Crikey last week collected the Voltaire 2001 award from Free Speech Victoria for “speaking boldly and freely through crikey.com.au”. However, this week I was to have been facing a contempt of court summons from 3AW program director Steve Price in the Victorian Supreme Court but the judge adjourned it off until after defamation hearing next March. After some tidying up, this is a reasonably accurate portrayal of what was said at the dinner on November 28.
They say that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and rather than being acclaimed as a campaigner for Free Speech this award could equally be called the Big Mouth Award, or The Can’t Be Trusted Prize or the Bridge Burning trophy.
The Mayne family background does not provide an easy explanation for this propensity to speak out. My father won’t tell me anything about the family finances. My mother was a former diplomat in Burma and when we visited in 1999 she was so nervous about the military junta that we couldn’t even tell Americans staying at the same hotel that mum had served as a diplomat here almost 40 years ago. These were secrets that had to be kept. My sister works for the Defence department in intelligence and has told me nothing about her work in 13 years. And my wife works as a family law barrister which means none of her case work can ever be discussed in public. So I’m quite miffed about the genealogy that sees me standing before you tonight.
Unfortunately, I’m not quite as well prepared as I’d hoped because at 3pm today I received a fax from Steve Price’s lawyer from Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Adrian Anderson, threatening litigation on behalf of another client, the Federal Labor candidate for Maribyrnong, Bob Sercombe. This took an hour out of my speech-writing time because I busily published an apology this afternoon.
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Despite plenty of experience now, I still get a bit jittery when the legal letters come in but can I say at the outset what a privilege it is to follow in the footsteps of the previous two Voltaire recipients and two men I admire enourmously: former Victorian Auditor General Ches Baragwanath and former Media Watch host Richard Ackland.
It seems that Ches and I have always been on the same side. In the early days with Kennett as Alan Stockdale’s press secretary, I spent plenty of time running around brandishing Ches’s reports pointing out to any journalist who would listen just how bad things were under the Labor party. Journalists weren’t too interested in reports damning Cain and Kirner in 1993 and 1994 but I was out there pushing everything Ches said.
But I left Kennett in July 1994 to return as business editor of the Herald Sun and given the frenetic pace of reform under Kennett, it was about this time that the reports from Ches into the various Kennett deals really started to flow. It would have been no fun being the government spin doctor defending things like the Tabcorp float and the special deals for Crown, but it was terrific covering the reports as a journalist.
When Kennett launched his first big assault on Ches, I wrote an opinion piece in the Herald Sun that started off with two quotes.
The first was from October 28, 1992, when Kennett told the Parliament:
“Mr Baragwanath and his officials deserve the full support of Parliament and the public for the courage of carrying out their job without bending to pressures.”
The second was on May 15, 1997, when the Premier was trying to justify his plan to neuter Ches:
“Ches never found the fundamental economic malaise that Victoria was heading to under the Labor Government. He never found it.”
Now in the intervening period between May 15 1997 and my last day on the Herald Sun five weeks later on June 20 that year, I recorded a two hour interview with Four Corners and basically told them everything I’d seen in Kennett’s office. I then took off on a three month European holiday knowing that I’d never work in Victoria again as long as Jeff Kennett was premier.
The main thing that Four Corners used, and about 60 per cent of what I told them was excised for legal reasons, was my accounts of Kennett’s share dealings but this was basically because that was the best piece of untold news I had up my sleave.
So why would you commit professional suicide like this? The thing that sent me over the edge more than anything else was the attack on the auditor general and I always felt that Ches did the noble thing in refusing to resign. Kennett wanted the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Bernard Bongiorno, to resign and he did. Kennett tried to make Ches resign but to do so would have been a victory for the Premier and Ches is to be commended for refusing to resign and serving out his full term in difficult circumstances.
The Four Corners story went to air on Brownlow medal night in 1997 and I spent a week in Melbourne spinning my lines all over the media and then scurried off to Sydney to be business editor of The Daily Telegraph thanks to Terry McCrann putting in a good word for me.
Free speech and cash for comment
Fast forward a couple of years and I was sitting at my desk at the Fin Review in July 1999 watching Media Watch at 9.15pm one night after an edition had just gone to bed when on came Richard Ackland’s magnificent expose of cash for comment.
As a former banking writer on The Age and someone who had watched bank shares values rocket from about $20 billion in 1992 to $160 billion today, it really got up my goat that this cartel were gouging outrageous profits from their customer and buying off their biggest critics.
This issue of cash for comment has taken up a good deal of Crikey’s time since then. The thing that most surprised me was that the business journalists and shareholders did not stick the boots into the companies actually handing over the cash.
So when www.jeffed.com was looking for some non-Kennett issues to chase after he had been deposed, I took it upon myself to campaign hard against cash for comment targeting the corporate end of the equation.
I, or proxies such as Hugo Kelly, have raised it at the annual meetings of Colonial, Qantas, Optus, Australand and Southcorp. And I stood for the board of the Commonwealth Bank and the NRMA as a candidate opposed to cash for comment. Incredibly, both CBA and the NRMA censored the platform that was sent to shareholders explaining my candidacy and excised the reference to cash for comment.
So here you have major companies paying for positive coverage and then refusing to allow critics of this arrangement to distribute their message in a supposedly democratic corporate election.
Remarkably, the newspapers have failed to ever report any of these exchanges at AGMs where chairman and CEOs try to defend these grubby arrangements.
The most amusing exchange was at the Commonwealth Bank meeting last year when chairman John Ralph almost gloated that the bank’s contract with Alan Jones specifically said he was not allowed to talk about the bank on air.
Brilliant. Given that the Commonwealth Bank had just bought Colonial and was busily retrenching a couple of thousand workers and closing 250 branches across NSW, of course you wouldn’t want the most dangerous shock jock in NSW talking about you on air.
I’m very pleased to be able to say that the only listed company still paying Jones or Laws any cash today is Southcorp thanks to its recent acquisition of Rosemount and after a proxy raised this at their recent AGM, the appropriateness of this is now being discussed at board level.
Steve Price, Crikey and free speech
Earlier this year Southern Cross Broadcasting paid $90 million to buy 2UE and 4BC and then managing director Tony Bell went on 3AW with Neil Mitchell claiming that cash for comment was a bit of a beat up.
After earlier publicly contemplating a bid for the board of Southern Cross on a free speech platform after Steve Price issued defamation proceedings, the takeover and Tony Bell comments sealed my fate.
Naturally, they censored the platform and refused to tell shareholders I was campaigning against cash for comment. The company secretary, Eddie Chia, even wrote to me asking for evidence when the ABA came up with 60 specific breaches by Jones and Laws in the so-called Cash for Comment inquiry.
Unfortunately, I only polled 4 per cent of the vote. Shareholders love companies that make money and don’t really mind how they do it. Since Kennett was elected, the Southern Cross share price has gone from 70c to $11 and they are now a $600 million powerhouse.
WHY IS STEVE PRICE SUING
Now most of you will be aware that I’m being sued by 3AW Drive time presenter and program director Steve Price and I’d like to bring you into the picture of where things are at with this.
I don’t think it is defamatory to say that Steve Price is arguably the most confrontational journalist in Victoria, although I’m probably not too far behind him.
The timing of tonight’s dinner is absolutely perfect. Justice Eames will hand down his judgement at 10.30am tomorrow morning in court 5 of the Supreme Court on the question of whether Raymond Hoser should be jailed for scandalising the courts in his police corruption books.
Cash for comment and cash for preferences
Now I’m being sued by Steve Price for publishing a Raymond Hoser press release on December 4 last year at the bottom of a 1500 word story that explained how a Labor Party figure had offered to pay some of my printing expenses in the Burwood by-election if I preferenced Labor.
We’d all heard of cash for comment, well this was cash for preferences and Hoser and I were both claiming to have received offers. Labor’s cash would have gone a lot further with me than Hoser because Hoser only polled 11 votes in the Frankston East supplementary election, and the guy who came second last in a 17 horse field was ATSIC chairman Geoff Clarke, who polled 17 votes.
As it turned out, I got 1973 votes in Burwood, again thanks in part to the work of Hugo Kelly, and Labor eventually won the seat on my preferences despite not being preferenced, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, Raymond Hoser spammed his large list of people with a press release about his cash for preferences offer on the same day I was writing about my experience on Crikey. I read the first few pars which were all about Frankston East and simply published the full press release as a post script to my story – more fool me.
A couple of days later a threatening letter arrived from Corrs Chambers Westgarth and I immediately removed the offending material which I had not even read.
Now Crikey has published 2.5 million words in less than two years but failing to read something you publish is no excuse. We did remove the offending material straight away and the story had only been downloaded by 340 different people and I’d guess that less than half of them would have actually got half way down Hoser’s press release into the offending material.
But Price has a record a suing – especially over material that Hoser puts out because it was Raymond Hoser who sparked the ABA to broaden their inquiry into 3AW back in 1999. Price sued Adnews and its publisher Yaffa Publishing for reproducing a Hoser letter but it settled shortly before it was due to go to court.
Just after Christmas I received a phone call from Paula saying that her friend Gina Schoff, who has her barrister’s chambers on the same floor as Paula, had informed her she was drawing up the particulars for a writ to be issued by Steve Price against me.
We published a loud apology on the site after the writ landed, but by this time the courts were formally involved in the process.
CRIKEY’S LEGAL POLICY
Now we all know that Australia’s defamation laws are the most restrictive of any English speaking country with the exception of Singapore. Colourful types who have sued successfully before include Roger Rogerson, Alan Bond, Laurie Connell and Joh Bjekle Petersen
The thing that always irked me the most about defamation actions was the way that publishers would immediately crawl up into a ball and cease reporting about the plaintiff.
For instance, when Solomon Lew sued the Herald Sun a few years about the break-in at the ASIC into the so-called “Yannon room”, editor Peter Blunden became absolutely paranoid and refused to publish anything even vaguely controversial about Lew whilst the action was in the courts.
The major reason controversial people sue is to stop people talking about them or to get cash so we have an open policy on Crikey to apologise profusely at first, but to continue actively commenting about someone they actually issues proceedings.
I can assure you that Paula didn’t marry me for the money because there ain’t much in the way of assets left but our total debts top $350,000 and litigants are welcome to that.
CURRENT ACTION IN STEVE PRICE MATTER
Now apart from the Sercombe matter this afternoon, things are moving pretty fast on legal matters with Steve Price. Raymond Hoser might be in jail from next Tuesday and then on Friday morning at 10am Magistrate Leslie Fleming is handing down her judgment on a defamation action brought by former One Nation candidate Ces Hesse against Steve Price.
The offending line from Price after One Nation did better than expected in the WA state election was as follows:
PRICE: “Watch the parasites now come out of the woodwork – the whingeing, whining loonies we exposed last time, the gun nuts, the no-hopers, the Johns of Brighton and Ces Hesses of this world.”
Hesse was the candidate for One Nation in the seat of Chisholm in the 1998 election and had twice been interviewed by Price on air and had come to his attention again more latterly from a letter to the Herald Sun.
Hesse, himself a retired detective sergeant with the Victoria Police, had a procession of eight character witnesses speaking highly of his reputation including several high ranking police officers, a JP, a former Mayor of the City of Manningham, a company director and the President of the Yarra Valley Kennel Club.
During Gina’s questioning of Price, he explained that he meant to convey the impression that One Nation’s policies were controversial, radical and whacky and he felt their policies in tax, immigration and gun laws were unworkable.
Cousel for Hesse, Michael Wheelahan, then put Price through his paces.
Price denied he intended to convey the impression that Hesse was “a whingeing, whining loony”. He denied inferring he was “a gun not” or a “no-hoper”, but when asked if he believed he was “a total whacko”, Price said: “Yes I do”.
When asked what facts he had to support this claim, Price said: “There was no requirement to present any facts, it was an opinion.”
Hesse is asking for $40,000 and we’ll all be watching closely on Friday morning because on Monday morning Steve Price’s contempt of court summons against me and Crikey is due to begin and it is likely to run for a couple of days.
NO CHANCE OF JAIL
Raymond Hoser might be jailed but there’s no chance of that with me because it is a civil action and there is no court order or direction that I’ve ignored.
However, I could be fined and if I lose and there is the prospect of paying many tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills to Paula’s former friend Gina and her defacto Will Houghton QC. Thankfully, some big hearted lawyers in barristers Richard McGarvie and James Catlin, along with Holding Redlich partner Nic Pullen and his colleague Charles Powles, have agreed to represent me on a pro-bono basis.
Paula and Gina have been slugging it out before the Bar Council’s Ethics Committee over the question of whether it is appropriate for Gina to stay in the matter.
The contempt summons suggests that I’ve attempted to put pressure on Price, his Volvo sponsors and his lawyers to withdraw the action.
This is interesting given what Price said on 2UE a couple of weeks after lodging his writ against me.
PRICE: What is this about everybody deciding that we are going to follow the Americans and if it moves get a lawyer and sue it.
“When we’ve had this deep throat thrombosis or whatever it is that you get in your legs when you fly in economy.
“We have now got a 12 year old girl down here suing McDonalds claiming she was served scalding water in a McDonalds store. She’s a primary school student. She’s issued a writ against McDonalds claiming a cup of hot water landed in her lap.
“Now She says she deserved compensation for pain, shock, depression and scarring when a children’s tea party went wrong.”
The Volvo connection
The original writ claims the following defamatory imputation from the Hoser press release:
“5(e) the plaintiff (Price) had accepted a free Volvo and other benefits from secret benefactors in exchange for making favourable comments about those benefactors on air.”
Since then, the free Volvo has been disclosed on the 3AW website but I draw your attention to this exchange when Price was doing an outside broadcast from the Volvo dealership Bilia Blackburn last Friday (Nov 23) between 4.30pm and 5pm.
CALLER: Any chance you could fix me up with a cheap Volvo? (paraphrased as tape only started with Price response).
PRICE: Yep, not a problem. You come down here and we’ll sort one out for you. Have you got a colour in mind? I’ve got a nice navy blue C70 convertible sitting right in front of me. I could fix that up for you . Or you could have a gold S60, what do you reckon?
CALLER: I’d love to but it’s a little bit out of my league.
PRICE: You never know, they might be able to do a deal. Go ahead.
CALLER: Yeah, not bad, I suppose we could go for a cruise together mate.
This is what you might call positive on-air comment and despite about 20 plugs or ads during the two hour outside broadcast, Price did not disclose to his listeners during the broadcast that he drives a free Volvo courtesy of Bilia. However, it should be stressed that this is disclosed on the 3AW website, in accordance with the new ABA guidelines.
Part of the contempt summons is based around emails sent to Adrian Anderson by Crikey subscribers. I certainly published Adrian’s email address which appeared on the first letter but should I be held responsible for what others wrote?
Publishing email addresses without permission is something that Price is not averse to either.
For instance, last Friday, he said the following:
STEVE PRICE: My column in the Herald Sun during the week about lesbians and IVF has generated quite a bit of email traffic. And one of the emails arrived overnight from a bloke calling himself Damien (name withheld by Crikey) and his web address, I’ll give you it to you at the at the end, this is what Damien writes. Have a listen to this nonsense.”
(READS OUT FULL EMAIL)
You can contact Damien if you like, [email protected] (changed for privacy reasons).
Now Damien has apparently received quite a few threatening and homophobic emails from 3AW listeners and is threatening to take legal action himself.
John Dahlsen a connecting factor
The man who is a common feature in much of this is one John Dahlsen, the founder of Southern Cross Broadcasting back in the 1980s.
Dahslen is from a wealthy Gippsland family and was chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times when it ran its vicious campaign against the Hawke-Keating capital gains tax regime in the mid 1980s. Labor was so furious they devised some media law reforms that cleared the way for Rupert Murdoch to buy HWT and move to 70 per cent of the Australian newspaper market, something the nation has been lamenting ever since.
After the takeover, Dahlsen concentrated his efforts on Southern Cross at the same time as the like of Neil Mitchell and Steve Price went to 3AW from the Herald. Former national party Federal minister Peter Nixon was chairman and they have recreated their conservative, right wing brand of media into a $600 million giant these days.
Dahlsen’s role in Auditor General changes
Dahlsen was on the 3 man committee that recommended the neutering of Ches Baragwanath’s role as auditor general in 1997. I felt it was completely inappropriate that a powerful media owner/director joined a controversial committee that recommended whittling away the independence and resources or the major watchdog over government.
And as John Brumby argued at the time, Dahlsen should never have taken the role given that he had felt the full force of a critical Ches report a few years earlier for his role in the failed Sandridge Development Corporation. This is what The Age published about this conflict of interest in 1996:
“One of the three men appointed to review the office of Victoria’s auditor-general was linked to a company that was the subject of a critical report by the auditor four years ago.
According to Australian Securities Commission records, Mr John Dahlsen was a director of Sandridge City Development Company, which was involved in the previous Labor Government’s aborted $700 million Bayside development in 1992.
A report in May 1992 by the auditor-general, Mr Ches Baragwanath, said the then-Government went ahead with the Sandridge deal despite doubts about the company’s financial viability and against the advice of the Premier’s Department.
The report said that when the Government made agreements with Sandridge in July 1990, about 20 per cent of the companies that made up the consortium had receivers.
The report said: “A number of compromises have occurred, or have been proposed, in the process of negotiating agreements with Sandridge since its selection in 1987. The majority of these compromises increase the Government’s exposure to financial risks associated with the development.”
The Opposition Leader, Mr John Brumby, said last night that the Kennett Government was now in an absurd situation because companies linked to two out of three review panel members “are or have been the subject of scathing reports by the auditor-general”.
I bumped into John Dahlsen before a Woolworths profit announcement in Sydney back in 1998 and he observed that 3AW was ticking over very nicely and that his committee’s report into the Auditor-General’s shake up was becoming better accepted despite the arguments put forward by Ches.
I subsequently then raised the Dahlsen connection to this long-condemned report at the 1999 and 2000 annual meetings of Southern Cross Broadcasting.
I also ran for the Woolworths board last year at the AGM held at the Sydney Town Hall and spoke at the meeting about my concern for the independence of the Woolworths auditor given Dahlsen’s “form” in Victoria.
Anyway, at the meeting I polled 58 per cent of the primary vote because Woolworths, to their credit, did not declare that there was no vacancy. The main trick used by boards to keep outsiders out is to declare there are only 3 vacancies and four candidates so the three highest votes will win. Given that incumbents usually get above 98 per cent of the vote, this makes it virtually impossible for an outsider to break into the club.
Woolworths made the mistake of not criticising me in the notice of meeting so many of the dopey institutions just donkey voted down the ticket and gave me 58 per cent of the primary vote. But Dahlsen had another trick up his sleave. About one third of all shareholders who bother to vote just sign the form and send it back to the company in the reply paid envelope.
The default mechanism when this occurs is that the chairman receives what are called undirected proxies and he can vote them how he likes at the meeting.
Dahlsen used these undirected proxies in his back pocket to reduce my vote from 58 per cent to 45 per cent, but I was very close to a 3-year, $240,000 appointment to the Woolworths board. Dahlsen was bumped off the Woolworths board earlier this year after falling out with managing director Roger Corbett but he collected a $1.1 million payout.
New chairman James Strong then came along and changed the constitution such that you now need to spend $55,000 buying 5000 Woolworths before you can nominate for the Woolworths board.
So it is somewhat ironic that you now have John Dahlsen’s legal firm engaged against Crikey on behalf of an employee of the media company founded by John Dahlsen. If you ring the Corrs switchboard they tell you that Dahlsen is a consultant to the corporate advisory division but Southern Cross chairman Geoffrey Crawford-Fish claimed at this year’s annual meeting that he has severed all ties with the firm.
Corrs have collected about $500,000 a year from Southern Cross Broadcasting over the past 5 years but this is no longer disclosed in the annual report as a related party transaction.
After this year’s AGM, Dahlsen wondered over and asked me “what’s the problem?” To which I replied that the various cash for comment arrangements still tolerated at 2UE was a concern.
Ironically, I’m due to give a speech in Sydney next Monday at a conference organised by Southern Cross Broadcasting director Geoff Allen but I’ll have to stand him up as I’ll be in the Victorian Supreme Court opposed to one of the company’s employees.
Finally, could I once again thank Free Speech Victoria for this award. It is a great honour and I think it is tremendously important that groups like yours continue to campaign for free speech.
As we all know, free speech is a constitutionally protected in the US and I’ve been to the Newseum in Washington which is a magnificent $US50 million tribute to the importance of free speech. I literally spent the whole day at this museum which was built by a group called the Freedom Forum which is dedicated to celebrating the First Amendment.
Sadly, Australia doesn’t have such a luxury and can I thank you again for this acknowledgment which comes at such a difficult time personally.
Feedback to [email protected]
* Crikey recommends readers join Free Speech Victoria for the nominal fee of just $20 a year. You can visit their website here: http://fsvonline.org/