Crikey’s favourite topic is back in the headlines after Eddie McGuire abused his power to have a poll criticising his calling pulled from AFL.com. Such is the commotion over this issue that our resident Eddie watcher Patrick Fitzgerald has leapt into action and provided a follow-up to his initial piece published on Wednesday.

On Monday the conflicted one felt it necessary to take exception to a Channel 10 poll asking whether his Port Adelaide v Collingwood call last Friday was biased or just over the top. It has sparked some interesting media brushfires ever since.

When McGuire voiced concern to the AFL about the principle of running a poll on its web site whereby one TV channel was effectively having a crack at the other (at his expense), not only did the AFL jump but Telstra did too. By 5pm Monday the poll was gone and soon enough the media got to hear about itas you do!

So when subsequently on Tuesday, McGuire was grilled by Epstein about his media “incursion”, McGuire let it be known that he’s had it with nameless, gutless AFL.com journos taking shots at him. Somehow he felt confidence had been breached by leaking to the media his original concern about the poll.

Eddie McGuire has built up an excellent reputation over the years as an AFL newshound extraordinaire. Out there in “journoland” there are some interesting theories as to why fast Eddie so frequently gets the drop on the other AFL hacks. Regardless of source or frequency or potency of the breaking news, people leak to Eddie like a sieve. That’s fact not a rumor. There was a time when people thought there was a direct line from the AFL to Herald Sun chief football writer Mike Sheehan, who previously served as AFL communications chief.

But in the AFL media environment now if you want to make the biggest splash either on or off the recordthen make a dash for Eddie and The Footy Show. There’s absolutely no disputing that Eddie is the king when it comes to breaking big AFL news stories. It’s also a fact he has unparalleled access to all sorts of privileged AFL information via his dual role as media “chappie” and AFL club president. Not for a moment am I am suggesting he abuses this process, but it is a unique and conflicted situation for a media person to be in. To be truly in the know in a way no other media type has ever been. Could any political journalist in his wildest dreams imagine being so uniquely “backgrounded”?

Eddie knows a lot of stuff. He doesn’t only break news, he makes news, he speculates, postulates and he is a law unto himself. He is also just possibly the most AFL illogical journalist of his generation. He has spent his career getting around by his wits to unearth hot stories. When someone, somewhere within the AFL pondered the implications of his extraordinary complaint about the AFL web poll, how could they not be seduced by the delicious irony of a leak? Whoever did and how could he be so sure it came from within AFL.com, this person showed typical news savvy. Sort of chip off the old block as it were!

Now McGuire threatens possible retribution. If they want to play that game, maybe he will too by going after them and unmasking them. On this particular point in the Epstein exchange, Eddie is starting to sound more like Joe McCarthy than a man who believes in the public’s right to know. It is this theme of persecution he sees being visited on him as victimor the personal umbrage possibly requiring the “get square” that cuts the ground from under his journalistic pretensions. Good journalism requires the professionally inquisitorial to be able to handle the heat both in and out of the kitchen. As Kasey Chambers might well observe, at least Sam Newman would stand and “take it like a man”!

Picture this. There is a hot inside story about AFL.com bubbling away on Monday and it gets fed to the media. It involves a master of the media leak and exploiter of hot newsonly this time he is the news. So after a career spent protecting sources and standing by the principle of playing the game, the poacher now want to turn gamekeeper.

Just how many news stories would McGuire have broken throughout his career if he wasn’t protecting sources with variations on “an AFL source told me”, “a senior club identity has said off the record”, or even the much touted “I can exclusively reveal”? So many news-breaking stories that are the bread and butter of all AFL media are not sourced to anybody. Most effective sports journalism (as with politics) is made possible by anonymous leaks (controlled or otherwise)I give you the tip! More often than not they come with all sorts of self-serving agendas but still qualify as legitimate news. Even when only a rumor, informed speculation or even a serious stab at disinformation, and even then when identified as such can still serve somebody’s agenda as “news”. Not all AFL news is black or white or delivered with good intentions, and those who leak it and those who profit by its wider distribution (media), can happily take it with a pinch of salt.

Fact. Nobody in AFL media in the last several years so adroitly exploits the inherent and legitimate value of selective leaking as McGuire. More power to his elbow and a long time ago that was probably part of his earliest success to extract good info in the more traditional ways! Yet in his exchange with Epstein he has the unambiguous nerve to rail against anonymous journos. The irony seems completely lost on Eddie that he himself has fed off the flipside of such leaks throughout his career. Until now quite rightly he would happily wear such “newsgathering” as a badge of honor as any half decent hack would.

When he informs Epstein he names names when he does stories I think he’s indulging in a little selective fast-forwarding on that one! No question he has now got himself to an enviable position where he “expects” to get first bite of the cherry and can indeed source exclusives. But he still relies on unsourced news as well and why shouldn’t he? It’s not a crime unless it seems you are possibly employed as an AFL.com journo? Perhaps you can mount an ethical argument against an employee leaking confidential information. On the other hand surely any self-respecting journalist placed in this sort of position might regard the chain of events surrounding the poll extraction as “in the public interest”. Judging by the media reaction post revelation, this line of defence appeals as reasonable grounds.

Considering that McGuire built a significant part of his “newshound” reputation on his ability to exploit a first-rate network of leaks, well versed in the AFL art of snitching and bitching, let alone countless nameless oversized egos that got off on being the exclusive informed source that provided the inside “drum”. For him to now turn around and protest that those same methods don’t wash with him when the boot is on the other foot, give me a break! At best McGuire is delusional to maintain such logic. At worst he is what any self-respecting journalist should avoid becoming – hypocritical.

Eddie you need to take stock of why so many media folk are now taking an exorbitant interest in your career? It can’t all be envy or jealousy? Perhaps it has everything to do with (to corrupt the famous quote of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb)”I have become omnipotent”. Ask yourself how you became so? Tall poppy doesn’t even begin to cover it when some media now see you as fair game! Is this justified or reasonable?

Well what I do know is that when Eddie now walks and talks, the walls have ears and with each passing day, with each fresh issue that screams conflict, the “eyes” might ultimately become nays! Funny thing is as I said yesterdayI like his calling!

PS Dare I suggest that within the subject matter raised here, there is a half decent major dissection of various contemporary journalistic ethics increasingly open to debate among our media studies Institutions, and it would seem these issues can only run and run and possible grow ever more complex!

Or that in years to come we all know what it is to be “Jeffed” – but what will it mean to be “McGuired”?

ends

Now, let’s look at the original piece Patrick filed on Wednesday:

Eddie McGuire – power and censorship

By Patrick Fitzgerald

For those who might still be wavering about the AFL not being held hostage to its commercial media interests, wonder no more!

AFL.com might present various viewpoints on all things AFL but when it gets stuck into some real issues of concern to its constituentsthe fans, censorship of the worst kind is now being employed.

Telstra has paid the AFL supposedly $4 million a year for the next 10 years to be the on-line voice and presence of the AFL official web site.

While the AFL and ABC are still at loggerheads over an acceptable outcome regarding streaming of ABC radio commentary via the website as part of a Telstra subscription (previously free for ABC listeners), on Monday, Eddie McGuire wearing his Channel 9 hat, “communicated his disappointment” according to The Age’s Caroline Wilson, concerning an AFL.com poll.

The website was running a poll asking fans to respond to a multiple-choice question unconnected with “who wants to be a millionaire footy commentator”? What the web site was doing was picking up on the huge fan backlash against what was perceived as a biased TV commentary from the Collingwood president of the Magpies v Port Power clash last Friday night on Channel 9.

All weekend (and again yesterday on the ABC with Tim Lane) AFL radio broadcasters were fielding talkback calls from disgruntled fans indignant that McGuire had basically gone over the top in his commentary of what turned out to be a highly exciting game. Collingwood might have snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat but failed at the death to overhaul Port Power after Anthony Rocca just missed a goal with only seconds left.

AFL.com via its regular Channel 10 fan poll yesterday posed the question: What did you think of Eddie McGuire’s commentary on Friday night?

1. Passionate and exciting, just like the game?

2. A little too biased in favour of his beloved Magpies?

Before the poll was removed shortly after 5pm yesterday the response had been placed at between 74 and 77 per cent in favour of the second question. McGuire complained to AFL communication chief Tony Peek over the nature of the poll, and thereafter Telstra agreed to the league’s request to remove the poll from the web site.

Wilson reported that AFL strategic planning staffer Gillon McClaughlan told website staff to remove the “Channel Ten questionaire” in which about 75 per cent of responding subscribers described McGuire’s call as biased towards Collingwood.

The Age quoted McGuire as confirming he had raised the issue with Peek. Denying he was “into censorship”, McGuire added: “I don’t think it’s appropriate that the AFL website has its Channel Ten questionnaire posing questions about the Channel Nine commentary team.”

But this is the McGuire conflict coming home to roost in a big way. Can anyone seriously suggest that the AFL would have bothered to listen to one AFL media figure bitching about the intents or otherwise of another commercial rival if that same person wasn’t also the president of Collingwood?

What should have passed for normal web content on a major media debate via the very medium that Telstra paid good money to deploy for just such engaging give and take was ultimately censored? Whichever way you look at this, the AFL played censor at the instigation of an AFL media identity.

This is a black day for AFL when a person who prides himself on getting at the truth and digging out the big stories, actually finds himself the big story and wants to spike it. The fact that Telstra and the AFL are called to account by a media figure over the content or execution of running the country’s foremost sporting website is reprehensible.

This is not a Channel 10 thing. It is coincidental that they brand this poll. It is a football issue that has been at the forefront of fans views since last Friday night and shows no signs of just conveniently disappearing from the AFL radar.

Indeed it could be argued AFL online almost has a duty of care, let alone making good business sense to better promote their web investment by encouraging lively debate at AFL.com. McGuire’s intervention has simply thrown further fuel on the fire of discontent over his multiple hats, which is at the very heart of this debate.

You could argue McGuire pays lip service to the fans right to let fly so long as he sets the ground rules. The AFL cave-in is so extraordinarily weak as to almost defy belief. Telstra’s apparent acquiescence is just plain dumb and bad business.

But it further serves to highlight how incredibly sensitive McGuire is becoming to the great conflict of interest debate so perceptively put on the front burner by the ABC’s Tim Lane’s refusal to commentate alongside an AFL club president. However, it is not the fans now getting on McGuire’s case despite his ridiculous contention that virtually none of the Friday night viewers had a problem with his calling (who needs Gary Morgan?).

McGuire told The Age he had no problems with his call, which he said was “absolutely even-handed.” The paper quoted him as saying: “Anthony Rocca’s big mark andlast kick of the game was called accurately and I have no problems with it, none whasoever and nor did the 750,000 people watching it.” The pulled AFL.com poll obviously suggests otherwise and it’s interesting that the actual polling figure until the plug was pulled, became available.

Indeed it can be argued the AFL almost has a duty of care to encourage just such feedback on any major controversy, which is just what McGuire’s call has become. As Wilson and the Herald Sun also noted yesterday there is the matter of Channel Nine and therefore McGuire, also being strongly criticised by 5AA commentator Graham Cornes, the father of Port Adelaide players Chad and Kane, who has accused the network of a pro-Collingwood bias. But Cornes is speaking through his father’s hat on that one as regards Kane’s post-match “giving the bird” to Collingwood being caught by Nine. Not everything that happens on a footy field can simply be explained away as down to anything other than being newsworthy.

It should also not be forgotten that 5AA is fresh from having had to pay Collingwood a sizeable settlement for its recent defamation of the club over unfounded bribery allegations concerning AFL tribunal evidence. While the estimated $100,000 or thereabouts will be passed on by the Magpies to charity, the umpire at the centre of the allegations is not feeling so charitable and continues to consider taking 5AA to court despite a full and unreserved apology.

Now just for the record what I am going to say here might come as something of a shock to Crikey readers but like any good journo I always think the truth should get in the road of a popular movement when you start to think that a reasoned debate is starting to take on the unmistakable signs of a witchhunt. Yes Eddie McGuire is a moving target and he should have left AFL.com well alone given his pride in still seeking to regard himself as a “journo”.

But let’s take time out for a reality check. While I will continue to contend that no club president has a role as a legitimate unconflicted media commentator, all other aspects put to one side Eddie McGuire is a great footy caller.

Yep I watched Nine’s coverage on Friday night and if I ignore McGuire’s undoubted extra excitability while calling Collingwood, I think his calling is nowhere near as biased overall as fans have stated. Like Tim Lane my problem lies more with the perception than the actuality.

But what I do say is this in McGuire’s defence. I firmly believe that he and Dennis Cometti are the two best TV commentators’ in the business this year by a country mile. McGuire adds excitement, colour and genuine passion to his calling where most others are currently struggling across the three TV broadcast partners. I suspect that many armchair fans that used to take the Seven commentary for granted are now wishing they were still calling the live action.

Eddie McGuire should be able to call AFL as he has done so brilliantly for several years with Triple M. But not while there is a black and white jumper on the ground, and this debate would be better served by moving on to other more critical aspects of his conflicts. Simple really.

Finally In following up that point I would also contend Channel 10’s Steve Quartermaine is not making the leap from Triple M to TV with similar verve and excitement. But give me Robert Walls considered and concise special comments over Dermott Brereton’s over articulation on all things strategic any day or night!

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW