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The West Australian appears to be going from bad to worse if the stories about attempts to sack hard-hitting political journalist Michael Southwell are anything to go buy. It merely serves to emphasise the importance of getting some board changes at the November 2 AGM in Perth.

There has been some scary stuff happening on the question of editorial independence, particularly with powerful director Harold Clough who really should not be getting involved.

Firstly, the Clough forces have put in a big effort to show hard-hitting political correspondent Michael Southwell the door. Why would they do this? Could it be because he has stuck it to Minister Doug Shave over the $200 million lost through the finance broking scandal.

Doug Shave is not the brightest of chaps and actually admitted at the press conference calling the Gunning inquiry into the finance broking scandal that it was triggered by The West’s Southwell front page story a week earlier.

Now Crikey hears that Southwell can sometimes go a little over the top, but this often comes with the package when you’ve got someone with some passion who has a go. So why did he cop a lot more grief than fellow reporter Torrance Mendez who just earned The West a full-page drubbing from the Press Council.

A look at The West since Brian Rogers beat the bullet at Channel Nine to be promoted to editor would suggest that Southwell and some of his anti-government stories have not been getting a good run of late.

Could this be because Brian Rogers’ wife Val is on the board of numerous companies and was once a director of steel-aspirant Kingstream alongside the Premier’s brother Ken Court, who is now caught up in the finance broking scandal.

Wife or no wife, Rogers certainly seems to be doing the bidding of powerful director Clough with the help of chief of staff Tony Barrass who is no longer the journalistic martyr who went to jail to protect his source. Barrass showed his colors with his “no more tunnel stories” decree which director Clough must have really enjoyed given that it was his firm that was under the pump for damaging about 40 houses in Northbridge.

Rogers, who was known at Channel 9 for pulling sensitive Stories, got together with Barrass to call Southwell in recently for a what staff on The West have suggested was a meeting to discuss “disciplinary proceedings over substandard work”. They pointed a couple of minor errors in a couple of stories and told Southwell he’d been warned. Barrass then penned an “I said, Brian said, you said”-style memo, which contained some personal stuff and was very contentious to say the least. The fool then “accidentally” put the memo in a computer file that all reporters could read – hence Crikey being alerted to it by our loyal spies on the West.

The memo stayed in this file for about a day. Southwell’s next story about Doug Shave getting carpeted in Parliament for allegedly lying to the Gunning inquiry was buried on page 47.

Rumour has it that Southwell got some good legal advice and, hey presto, everything’s been retracted and now the “disciplinary proceedings” have been labelled by management as “just a discussion”. Rumour also has it that Southwell, one of the few journos at the West with fire in the belly, is on Clough’s hitlist.

Rumour also has it that Rogers thought Southwell was his “golden boy” at Channel 9 and didn’t want him to leave – but as soon as he hit The West, Rogers all of a sudden thought he wasn’t much chop as a journo.

Rumour also has it that Rogers tried to pull a story written by Southwell about Multiplex – a WA giant of industry who just won a very controversial contract for a convention centre to be built with $110m of taxpayers’ money.

The story was reinstated after Rogers went home and the backbench/subs thought it was a worthy of inclusion in the paper.

Rumour also has it that Rogers rang one of his reporters about a week ago with the message: “Mr Clough would like to speak to you about a story you’re writing, so expect his call.”

Evidence has it that Rogers has run stories critical of Shave and the government on finance brokers on left pages, but defence of them on forward, right hand pages, including a front-page lead last week.

The other interesting factor in all this is the very close relationship between Southwell’s boss on the Parliamentary round, Anne Burns, and Shave. Labor Party people have observed that she also seems close to Shave’s creator, the much-despised Noel Crichton-Browne.

So, we’ve got the new editor going easy on the government, his wife having links into the Premier’s family, a move is on against the reporter who writes the most critical stories about the government and the West’s chief political reporter is aligned to the discredited Liberal faction that is copping it for the $200 million lost in this widening finance brokers scandal.

And if that wasn’t enough, Rogers has conducted focus group studies of readers and concluded that politics must be downgraded in the West. He’s also showing himself to be highly conservative with a recent editorial “Howard is right on IVF”.

With West Australians likely to go to the polls in the next 9 months, it is imperative that The West, as the only state-wide paper, provide a lot of balanced coverage leading into the election. To this end, we’re looking for candidates to spell all these arguments out in their platform to run for The West’s board. If Southwell does get the sack, he’d be a very interesting candidate.

We emailed WA News company secretary Bernard Yates to find out the board nomination requirements recently and this is what he came with:

Dear Mr Mayne

In response to your query of Friday 28 July, 2000, I advise:

* The company’s constitution provides as follows:

8.1(l) A person may only be elected to the office of a director at a general meeting if:

(1) he or she is a director retiring from office under rule 8.1(e) and standing for re-election at that meeting;

(2) he or she has been nominated by the directors for election at that meeting;

(3) if the person is a member, he or she has at least 35 days before the meeting served on the company a notice signed by him or her signifying his or her desire to be a candidate for election at that meeting; or

(4) whether or not the person is a member, some member intending to nominate him or her for election at that meeting has at least 35 days before the meeting served on the company a notice signed by the member and signifying the member’s intention to nominate the person for election, which is accompanied by a notice signed by the person and signifying his or her consent to the nomination.

The AGM will be held on Thursday 2 November, 2000. The time and venue, while likely to be in Perth, is yet to be decided.

Bernard Yates

Company Secretary

West Australian Newspapers Holdings Limited

So, all you need is one shareholder to nominate you 35 business days before the AGM and you’re up before what Ian Huntley reckons is 292,667 shareholders. We reckon that must be a misprint and there is probably about 30,000 shareholders. Let the board contest begin because this is a company that does not appear to have any directors with newspaper experience.

Peter Fray

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