SOCOG spin doctors are getting a reputation for being heavy handed when one of them, Michael Pirie, carries a good deal of journalistic baggage.

The secret past of Michael Pirie

Some Melbourne journalists have nodded knowingly after reading the Media section of The Australian in early September where Roger Maynard of the London Times outlined a withering attack he’d suffered at the hands of SOCOG spin doctor Michael Pirie.

Now there is nothing that gets Crikey’s blood boiling more than a spindoctor sounding off. Spindoctors are the true bad guys in the media game who are paid to distort and cover up. Journalists work in the public interest yet spindoctors often work against it. Any self-respecting journalist suffers an instant credibility drop if they sell out to the easy money of PR.

Now Crikey got along fine with Pirie when working with him at the Herald Sun but seeing him unload with such bile on a well-respected international journalist leaves us with no choice but to fill all our visiting international journalists in about his past.

Firstly, let’s reproduce some of Pirie’s memorable abusive quotes. The story which set him off came when the The Times ran on its front page one of the classic SOCOG cock-ups over the design on the medals. As Maynard explains, the Greek press first cottoned onto the fact that the medals had an image of Rome’s Colosseum on them rather than the original Olympic stadium in Athens.

The Greek press splashed with “THE ULTIMATE IGNORANCE” and The Australian followed up with “A Classsical Mix-Up”, so what else would The Times do but dutifully follow the yarn up.

Maynard says his name is now “worse than excrement” and this is what Pirie said to him:

“You are a disgrace to journalism! We are determined to make you lose all your credibility. You haven’t heard the last of this. You have undermined the honour of the medals. You have humiliated Australia.”

Now it is interesting that someone who has twice been sacked for misconduct would call someone else “a disgrace to journalism”.

Michael was a passionate journalist on The Age, Channel Nine and the Herald Sun in Melbourne but boy did you have to watch him closely because he would do anything for a yarn.

He did himself no credit at Channel Nine when he did a live piece to camera whilst walking next to the union leadership at the biggest of the anti-Kennett marches in 1992. He rather excitedly speculated that Kennett would not survive this union onslaught, which history tells us he did rather easily.

He was finally sacked by Nine in 1995 when he followed disgraced businessman Douglas Reid into a toilet. Reid went down big time over the collapse of Compass Airlines Mark II but his barrister complained about Pirie’s conduct and he was shown the door.

Then Herald Sun editor in chief Steve Harris had liked Pirie’s work when they worked together at The Age in the late 1980s and the excitable one had covered the medical round – notably all those pioneering open heart surgery operations – with much energy.

> So Harris took him on as one of his heavy hitters as he tried to rebuild the Herald Sun after the disastrous Piers Akerman years. Unfortunately, the heavy hitting often involved surfing in on other reporters’ stories. Pirie was known to read through the general reporters’ files and decide which stories he would encroach on. Not surprisingly this caused a great deal of resentment. The chief of staff certainly had great difficulty handling his surfing and tantrums. He was not someone who enjoyed seeing his stories get run anywhere but on the front page and this caused particular angst when they were someone else’s stories.

But it was the publication of a photo of a dead baby on the front page of the Herald Sun that led to his sacking in 1997. It was a medical story of some sort and the baby certainly looked dead but Pirie assured everyone from the editor down that it was not.

Questions were asked on radio about it and the Herald Sun initiated an inquiry. Pirie might have survived but was caught out lying when the grandmother of the dead baby contacted him and told him the baby was dead.

When Pirie continued to maintain that it was alive and management found out that he’d been told it was dead, it was curtains for him. You can stuff up in this game but you can’t knowingly lie to your editor about a mistake just to cover your arse.

We hear that SOCOG media director Milton Cockburn, a former spindoctor for that head-kicking Labor Premier Nifty Neville Wran, has also been getting pretty willing in his dealings with journalists.

The boys really should take a step back. If the international press pack take a disliking to your Sydneyesque abuse, they’ll turn on you and give you Atlanta all over again.

Rule 1A in PR is “be nice to the journalists” and rule 1B is “don’t carry on about journalistic ethics when you’ve got baggage”.

As this little tale demonstrates, Michael Pirie is in no position to lecture anyone about “credibility”.

SOCOG certainly had their head in the sand when they hired Pirie. I can remember sitting next to SOCOG’s ticketing PR man John O’Neill at a dinner one night shortly after they’d hired Pirie and they hadn’t even heard of the dead baby incident. If my memory serves me correctly, I think he said that Pirie came complete with a reference from the man who sacked him, Steve Harris. Appointing Pirie was a bit like making Graham Richardson mayor of the Olympic Village. In Sydney, no one seems to worry about babbage. Maybe it’s because they’ve invested $43 million in a new baggage handling system. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to work very well.


SOCOG hits back at shameful journalists

As a post-script to this tale, we cannot ignore Milton Cockburn’s extraordinary assault on journalists in the following week’s edition of The Australian’s Media section.

The Australian’s editor Campbell Reid was quoted saying the following:

“If you’re in the hand-grenade throwing business, you’ve got to be prepared to accept that a few hand-grenades are going to be coming back your way. But I’ve been appalled at the level of vitriol that’s been levelled at some staff for stories they’ve done.”

Cockburn euphemistically refers to his foul-mouthed bollockings as “using the language of the newsroom”. And he is so appalled with the standard of journalism that he now says “I never want to be a working journalist again”.

Cockburn’s main defence of SOCOG is to challenge its critics to “name our three main mistakes”.

He concedes ticketing is one and reckons the marching bands fiasco was just “a difference of opinion”. Extraordinarily, he then claims that everything else is fine.

What about constant budget blowouts Milton? What about the Olympics Club? What about the white elephant Olympics Arts Festival? What about the revolving door of CEOs and SOCOG presidents which now number something like six? And you should check out the piece on Crikey from SOCOG insider Pam Anderson that spells out plenty of other cock-ups.

The ticketing debacle was also such a fundamental breach of trust that it destroyed any goodwill SOCOG had. They lied to the media and they lied to the public about the small matter of 840,000 of the best Olympic tickets. Where were you on that one Milton? Why didn’t you head if off at the pass and warn your bosses that it would inevitably blow up in their faces when people worked out that only a handful of punters had got to see Cathy Freeman or Kieran Perkins perform in finals. I am struggling to think of a more fundamental breach of trust by a Labor government which supposedly looks after the punters.

The Media cover story on Cockburn’s defence also conveniently took the opportunity to belt the Sydney Morning Herald around the head for its overly negative coverage and its set-up front page photo of a homeless man asleep in front of an Olympics poster.

They quoted that pillar of ethics and honesty Graham Richardson saying the SMH was “the most negative by a mile” and “a shocker”. It should be remembered that News Ltd are in bed as a media sponsor of the Olympics to a much greater extent that Fairfax and have arguably been much less negative than Fairfax.

That said, The Telegraph’s two front pages “Five Blind Mice”, which featured a picture of the five ticketing liars in Paul Reading, John Coates, Michael Knight, Kevan Gosper and Graham Richardson and “Gosper: Greedy, Obstinate, Selfish, Pompous, Egotistic, Ruffian” were great tabloid attack jobs and reflect Col Allan’s innate tabloid instincts.

Why Fairfax is more negative than News

Telegraph Olympics news editor Glenda Corporaal was poached from the SMH after getting a god-awful bollocking over the phone from SMH editor Paul McGeogh almost 18 months ago. Disgraced IOC member Phil Coles has been telling people that Glenda told him that SMH journalists were under explicit instructions to be more negative than News Ltd. Presumably, Fairfax had concluded that News Ltd’s substantial sponsorship relationship would compromise its editorial independence and it was therefore up to them to give the public the truth.

The Australian has certainly been keen to go after the IOC at every opportunity and maybe this reflects the fact that Rupert is still annoyed that the IOC knocked back his offer to be host broadcaster of the Olympics in Europe. NSW taxpayers would have been $200 million better off if Rupert’s offer had been accepted so we have every right to feel pissed off about the gravy trainers and their imperious global freeloading.

Tough to get a run during the Olympics

The Telegraph has certainly been full of the typical tabloid boosterism since the Opening Ceremony but it is interesting that so few of their journalists are getting a run. The phalanx of commentators and the need for huge pictures has squeezed a lot of your mid-ranking journalists out of the paper. One reporter claimed that only about 10 per cent of the filed yarns were getting a run at News Ltd and Fairfax was only running at about 20 per cent. It is interesting that the biggest peace time yarn ever in Australia is not actually utilising much of the journalistic talent available to report it. Such is the news game.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey