Last week we attacked the media for ignoring us and some journalists changed their tune as a result.
Crikey censored by timid journos and sensitive editors
First published October 29
Anyone who has been reading this website and the newspapers over the past few weeks will have asked themselves whether they are living on the same planet.
It is an understatement to say that the press is certainly not doing Crikey any favours at the moment. But more importantly, they are not doing their readers any favours either.
Crikey is doing all manner of newsworthy things at the moment but it is not being reported in any meaningful way.
The sad thing about this is that it should not come down to a question of favours. There are hundreds of professional reporters and editors out there who work for what are meant to be NEWSpapers. They report the news.
It shouldn’t matter whether they like or dislike the personalities involved in the news or whether their bosses have strong opinions about them.
Unfortunately, it now looks like our newspapers are not only failing to keep our companies on their toes but they are also failing to adequately report others that try to do that.
It will be interesting to see how long they each try to hold out properly ignoring the phenomenon of corporate democracy that has broken out for the first time this AGM season.
I can tell you that boards across the country are reading Crikey more than ever at the moment and they are talking about it because someone is running for a series of boards.
So how does the Australian Financial Review look three weeks back when they run a front page story by investment editor Damon Kitney about the growing pressure on boards this AGM season but fail to even mention this new tactic of pressure being applied to companies. They look stupid. They then fail to publish a letter I sent which read as follows.
your front page story on Wednesday (Showdown: investors target weak performers) failed to go beyond the usual worthy rhetoric of the Australian Shareholders’ Association and quoting one institution, Perpetual.
There are two other notable dimensions which are adding to the pressure on boards and fund managers alike.
Firstly, the proxy advisory service for institutions, Independent Shareholder Services (ISS) has increased its coverage for the current AGM season from the top 100 to the top 150 companies.
Fund managers are getting more expert advice than ever before on how to vote. Let’s just hope some of them start to heed it.
Secondly, as a shareholder activist, I have nominated for eight boards in the coming season as part of a new, never before used strategy of taking direct action in situations that warrant attention.
It is already baring fruit. Steve Vizard resigned from the Telstra board within days of me nominating on a specific platform that was opposing his various conflicts of interests.
And Cable and Wireless Optus dropped their cash for comment relationship with broadcaster Alan Jones within two weeks of me nominating for their board.
I hope the rejection of my nomination for the John Fairfax board or a previous dispute with AFR management is not leading some of your journalists to self-censor. It is important that your readers get the full story based on editorial merit, regardless of any personal differences.
Well if that’s the way we want to play things lads, let me throw this one into the equation. In my view the Australian Financial Review along with every other paper has failed to adequately report the corporate history of new Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson, who is a close friend of AFR editor in chief Michael Gill.
How can it be that Margaret Jackson was chairman of the BHP audit committee throughout the period in which it wrote off about $4 billion yet the AFR does not raise this adequately when she ascends to the Qantas crown. She was also a director of Pacific Dunlop throughout all its disasters but conveniently snuck off that board too when she took the reins at Qantas.
I will certainly be raising this at the Qantas AGM this year and I’m putting the AFR on notice right now that this is an issue that should be reported at the time. Hurrumph.
If it is not reported, Michael Gill will be left open to accusations that he is protecting his mates.
Australian clams up on Crikey
Over the past year, The Australian has been the most open-minded newspaper in relation to Crikey’s various political and business activities. In my view they’ve simply reported the news and they held their heads highest after the Victorian election last year. But there has not been a mention of Crikey in the paper since the News Corp AGM on October 18 when Rupert Murdoch took exception to my questions.
The Australian was the only paper not to mention what happened at the Commonwealth Bank AGM where I got a remarkable 40 per cent of the primary vote. This was even after I actually announced to the meeting that 17,336 small shareholders had voted for me and only 5676 against.
Incredibly, no paper has yet reported that the platform was for the CBA to become a more active fund manager and that the bank should drop its cash for comment deal with Alan Jones. The Fin Review was happy to report that I got 13 per cent of the vote at the ASX meeting but no-one reported the 40 per cent primary vote at CBA. Somehow, The Fin reported that it was “more than 20 per cent” when the lowest figure you could come up with was 30 per cent, and that was after chairman John Ralph had voted 65 million open proxies against me.
Events on Friday demonstrate how far this reluctance to report Crikey’s activities has gone. The Australian reported the story of how Computershare is proposing an outrageous new constitution which requires any external candidate for the board to have the written support of 50 shareholders or a group of shareholder who control 10 per cent of the stock.
Now I actually tipped the reporter into the story but then didn’t even rate a mention. Maybe the reporter was reluctant to give me a plug given we’re mates. I’ve never ever seen a story written anywhere about the rules governing external nominations for boards. Suddenly someone emerges as a serial candidate at a range of AGMs and within weeks a big company is reworking its constitution to prevent someone like me from standing for their board. In my view the story should have noted this.
Silence over cash for comment campaign
But wait, there’s more. When will a newspaper report the campaign that Crikey is waging against cash for comment. If you consider all those forests that were culled to report this scandal last year, surely it would rate a mention somewhere, some time, that an activist is actually making real progress in stamping out the practice.
How long will it be before a newspaper reports that Cable and Wireless Optus dropped its disgraceful $400,000 a year cash for comment deal with Alan Jones two weeks after I announced plans to stand for their board on an anti-cash for comment platform. The Optus spin doctors would have been getting applause from the board for the way they found some gullible Fin Review journalist to carry a six paragraph story in June noting that the contract had not been renewed without any mention of the impending board tilt. Well done spinners for avoiding the embarrassing headline: “OPTUS DUMPS JONES TO AVOID BOARD CONTEST”. Spin doctors 1, journalism 0.
Cash for comment got a good going over at the ComBank AGM. However, no-one reported the extensive commentary on cash for comment by chairman John Ralph or CEO David Murray. Similarly, no-one has yet reported that we had to cancel our anti-cash for comment tilt at the Qantas board because they require candidates to be signed up by 100 shareholders, the most of any listed Australian company.
And no-one has reported that the NRMA refused to include cash for comment in my platform for their board. What a load of bollocks that they claim the following statement is defamatory:
“My Mayne also believes the ongoing commercial relationship between the NRMA and broadcaster John Laws is inappropriate and that the contract should be terminated.”
Given the shock and horror in the media industry when the cash for comment scandal first blew up, you’d think the papers themselves would be campaign against it. For instance, no-one has reported that Colonial State Bank re-signed Jones in December last year – after the scandal first emerged. Jones now has a written contract that says he’s not allowed to talk about the bank – which is exactly what the Commonwealth Bank wants at a time it is closing 200 branches in NSW. Well done boys, you’ve bought the silence of Australia’s most powerful shock-jock and no-one in the media is bothering to put you or Jones under any ongoing pressure about it.
All of this non-reporting merely serves to give more exclusive insights and stories to John Safran and the Breakfasters crew each Wednesday morning at 7.45am on RRR in Melbourne and to Sally Loane’s listeners between 10.30am and 11am each Friday.
Obviously 2UE won’t give me a run but poor old 3AW in Melbourne is still running their ban. As a shareholder this might be one to raise this week at the AGM of Southern Cross Broadcasting. I must have done 60 interviews with different ABC stations across the country this year, yet silly old 3AW still put their thin skins and big egos in front of what would be interesting for their listeners. If the ban lasts the rest of the AGM season, we might just have to return the favour by reproducing all those fun pieces about 3AW and their appalling Liberal bias during Kennett’s reign of terror.
Even Mike Jeffries from 2GB in Sydney is asking me on his program quite often these days. This is inspite of all those terrible things I’ve said in the past about his boss John Singleton. 3AW program director Steve “Half” Price should wake up to himself and lift the ban if he doesn’t want to be a hypocrit for attacking Channel 7 after they banned 3AW for criticising them.
Crikey is a contact not a competitor
What most journalists are still yet to cotton onto is that I should be viewed as a contact rather than a competitor. We come across a lot of very interesting stuff in our travels and I can assure you that with what is in the pipeline this will increase over time. There are six daily business gossip columns out there and if one of Kate Askew in the SMH, Wade O’Leary in the Daily Telegraph, Michael West in The Australian, Andrew Burrell in the Fin Review, James McCullough in the Courier Mail or Chris Webb in The Age tapped in to Crikey, they could get a useful leg up.
However, many journalists are risk-averse and concerned about being seen to consort with the enemy. This “enemy” status only comes because we are prepared to stand up and take on the media bosses over matters of journalistic principle or treat them like they treat others. For instance, most Fairfax journalists would by now know that I tried to run for their board this year but was ruled out on a technicality. Even so, I’m still amazed that they haven’t once reported the detail of the battles with Frank Lowy and Westfield over the past two years. It will be interesting to see what happens on November 9 when I stand for their board. There are, of course, three common directors on the boards of Westfield and Fairfax and Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer is great mates with the Lowys.
I would have thought it is material that Westfield Holdings refused to run my platform in the notice of meeting. This has been on Crikey for more than a week now and there’s not been a bite anywhere. Without wishing to offer gratuitous advice as a former gossip columnist, I would have thought the readers of Katie, Webby, Wadey, Jimmy, Westy and the Burrell boy would find the following item quite interesting. You be the judge.
Westfield censors the candidate from left field
Those sensitive souls at Westfield Holdings have not taken too kindly to shareholder activist Stephen Mayne running for their board. Much to the aghast of well-paid chairman Frank Lowy and his boys, Mayne has honed in on the sensitive issue of whether Westfield Trust, which the Lowys have no stake in, should have independent directors from Westfield Holdings, in which the Lowys still control 30 per cent. Mayne submitted his platform to Westfield to go out in the notice of meeting to shareholders and it included the following paragraph: ” Mr Mayne is a unitholder in Westfield Trust and believes it needs an independent board from Westfield Holdings. There are presently more than $4 billion worth of development contracts between the two entities yet the Trust does not have any independent directors and shares in Holdings have risen more than 20-fold over the past decade whereas Trust units have barely doubled.”
Mayne is running for eight boards this AGM season but concluded that Westfield were the least democratic after they refused to publish this on the notice of meeting, whittling his platform down to two lines about his being a journalistic who once won a Walkley award. It seems all those Westfield shareholders will have no idea what he is standing for when deciding how to vote.
The Lowys have quite a history of sensitivity to what people think of them. Who can forget the way they hired Nick Greiner’s former chief of staff Ken Hooper to distribute bogus newsletters to residents living near the old Arnotts Biscuit factory in Sydney which was being developed by a rival shopping centre company.
And then there was the issue of dumping Edna Carew as Frank’s biographer after she refused to cede control of the manuscript to the family.
Such precious souls.
That’s enough of a rant from me, let’s just finish with the list of things the mainstream media have still failed to report in recent times:
Optus dumped Jones after we stood for their board.
Crikey candidate got 58 per cent of the vote at AGL.
Mayne got 40 per cent of the primary vote at the Commonwealth Bank standing up for active funds management and against cash for comment.
Crikey ran for NRMA and ComBank on anti-cash for comment platforms but both companies refused to include this in the notice of meeting.
Crikey read out a statement from New Zealand media heir Matthew Horton which lambasted the executive options package at News Corp. A massive 40 per cent no vote was registered against the resolution – the largest ever against a major company in Australia.
Westfield have refused to distribute Mayne’s platform to shareholders.
Here ends the rant, SM
How the media reacted to our attack
A lot of journalists read the attack and it had quite an impact. When ABC Radio’s PM program reported our naming of NSW sex assaulter Joe Tripodi, they latched onto our whinge and assumed we were being deliberately provocative to get attention but didn’t name the website. Similarly, Lateline reported that a website had named Tripodi but didn’t name us.
I pulled the Tripodi item on Monday night just before the Sydney Morning Herald named him on the front page. The reason was that I didn’t want Tripodi to distract from the main media beef which related to AGMs. PM certainly confused the two issues.
The Rear Window columnist in the Fin Review emailed on Monday to point out that the Westfield piece I’d suggested was now old news because it was on Crikey. Using this theory, anyone who does something really bad should give it to Crikey first and only our 2000 weekly unique users will ever hear about it. We are so marginal that no mainstream media can seriously claim something on Crikey is old news as far as their readership is concerned.
That said, Rear Window pointed out that he hadn’t ignored me and this is correct. He then ran an item on Thursday before the Lend Lease AGM about the prospect of the $20 million Hornery Institute getting voted down. I tipped him into this story but actually gave him a bum steer when the yes vote came in at 94 per cent. Given that the ASA and a professional proxy-advisory group were recommending shareholders vote against, the small no vote certainly came as a surprise to me. Hornery is much loved by big and small shareholders alike.
However, this was the only mention in the Fin Review in a very busy week. Mark Drummond did not report that I got 20 per cent of the vote in running for the board of WA Newspapers on Thursday and Robert Harley did not report any of the debate that came out of the Lend Lease meeting, which is probably fair enough.
However, the Fin really let themselves down with the coverage of its own John Fairfax AGM on Friday.
Editor in chief Michael Gill was there yet the paper failed to report that the candidate rejected by the Fairfax board on a technicality triggered a great deal of discussion at the Fairfax meeting about the suitability of Murdoch confidante Mark Burrows and long-time Packer adviser David Gonski sitting on the board. This failure creates perception problems about Fairfax’s editorial independence.
Did Business Sunday pull Crikey from Cameron profile?
It was very ironic that NineMSN carried a story about our activities the day before the Packer AGM and then even more intriguing that Business Sunday did not include any of my comments in their profile of outgoing ASIC chairman Alan Cameron. Was this because Kerry Packer had reacted badly to my questions at the PBL AGM on Friday and posed the question: “Do you basically set out to be offensive or does it just come naturally?”
The interview with Janine Perrett was pretty brief and not that special so it is not a major issue in my eyes.
The Australian has returned to normal as the Packer stoush got mentioned and there was also a small article by Bina Brown on Saturday which even included a picture of Crikey from www.jeffed.com days.
Even Crikey’s good friends at Col Allan’s Daily Telegraph reported the Packer stoush but the Herald Sun failed to give it a run.
On Tuesday The Age’s long-haired gossip columnist Christopher Webb reported our questions at the Skilled Engineering AGM and described me as “the scruffily dressed Mayne”.
He also followed up with a few lines in Friday’s paper from the Central Equity AGM about the $4.5 million paid to its three executive directors last year.
The West Australian reported my failed tilt for their board and no-show at the meeting twice which was very generous of them. Clearly they were happy when incumbent Tony Manford got 98 per cent of the vote and I struggled to get 20 per cent. No other paper reported this..
Today the Sun-Herald in Sydney carried a story about the dodgy NRMA ballot papers and reported that former director Richard Talbot is recommending a vote for me.
Then we have the issue of Stephen Bartholomeusz’s column in the Saturday Age and SMH which was the first thoughtful piece on our activities. I disagree with some of his points and have written about this separately in this edition but welcome the fact that someone has actually critically looked at us.
So we are getting the odd mention here and there but the next big challenge is for someone to critically look at the different platforms for each board.
No-one has yet canvassed the issue of platform censorship which I’ll be jumping up and down about at this week’s Westfield Holdings AGM on Thursday.
Similarly, the question of how the government votes their Telstra shares is another interesting point that has not been picked up on yet.
You see there are four government endorsed candidates and five vacancies so this is the only board I’m standing for where there is a spot allocated for an outside candidate.
Rather than having to knock off an incumbent who gets 98 per cent of the vote, all I’ve got to do to get onto Telstra would be get 50 per cent of the vote.
Given the 40 per cent vote at CBA, this would not be entirely out of the question if the government abstained and let the minority shareholders decide. We are asking the government to do this.
The other great story that the media has not picked up on yet is my platform for David Jones. Why hasn’t anyone called DJs and asked them to defend the 35 per cent shopping discount for directors such as AOC boss John Coates?
All in all the media has treated Crikey more fairly this week. Rear Window aside, the Fin Review is still refusing to mention me in news pieces or run my letters which shows that Michael Gill has still got his churlish ban in place.
If anyone wants to quiz Michael about how this is serving the Fin’s readers, they should email him at [email protected]
I’d be delighted to carry a few more yoursays on the issue of Crikey’s treatment in the media so send them in. It’s a good and worthwhile debate. Afterall, we are a media critic and lots of journalists read our site so we should put the microscope on their performance just as they should put microscope on my performance at various AGMs. .