Clough conspiracy or West arrogance out of control? Provides Crikey with a good follow-up story either way.

Anon

Hey there Crikey – – how’s this?

last night about 6.30pm, a Main Roads PR guy hand delivered letters to all the tunnel group, reopening compensation talks – no coverage from the West, but it looks like the “loopy locals” have exposed enough through Alannah Mactiernan in parliament for the white flag to go up.

So there you have it, a director of WA News, Harold Clough, owns a company that causes well over $1 million in damages to 36 Northbridge houses and it now looks like they will get their duly deserved compensation without a hint of the story appearing in the West.

Crikey has little doubt that the West news desk probably went off the story after The Australian broke it on their Perth page, but a decent newspaper, especially one sensitive to perceptions given who sits on the board, would have knuckled down and attempted to take the story further.

Battening down the hatches might have worked in the pre-internet era, but the likes of Crikey, Media Watch and The Australian’s Media section are now making journalists a lot more accountable for their actions.

We will continue to hammer this issue until The West Australian finally gets around to letting its readers know what the hell has been going on with the Northbridge tunnel.

The Australian’s readership is so small that the “old news” argument simply does not wash.

As a political spinner in Perth during the upcoming election, I would leak all my bad news to The Australian because then the West would blackban the story and most West Australians would have no idea about it at all. Geddit. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and follow up a yarn rather than be hellbent on tearing it down or starving the source of any future media oxygen.

Skeletons Rattling In The Aspinall Closet

Andrew Dodd has once again shown himself to be a standout performer on The Australian’s ever-improving Media section with his cover story last week on Seven’s Melbourne trouble-shooter David Aspinall.

The likes of Telegraph supremo Col “pissing in the sink” Allan and the Herald Sun’s Peter Blunden should stop their internal push to have Media closed down and accept that it is serving a very useful purpose.

The lesson this week was that if Kerry Stokes wants to put an old Alan Bond henchman into run Channel Seven in Melbourne then there is now an outlet that will explore his past in detail.

Crikey certainly learnt a few corporate things about Aspinall from the piece, which is an unusual thing given that Dodd has never covered business.

For instance, did you know Aspinall was a director of Bell Resources at the time Bondy nicked $1.2 billion out of it – an offence that saw Bondy locked up for five years.

Aspinall said: “I can confirm that I was unaware that that was happening, the reason that I was unaware is was because it was being done by others.”

Hmmm, $1.2 billion goes missing and a director has no idea about it.

Aspinall worked for Bondy from 1983 till it all imploded in the early 90s, but he told Andrew Dodd that “I only saw him four or five times a year. I was overseas a lot.”

Then there is the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s accusatory conclusions about Aspinall’s reliability as a witness under oath after Bondy gave Joh Bjelke-Petersen $400,000 to settle a defamation action and “make it easier to do business in Queensland”.

The ABT said Aspinall and others “gave accounts of the Bjelke-Petersen settlement with intent to mislead and attempted to conceal the fact that they had deliberately mislead the QTQ inquiry.”

Hmmm, clearly little Kerry doesn’t mind hiring someone with a bit of baggage.

Murdoch Shafted By Bondy

Speaking of the reliability of Bondy, Rupert Murdoch has learnt once again that who can’t trust him one bit.

Three weeks back Rupert’s Sunday Times in Perth shouted from the rooftops that it had signed up Bondy up as a weekly columnist. Unfortunately, the deal wasn’t signed and Bondy reneged on the near six-figures offer the following week.

This sent editor Brian Crisp into a tizz and he ordered the business editor to start digging up as much dirt on Bondy as possible. Crispy should have known better, especially given he’s a Queenslander.

Press Council To Scrutinise Crikey

In a welcome development, those relatively toothless tigers at the Press Council have announced they are spreading their fairly feeble wings into the realm of online publishers.

This is a copy of a statement they put out a few weeks ago and we would encourage you to get in contact with them if you have any problems with Crikey. Equally, we are going to take it upon ourselves to have a good look at the Press council in the period ahead. Let us know if you have any strong views. Anyway, check out the statement.

Press Council Brings Online Media Into Its Fold

The Press Council has launched an advertising campaign in major newspapers to tell the public how to complain about reports in newspapers, magazines and in online versions of newspapers.

The council acknowledged in a statement that one criticism of the Press Council is that its services are insufficiently promoted, and the public are not aware of how to gain access to the self-regulatory system run by the major print media companies.

The council has chosen today, World Press Freedom Day, which is marked around the planet, for the launch of its new campaign “.. to draw attention to the link between press freedom and press responsibility,” the council said yesterday.

The major media groups have given advertising space to the campaign, which will outline how to complain about published reports and the behaviour of reporters gathering the news, as well as provide information about the work of the Press Council in defending press freedom.

From today the Press Council will also accept complaints about the online news content of its members’ Web sites.

“Council members accept that press responsibility is not determined by the medium in which the story is presented. They therefore support the public’s right to lodge complaints about the members’ online publications in addition to print form,” the council chairman, Professor Dennis Pearce, said.

Peter Fray

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