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ABC Radio’s Jon Faine stood out from the pack during the last Victorian election and was very unlucky not to win a Walkley for his gutsy interview of Jeff Kennett which delved into places where others feared to tread.

774 ABC Melbourne’s morning host Jon Faine was very unlucky in Crikey’s opinion to miss out on a Walkley award last week for his efforts during the Victorian election.

Now this will sound like we’re talking our own book and to an extend we are. But the facts are also relevant.

Con and I first published the 18,500 treatise about Kennett on Jeffed.com on the morning of September 5 last year. One of the hottest and most newsworthy claims on the site was that Rebecca Cooper, the daughter of Kennett’s Transport Minister and former numbers man Robin Cooper, owned 25 per cent of Troughton Swier, a consultancy that was awarded a $24 million electricity privatisation contract that did not go to tender.

David Walker, the former Age economics correspondent in Victoria who knew about Kennett Inc than most, wrote as follows in The Age a week after the election:

“Mayne’s site gathered popularity as the campaign went on. It overhauled the official State Labor Party site in the final days before the poll to become Victoria’s second most-visited specialist election web destination.”

“Notably, he aired the previously unheard claim that another Kennett Government staffer and daughter of a Kennett Government minister had gained remarkable wealth by becoming 25 per cent owner of a consultancy with key government contracts. That claim became in turn the focus of a controversial exchange between a savagely dismissive Kennett and the radio interviewer Jon Faine.”

Now Walker is partly talking his own book here. He covered power privatisation extensively and never really delved into the nature of this contract. Was it because the likes of Peter Troughton at Troughton Swier and John Wylie at CS First Boston were his best contracts? To this day I think Victorian power privatisation is one of the greatest policy outcomes in Australian history, but this shouldn’t stop you looking at the ethical processes and nepotism that were evident through Rebecca’s involvement, no matter how good an operator she might have been.

Faine was the only journalist to ring me and seek clarification about the Rebecca Cooper claims. This was despite opposition from his producer Pranie West, the wife of Herald Sun backbencher Shane Burke who is a notable Liberal apologist and was best man at Steve Murphy’s wedding. Murphy was Kennett’s media attack dog for his entire seven years in office and his wife Deb Clarke is best friends with Pranie West.

It still took ten days for even Faine to raise the matter on air but at least he went off and independently verified it. Maybe the delay was calculated so as to not limit his access during the bulk of the campaign and to maximise the impact by having a go during a live interview in the studio just before polling day.

I’ve no doubt that if Faine had not raised the Cooper issue, Kennett would still be Premier. The election was so close you could say that about a number of events and this interview was one of them. Steve Bracks’s close mate Adam Kilgour, who runs the spin doctoring outfit CPR, wrote in The Age after the campaign that the television images of Kennett from the Faine interview were very damaging.

I thought Faine would have an excellent chance of winning the Walkley for best current affairs reporting but it was always going to be difficult to knock off the ABC’s Tim Lester for his reports from the Dili compound after most journalists had bailed out.

That he got short-listed as a finalist was not at all surprising if you looked at the judges. Two of them, former Age editor Alan Kohler and former Victorian 7.30 Report host John Jost had both suffered much abuse at the hands of Kennett over the years and knew how intimidating he could be. Faine’s prize was for pure courage. Kennett was riding roughshod over the Victorian media and the fact that no-one else touched the Rebecca Cooper material says a lot about the subservient media culture in Victoria towards the end of Kennett’s second term.

The other thing about Faine’s interview was how it showed up 3AW’s Neil Mitchell for the Jeff apologist that he was.

Let’s look at the material we carried on www.jeffed.com about all of this last year, including a transcript of Faine’s interview, before we look at a piece The Age carried recently comparing the two morning hosts.

Mitchell wimps it as Faine asks the tough questions

Published September 16, 1999

3LO’s Jon Faine took on the Premier yesterday and Jeff’s response was true to form: ATTACK THE MESSENGER, IGNORE THE ISSUE. Funnily enough, Jeff’s favourite easy interviewer Neil Mitchell was doing the same yesterday. Firstly, let’s have a look at the transcript of a belligerent Premier at 3LO, probably for the last time if Jeff’s form of media reprisals is anything to go by.

FAINE: Undoubtedly you’ve had a look, I assume, at Stephen Mayne’s web site, jeffed.com

JEFF: No I have not.

FAINE: There’s a number of things in there which are said about you which I would have thought would have caused even your hair to stand on end.

JEFF: No, I haven’t read it. Why would I be bothered? The man is obviously upset. I’ve got more important things to do. I’m running an election campaign about the future of Victoria, which you haven’t mentioned today yet, about the future of Victoria. But I’m more interested in the future. I’m not worried about individuals who have an axe to grind. I am looking forward to hopefully being re-elected, if the community will see fit, to drive this forward into the 21st century in a very prosperous way.

FAINE: There’s some very serious allegations made on that web site. And he also makes a feature, having noticed that he’s updated it recently, makes a feature of the fact that you’ve not issued a writ against him, you haven’t sued him over any of the things that he says, therefore, he asserts, he’s confident that they’re true.

KENNETT: This is a man who betrayed a trust, an honour, having worked with us; took that information outside and is now, in part or in whole, using it to his own advantage. Said he was going to stand against me; couldn’t. Has no credibility at all with the journalistic profession and you’re running his campaign for him.

FAINE: No, I’m not running his campaign for him.

KENNETT: You asked me whether I’d seen it. I haven’t; I haven’t been bothered with it. I’ve been too busy concentrating on the productive things that we can do in government if re-elected. Now I haven’t looked at the web site; it doesn’t interest me. You’ve obviously done it or you’ve been speaking to him. If you want to be his agent, just throw them up. Throw him up.

FAINE: No, I’m not his agent, but he also claims 50,000 Victorians have had a look at that web site, which is a substantial?

JEFF: So you’ve been speaking to him have you?

FAINE: …a number of people. No, it’s on the web site.

JEFF: Oh is it.

FAINE: It claims 50,000 people?.

JEFF: So you’ve been reading it?

FAINE: I had a look at the web site last night, as do many other people.

JEFF: Well, if you want to waste your and my time, just keep asking me these questions.

FAINE: Well, I don’t think they are a waste of time, Premier.

KENNETT: Righto.

FAINE: I mean, he raises questions about you personal share dealings, which have been aired before. He says he thinks there are irregularities in that.

KENNETT: Well again, Jon, I mean, you can be his agent if you wish. We’ve been through this before. I’m not going to respond to an individual who, as I say, is obviously disappointed, concerned. If you want to waste your listeners’ time, let them get the impression as to the sort of quality of this show.

FAINE: HE asserts that there’s the daughter of a Cabinet minister who was a partner in a consultancy that you allocated tens of millions of dollars of work to without going out to public tender.

KENNETT: I have no idea what you’re talking about; I haven’t read the web site. Now do you want to name them, or are you going to be typically ABC and leftist? I mean, what?

FAINE: Troughton Swier is the consultancy that worked on electricity privatisation, and your Transport Minister Robin Cooper’s daughter is a partner in that firm.

KENNETT: Well

FAINE: They were allocated, he says, $24 million worth of consultancies without it going to tender.

JEFF: Jon, I’ve got to say to you, I mean, I’ll just sit here. You just run through all the allegations, righto, and when you’re ready and you want to talk to me about something that I can respond to. I haven’t read his web site, I’m not interested in him at all, all right.

FAINE: But the allegation, the issue, you can talk about. A $24 million consultancy?

JEFF: Righto

FAINE: … on electricity privatisation that should have gone to tender, should it not have?

KENNETT: I beg your pardon?

FAINE: An electricity privatisation …

JEFF: Oh, dear oh dear, Jon.

FAINE … tender for $24 million.

JEFF: You know, I don’t know why …

FAINE: Should have gone to tender.

JEFF: I waste my time coming down here talking to you, I really don’t (laughs). I mean, you come down, you try and do a good job. You go back to Stephen Mayne, who probably is absolutely discredited among the media for what he is saying about the media, let alone what he is saying about Jeff Kennett, and you want to run your whole show and waste all of your listeners’ time on issues that Stephen Mayne has raised. Well, keep going, I’ll just sit here and drink my tea.

FAINE: And that’s the only response?

JEFF: Well you’re pathetic, absolutely pathetic.

That was before 9am and it wasn’t until 10.50am that 3AW’s huge ego Neil Mitchell finally had me on his show. This was after a blistering editorial an hour earlier labelling me an “idiot” and a “dill” and followed the lead of his boss Steve Price on Tuesday when he said I was “a fruit cake”.

Of course the 3AW boys are going to defend their favourite Premier who delivers them great access and ratings because they fail to ask the tough questions when the pressure is on.

Anyway, Mitchell and I slugged it out for 10 minutes and he constantly talked over me and nitpicked about moot points in the special page about him, which was designed to finally wake up 3AW to the issues raised on jeffed.com. Before this they had been studiously ignoring me just as most of the Premier’s critics on 3AW are ignored.

Journalists across Melbourne quietly cheered that someone finally pulled Mitchell up for his huge ego, grandstanding and journalistic backsliding.

He even sounded like his great mate Jeff yesterday as he adopted that favourite Jeff tactic of shoot the messenger and ignore the issue.

This is a summary of some of Mitchell’s bully boy abuses:

“Your credibility is not all that high here, you have made a lot of errors in this, any sub-editor would rip this stuff to pieces, are you aware of the errors.”

“You even say that I called the Premier a grub. That was wrong, he called me a grub you dill.”

“How can you maintain that you have any credibility?”

Asked if he’d read the treatise, the ego said: “Of course not, 18,500 words of your garbage.”

“I will happily attack you … you are making these absurd allegations … you are wrong.”

On Paul Lyneham’s brave 60 Minutes report on Jeff the previous Sunday: “Paul Lyneham, you are going to defend Paul Lyneham … you are kidding … I thought it was absolute garbage … he was saying these questions had to be asked and I’d already asked all of them.”

“Apparently, you have lots of apparentlies and you believeds, do you actually know anything.”

“Jon Faine is doing a good job for a change. ”

“Jon Faine is not a rival.” (Of course, no one could ever be nearly as good as The Ego himself).

“You are putting your credibility on the line and your credibility is non existent.”

“If you spread the sort of crap through Alan Stockdale that you spread through this … you call yourself a journalist and I have at least eight points here that you are just totally wrong on.”

“I am not talking about 25,000 words, I did not read all that rubbish.”

“You are not a journalist’s bottom.”

“Democracy throws up idiots at times and you have just heard one of them.”

THE FAINT VOICE DOWN THE LINE RESPONDED AS FOLLOWS

Talking about Mitchell’s more credible rival Jon Faine at 3LO, who probed the Premier on a $24 million consultancy which did not go to tender. “He had the courage to ask a question like that, I can’t see why you do not have the courage.”

“Jon Faine has asked some very tough questions today and you won’t ask them tomorrow.”

“You are the president of the Press Club and you sound more and more like Jeff Kennett every day attacking journalists out there … you attack the messenger and ignore the issue.”

“The entire press gallery at Spring Street thinks you are too soft.”

“You have squibbed it on all the tough questions over the years Neil.”

On working for Stockdale: “We had a great run through you Neil because you were so easy, we always wanted to get on your show.”

“If you actually read the document Neil rather than attacking me before reading it then you would have a lot more credibility.”

“If you put you ego aside for one minute and actually had a look at the entire document you should deal with the substance of the issue and not play the man.”

Neil got slapped around by a couple of callers for talking over me and admitted to one that he “was a bit rude”.

But is was the gentleman (we’ll call him Luigi) with the delightful Italian accent who really made the telling point and got a sort-of commitment out of Mitchell to raise the Cooper contract today (Thursday). Try this for size.

LUIGI: You say you haven’t read it and you assume it is defamatory … but what about that bit about Robin Cooper?

THE EGO: I haven’t explored that too far because I don’t have any evidence of what is being suggested.

LUIGI: It was asked to Jeff Kennett this morning on 3LO and Jeff Kennett said ‘if you keep asking me questions like this I’m just gong to sit here and drink my tea’. That was his answer why didn’t he say ‘I’m going to sue you if you keep persisting with these questions like that’.

MITCHELL: Because it’s an election campaign.

LUIGI: No, because he has not got a foot to stand on, that’s what it is and you should pursue him tomorrow with it.

THE EGO: I will

We all wait with baited breath. In the space of a morning yesterday we saw stonewalling Kennett at his intimidating best and 3AW’s biggest ego in full flight, promising to ask the tough questions. Something has got to give here. If Mitchell bothers to read the treatise he’ll have some serious ammunition to work with but most Spring Street journalists expect he’ll wimp it yet again.

ends

CRIKEY: For the record Mitchell did raise it the next morning after the opposition provided the Auditor General’s report talking about the Troughton-Swier contact. And when Kennett calmly mentioned that it was correct, a few people started congratulating Jon Faine for having the courage to broach the Rebecca Cooper directly with the Premier first.

After much argument, the Herald Sun ran a small story quoting Rebecca on the morning after the Faine interview and therefore looked a lot better than The Age which managed to ignore it until Peter Ellingsen mentioned it in a column on the day before we all went to the polls.

Now, if you’re interested in finding out more about Faine and Mitchell’s rivalry, check out this cover story from The Age’s Green Guide which ran a few weeks ago.

Mitchell versus Faine

By Tracie Winch

Age Contributor, ex ABC Radio producer and RMIT Journalism Lecture

Melbourne radio has no shock jocks. It has no rednecks or talkback hosts earning more than a $1 million a year just for being on the wireless. It has one slightly demonic “demon of drivetime” and one morning “emperor of the air” – maybe two, both of whom remained cleanskins, and have always been so, in the sordid cash-for-comment affair.

Unlike Sydney, Melbourne talk radio has no “golden tonsils” which is probably a good thing if you subscribe to the theory held by the late radio manager Brian White: “Show me a radio presenter with a good voice and I’ll show you a dickhead.”

In that sense, Melbourne talk radio is comparatively unremarkable except when the protagonists – Jon Faine, Neil Mitchell and Steve Price – reflect on themselves or reveal their thinly veiled contempt for each other fuelled by a combination of ego, a desire to knock each off their pedestals, and a bit of moral one-upmanship.

Even though he is a regular 3AW fill-in, Rehame’s managing director Peter Maher says “3AW doesn’t set the agenda, it follows it. In Australia, The Daily Telegraph sets the agenda. On Sydney radio it’s Alan Jones. AW doesn’t have the resources to initiate – they follow.”

Maher says with commercial talk radio it’s the “50-50 principle”: “Fifty per cent listen because they hate you and 50 per cent because they like you. The difference with Jon Faine is that 90 per cent are listening because they like him.”

And, even though experiments to network John Laws and Alan Jones to a Melbourne audience did not succeed in the past, Maher says “it’s a lot of rubbish that our commercial broadcasters couldn’t work in Sydney. If they’re good enough they’ll work anywhere.”

Jon Faine says that although setting an agenda or leading opinion “could well happen as part of my job, it’s not how I set out to do my job and that’s a fundamental difference between the way I understand my commercial counterparts to go about doing what they do”.

Although it is not ABC policy to dwell on ratings (except, according to Mitchell, when they’re good) Faine says he does pay attention to how his program rates compared with Mitchell’s.

During the course of our interview it is mentioned that in the ratings survey before last, his 774 ABC Melbourne morning program came within a few thousand listeners of bumping off Neil Mitchell between 8.30am and 9 am (15.6 to 15.2, according to Faine).

When this is put to Mitchell it is dismissed as a “distortion of figures”. When Mitchell got wind that a conversation had taken place on air between Faine and “one of his analysts” regarding the figures, he got hold of a tape to hear exactly what had been said. He later had the figures in question checked out by “his people” and felt satisfied it was all bunkum.

Mitchell says that Faine’s kick-start is all thanks to the strong ratings of the ABC current affairs program AM. That Mitchell’s lead in is one of the strongest and most consistent in the marketplace courtesy of the 3AW breakfast program seemed to escape him.

He dismisses the notion that the Faine program “is bearing down on us” and says “the next survey (released at the end of September) was stronger. I thought about giving them a touch up on air but then thought what’s the point They pretend to a higher morality than mere commercial beings. I just get irritated by hypocrisy.”

But, if nothing else, the recent ratings do reveal that the Faine program has made inroads into the morning market. During Faine’s first year in the slot the program rated dismally, often between 7.5 and 8 per cent of the total listening audience. Now it hovers at somewhere between 10 and 11 per cent, and while Mitchell consistently rates a very respectable 15 to 16 per cent or above, Faine has finally managed to make the slot work in a way it didn’t previously.

Perhaps there was some prescience after all back in 1993 when a radio reviewer wrote of Faine: “While Faine is no Hinch, he could just be the broadcaster to bring back those heady days.”

While in many ways the shows are not altogether different in content, it is the form that is worlds apart, particularly in relation to how both Mitchell and Faine deal with politicians.

If Mitchell is irritated (one of his favorite words) about anything it should be about the events of September last year when, during the course of the Victorian state election campaign, the then Premier Jeff Kennett – a weekly visitor to his studio – went on Faine’s program and, in the words of a senior Liberal, “lost them the election”.

Not only did the interview make news nationwide, it has also won Jon Faine a Walkley nomination in the current affairs category for his piece aptly title “Not Jeff’s Cup of Tea”.

On the morning in question, Jeff Kennett entered the ABC studios to do an interview with Faine and when questioned about issues raised on the controversial website of journalist and former Kennett advisor Stephen Mayne, Kennett began attacking Faine calling him “typically leftish” and “pathetic”.

When Faine persisted with his line of questioning he refused to answer the questions except to say “Well, keep going. I’ll just sit here and drink my tea.”

The interview brought to a head what many had been asking: Had Jeff Kennett’s regular spots with Neil Mitchell been a healthy arrangement?

The day before the “cup of tea incident”, Stephen Mayne questioned this directly with Mitchell on air while accusing him of “squibbing on all the tough issues”. Mitchell responded by calling Mayne an “idiot” and a “dill”, a move seen as fatal error of judgment on Mitchell’s part to have, as another politician told Green Guide, “so publicly defended the Premier and cemented in the minds of the public for once and for all exactly who’s side he was on”.

Peter Maher says: “There’s no doubt Jon Faine set an agenda prior to the last state election because he was the first one who took on the Premier and there’s no doubt Faine was certainly ahead of the media pack. Kennett was the one who verbally abused Faine and as it turned out Faine was probably more aware of what was happening in the community than other sections of the media were.”

Faine says his relationship with the Premier was the one issue upon which he received “riding instructions” when he initially took up the job nearly four years ago. He says he was told, “Peter Couchman lost his working relationship with the Premier after he got arrested at Albert Park. Maintain a working relationship with the Premier.”

“There was something wrong with the way Mr Kennett held a weekly press conference with one broadcaster at one radio station in lieu of speaking with the press at large. We’ve been offered regular spots by everyone – we say no, all politicians have long since realised – and this is the essential difference between us and 3AW: the power of our signal. It covers all of Victoria. When Jeff Kennett realised this he wanted to come on regularly. Steve Bracks wanted the same. I said the same thing to them both: ‘If we do you then we have to do the opposition as well,’ to which they both replied ‘Oh, we wouldn’t want that.'”

Neil Mitchell says that if Faine does see regular political spots as a “press conference” then he’s clearly not asking the right questions.

On the issue of Faine’s Walkey shortlisting (Faine has been nominated in two categories for a Walkley, the second one, for broadcast interviewing, was for his coverage of the actual election night last year) Mitchell says he “hadn’t thought to enter” and that “perhaps he should have entered for every Friday he had Jeff on the program”.

Mitchell himself has won two awards this year, including a Melbourne Press Club Quill Award, for his interviews with the father of a young girl who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion.

How the story came about was also interesting as Mitchell was hand-picked by a public relations firm to take on the story. Although Mitchell had a loose connection with the father through a family friend, Mitchell plays down the role of Shandwick International, saying he cannot really recall now at which point the PR firm became involved.

That he was able to win the father’s trust and retain his anonymnity is, Mitchell says, a testament to the trust that be can be generated and some of the positive things that can be achieved on radio. If Mitchell had his moment on the national news stage last year this was it.

Faine says one of the judges of the Quill awards, partly sponsored by Shandwick International, later phoned him to ask why he didn’t put in his Kennett interview given that the only entries they received were from 3AW.

“I refused to enter the Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards. I don’t believe in awards where you nominate yourself but it’s all part of the puffery that 3AW go on with every day when they try to give you the impression that every story is their story.”

As far as Faine actually breaking stories goes, Mitchell says, “Perhaps he does it. I haven’t noticed it and I usually do because you and your good friends in the media credit him but never me – if you did it would be too embarrassing.”

In assessing the reason behind Mitchell’s success, a former colleague says that Mitchell owes a great deal of it to being “the first broadcaster to understand the commercial value of whining”.

“If you listen to talkback across the board you’ll hear why he is the way he is. It’s a commercial decision. You’ll hear his audience come in whining, too, and they all see solutions to the world’s problems in punishment terms.”

The same source, who has had a long career both in commercial and ABC broadcasting, says by contrast Faine is “an arrogant seeker of truth”.

“But his arrogance can be entertaining, it doesn’t have to be viewed negatively.”

Faine has just been offered another two-year contract with 774 ABC Melbourne and is considering his position. He has not discounted going to the bar (he is lawyer) and is not sure how much longer he can sustain the demands of the job.

Mitchell, on the other hand, has been doing the job very successfully for over 11 years. He thinks about quitting every morning but is “buggered if he knows” what he’d do next.

Peter Fray

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