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Get the lawyers and spin doctors off the press club committee

To start with, you had 18 people standing for 15 spots on the committee so President Neil Mitchell found himself in charge of a proxy battle.

Given the strong interest, we were lucky that the Hun’s deposed gossip columnist Bob Hart, Canberra-bound Age prober Mark Forbes, Louise Graham and Mike Cohen had all decided not to stand for the committee this year.

Candidates were invited to speak to their nomination and a couple of the challengers – Marco Bass from ABC radio and TV news, Belinda Hawkins from SBS and Bob Kearsley from Nine – all got up and said the electronic media and their own outlets needed to be better represented.

Paula and I were sitting behind [email protected], the man who is acting for Steve Price in his defamation and contempt proceeding against Crikey Media Pty Ltd and me personally. We only discovered at the AGM that this press freedom fighter actually sits on the Press Club committee.

Adrian came armed with six proxies but it wasn’t enough to save his Corrs Chambers Westgarth mate Richard Leder who was voted off the committee.

The two other losers were Bruce Tobin – a former Age crime scribe turned spin doctor for the Victoria Police – and Julianne Davies from The Age who might have suffered from not being present or because she’d previously sat on the committee.

The journalists who were voted back on included Eileen Berry from The Age (who came armed with about 8 proxies), Mary Gearin, Gayle Austen, Belinda Hawkins, Bob Kearsley, Keith Moor, Corrie Perkin, John Rees, Andrew Rule, Herald Sun deputy editor John Trevorrow and Geoff Wilkinson.

Whilst two non-journalists were given the boot, [email protected], Mike Smith from Shandwick PR and Age lawyer David Poulton all got another year on the committee.

The election results took about half an hour to count so it was useful that Age online journalist Hamish Fitzsimmons put the cat amongst the pigeons by moving a motion that committee members not be allowed to enter the awards. Over the past two years there has been considerable whinging, pushed along by reports on Crikey, about the committee members winning so many Quill awards.

Hamish’s motion sparked some very interesting debate. Hamish won a Quill last year but complained that it did not have the respect it deserved because the view in newsrooms was that they were rigged so that committee members could scoop the pools. He stressed that this was a perception and not a reality.

Committee members and Quill winners such as Andrew Rule and Geoff Wilkinson were indignant at the suggestion.

“Name names,” demanded Wilkie, whilst Rule leapt to his feet and said if you did that you may as well get the people from the Warrnambool Flower Show to sit on the committee because there would be no-one else.

Neil Mitchell did a pretty good job chairing the meeting and observed that some committee members would quit if they were not allowed to nominate for the Quills.

Crikey knows Hamish and was sitting next to him but can honestly say that we had nothing to do with his bold motion. This was something he initiated and a brave move it was from a young journalist to take on “The Club” in this cosy little room on the 3rd floor of the RACV headquarters in Queen St.

It was actually a good example of dogged journalism from Hamish as he stuck to his guns in a fairly hostile environment but also kept his cool throughout.

Press Club vice-president Ian Henderson, who used to work with Hamish at ABC TV, reluctantly seconded the motion “in the interests of debate” and then off we went.

About a dozen people contributed to the debate with Mary Gearin and Belinda Hawkins being in the minority in raising the perception concerns in the newsrooms.

Others speakers against included Hendo himself, who acknowledged “the perception is there”, John Trevorrow from the Herald Sun and Keith Moor from the Hun.

Not being a Press Club member and all, Crikey kept his powder dry until near the end of the debate and then offered the following assessment.

The Press Club needs to have a good look at who is influencing it with PR firms such as Shandwick having a big say in proceedings through sponsorship and Mike Smith’s presence on the board.

Similarly, we should stop taking money from sin industries such as Tattersall’s who simply want to curry favour with journalists to protect their pokies duopoly which is unprecendented anywhere in the world.

In terms of perceptions about conflict of interest, what about Steve Price being one of the judges for the Grant Hattam press freedom award last year and giving it to his personal lawyer in [email protected] Why are lawyers even receiving awards let alone sitting on the committee?

Neil Mitchell was quick to distance himself from the issue of Price giving his personal lawyer an award by pointing out that it was “not actually a Quill” but rather an award initiated by the Herald & Weekly Times which they organised after Grant Hattam, a partner at Corrs and long-time Hun lawyer, died suddenly a couple of years back.

Ian Henderson became far more animated than when he reads the ABC 7pm bulletin in defending Tatts saying that we’d have no cash to hand out to Quill winners without them. Crikey responded by suggesting we don’t hand out any gambling money and just have the prestige of the awards, which is what happens with the Walkleys. Surely that would be better than being in the pay of this insidious company which has used charitable endeavours for years to cover up its rapacious pushing of the pokies on social unfortunates in a country which has more gambling losses per head than any other.

As the debate raged on, Press Club vice president and Age lawyer Peter Bartlett from Minter Ellison suggested an amendment to the motion that the committee call a meeting to discuss the issue of Quill judging. This was tossed around for a bit and then it was suggested that all members be invited to the meeting.

The amendment was then moved and passed as was Hamish’s amended motion which had come a long way since it had great difficulty finding a seconder in the first place.

Crikey attempted to do a runner immediately after the meeting but Hendo came sprinting out and got me at the lift. He again defended Tatts vigorously and also made a spirited defence of Mike Smith.

Paula, who had left halfway through the debate to feed the meter, reckons Mike was staring daggers as Crikey spoke. However, Hendo was reassured it was nothing personal against Mike, who is a former editor of The Age.

Mike is chairman of the Australian chapter of multinational PR firm Shandwicks which has acted locally for fugitive Mexican banker Carlos Cabal, disgraced Coles Myer chairman Brian Quinn, interests supporting Japanese Japanese and Bruno Grollo when he was fighting tax charges.

But even if his clients were all like Snow White, the principle of allowing spin doctors inside the press club remains the same. These manipulators are the natural enemies of journalists so why is an exception made for Mike Smith. He may have worked hard to organise the Quills and the Press Club website and we all appreciate his efforts in this regard.

But when club President Neil Mitchell wins a Quill for an interview delivered to him on a platter by Smith’s PR firm then questions should be asked.

And when Quill winner Geoff Wilkinson and former Shandwick spin doctor Glenn Mitchell start writing sympathetic stories in the Herald Sun about Tatts when the Bracks government was investigating a new $4000 a year pokies tax, you’ve got to ask yourself about the perceptions.

It should be noted that Tatt’s are big advertisers in the Herald Sun, regularly buying prominent right hand page spots for their ads which are designed to look like news stories and invariably promote the latest charitable cause Tatt’s has donated some of their pokies profits to.

The multinational Shandwicks used to be called IPR in Australia and founder Laurie Kerr was a player in getting Tatts its lucrative lotteries licence many years ago. One of Laurie’s sons still sits on the Tatts board to this day.

Hendo suggested I join the committee and would happily do so if Tatts and all PR people and lawyers were politely shown the door. Change the name to the Melbourne Media Club, set up a bar somewhere and you’d have a thriving organisation for working journalists in all mediums.

Maybe we will challenge [email protected] for a spot on the committee next year, although we met him in the lift and he seemed like a fine fellow despite going us for contempt and defo at the moment.

Pricey told me a couple of years back that the Quills were initially championed by 3AW and the Herald Sun which were both (especially the Hun) trying to run non-union shops at a time when you had to be a member of the union to win a Walkley.

They have now got the Quills and the Press Club up to serious challenger status to the Walkleys but need to go the next step.

Interestingly, three factions of journalists are slugging it out for control of the journo’s union, the MEAA, in a postal ballot in full flight at the moment.

Crikey got two sets of pleas for votes in last week’s mail and special election websites have been set up. How surprising that there is only four News Ltd journalists out of 35 candidates, even though they dominate the newspaper industry in Australia with 70 per cent.

Former Herald Sun editor in chief Steve Harris successfully broke the union in Melbourne with about 120 people (including Crikey) signing no-strike contracts. Maybe this explains why the Hun is relatively well represented on the Press Club, including one of their lawyers in Adrian Anderson.

When we sent a version of this piece to subscribers last week, a few PR types complained that they should not be banned from the press club.

It would be interesting to know whether working journalists are allowed to be members of the PRIA or the Law Institute. You could argue that a working journalist with a law degree would be allowed into the Law Institute and the same should apply to former journalists now working in PR.

But if you leave the door open, you suddenly find that lawyers trying to punish journalists for contempt are on the Press Club committee sitting alongside spin doctors acting for international fugitives.

Journalism is one of the most noble professions in the world. Practitioners are meant to act fearlessly in the public interest. Unlike lawyers, journalists are not hired guns who will take on any dodgy cause going for a buck. Many PR companies do appear like lawyers in not being discerning in their clients.

The problem that the Press Club faces is one of funding. These legal firms like Minters and Corrs that get committee positions also pump in the sponsorship dollars. Shandwicks and Tatts do the same and this is how the Press Club dishes out cheques to Quill winners.

In his introductory remarks, Neil Mitchell observed that the Club had an excellent year, the highlight for him being a chance to interview Nelson Mandella at a Press Club luncheon. Mitchell quite rightly pointed out that Melbourne is the centre of journalistic excellence and integrity in many respects.

However, after Southern Cross Broadcasting bought 2UE, Mitchell now finds himself working for the same company that employs those disgraceful Sydney shock jocks and cash for comment kings Alan Jones and John Laws.

The Press Club should be fighting things like cash for comment and Australia’s archane defamation laws – a group called Free Speech Victoria are leaving them for dead on this score – so maybe it is time Mitchell stood aside for someone in a better position to do this.

Alternatively, he could try to use the Press Club to fight some of the dodgy practices employed by on air personalities in his own stable, especially those Sin City shock jocks.

Peter Fray

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