The Melbourne Press Club committee election on Friday saw members vote in favour of lawyers ahead of journalists. Hugo Kelly has filed our first report followed by the failed candidate himself.

Crikey has been conducting a campaign to reform a club that has done some good work in the past, but which seems not to welcome change.

This is not to downplay the role of existing committee members, honorary volunteers all, many who put a lot of time and effort into the club. It’s surely no coincidence, for instance, that since Channel Seven flak Gayle Austen joined the club’s committee a couple of years back, Kerry Stokes has kicked in extra sponsorship dollars.

This year, Belinda Hawkins of SBS stepped down from the committee, and club president Neil Mitchell’s plan was to replace her with yet another Corrs lawyer, Richard Leder. Who this bloke is, what his background is, his interest in the club, his involvement in the industry we weren’t told.

Now don’t confuse Corrs with the pleasant Irish girl band of the same name. Corrs the law firm has a long record for prosecuting defamation actions against journalists pretty antithetic to the idea of a vigorously independent media.

If Mitchell insists on stacking the committee with defamation-hungry lawyers, there will be more Corrs in the press club than there are in the band.

Our campaign was simple: stand for the committee to raise awareness of some of the club’s problems and to get the anti-journalist lawyers off. Stephen’s campaign was familiar territory: “Don’t vote for me but don’t vote for the lawyers.”

Another Walkley-Award winning journalist also stood for the committee at the AGM, the Age online editor Hamish Fitzsimmons. Two solid alternatives, with good credentials. We have been critical of the committee in the past for issues such as allowing the public relations industry to run rampant in the awarding of Quills and for accepting sponsorship from the gambling industry.

Steve Harris, then Herald editor-in-chief and press club president, established the Quills in the mid-90s as a non-union alternative to the Walkleys. He brought Tatts on board as principal sponsor. Last year, Tattersalls nearly doubled their Quill sponsorship to $40,000. In a move that won’t make him popular with aspirant prizewinners, Stephen suggested on Friday that the money devoted to Quill winners be put instead to more practical use like further subsidising the cost of events, to allow more people in the industry access to press club functions. The prestige of winning a Quill should be enough after all, the Walkleys don’t pay cash.

Mitchell pointed out that ticket prices to events had been held constant, but promised to look at the issue.

Should a gambling empire be the principal source of revenue for the press club? Neil Mitchell thinks so.

Neil told the meeting that in fact he’d had a long lunch recently with the head of Tatts (Duncan Fischer?) and asked him whether they were happy with the sponsorship: was there anything else the club could do. “They were quite happy with the state of affairs,” said Neil. “In fact, they’re are a totally undemanding sponsor”.

Quite. Big corporations like Tatts are sophisticated enough to know they are not just buying promotion space when they sponsor a press forum, they are buying silence, or worse, acquiescence.

At the very time the press club should be looking to alternative sources of income it’s nearly doubling its financial reliance on Tattersalls.

Gambling is a contentious industry run by powerful businessmen constantly seeking to influence government and the community through the media. Any sensible citizen knows it’s unhealthy to develop a dependence on gambling.

Sponsorship aside, other press club promotional events have received a mixed response over the past 12 months. During the year the club launched Keith Dunstan’s history of the club. Treasurer Rod Wiedermann of the Age conceded sales of both have been slow. We haven’t read Keith’s book, but we tasted the wines at the Quills; not too shabby.

Overall, with a balance in the bank around $30,000, Wiedermann reports the club is in a very healthy financial position, thanks to a 30% increase in sponsorship, largely from Tatts, Tooheys and Channel 7.

The club, however, has been overspending on administration. Secretariat costs rose $55,000 in 2001 and this despite getting free office space from media lawyers Minter Ellison, and free web hosting from Smartworks both valuable contra deals.

The club has decided to dump the agency responsible for employing staff over the past three years, and employ its staff directly, saving $24,000 in 2002. Members should be concerned about such a significant amount being creamed off by an employment agency.

Mitchell reported some of the changes over the past 12 months: the appointment of auditor Doug Riley, who also counted Friday’s ballot, and changing the Quills judging system (with a reduction in the number of PR types in the judging pool and the appointment of Jesuit priest Frank Brennan as chief judge).

Both as a result of pressure from outside the committee, primarily from Crikey.

So it seems the press club is evolving, under pressure from outside. Imagine how much better and more representative it would become if it took on board some of its critics. Of the 470 press club members eligible to vote in person and by proxy, 30% voted against Walkley winning journalists Stephen Mayne and Hamish Fitzsimmons. Less than 3% voted against the lawyers who like to sue journalists for defamation, Messrs Anderson and Leder. Go figure!

We will resist the temptation to conclude journalists prefer to be represented by a press club stacked with anti-journalist lawyers, and accept that we need to provide more information about the club, and how it can better serve our industry.

So here they are, the 2002 MPC Committee:

Adrian Anderson Corrs, Chambers Westgarth

Gayle Austen Channel 7

Marco Bass ABC TV & Radio

Eileen Berry The Age

Mary Gearin ABC TV

Bob Kearsley Channel 9

Richard Leader Corrs, Chambers Westgarth

Keith Moor Herald Sun

Corrie Perkin The Age

David Poulton Minter Ellison

John Rees RACV

Andrew Rule The Age

Mike Smith Weber Shandwick Worldwide

John Trevorrow Herald Sun

Geoff Wilkinson Herald Sun

Feedback to [email protected]

ends

Now let’s take a look at what the defeated candidate Stephen Mayne sent to subscribers last Friday, just hours after his electoral flop.

WEB HACKS (YEP, THAT’S CRIKEY) THRASHED IN PRESS CLUB POLL

Crikey was spectacularly unsuccessful in his tilt at the Melbourne Press Club committee today as Neil Mitchell and his old media committee rounded up about 120 proxies and voted them all against the two outside candidates, myself and Age online editor Hamish Fitzsimmons.

Rather than voting for 15 of the 17 candidates, the meeting resolved that members would simply vote against the two people (or more) they didn’t want on.

I was the only candidate to speak and recommended everyone vote against the two Corrs Chambers Westgarth candidates, [email protected] and [email protected], on the basis that Corrs have the worst reputation for attacking free speech of any legal firm in Australia.

This is the firm that represented former Victorian Workcover boss Michael Roux for 69 days in the Victorian Supreme Court against the ABC – costing taxpayers well over $1 million.

More topical is the fact that Corrs are currently trying to force three Sydney journalists, Anne Lampe and Kate Askew from the SMH and Belinda Tasker from AAP, to disclose their sources to Nick Whitlam’s NRMA.

As we all know, Corrs racked up $170,000 in expenses for Steve Price dragging Crikey into court 15 times in 15 months and pursuing defamation, contempt of court and then seeking an injunction over the sale proceeds of our family home. Then they have the hide to use a $5000 sponsorship of the Press Club to push their free speech credentials each year.

And Corrs have also happy to act over the years for colourful people such as the following:

Intergraph vs The Age

Lloyd Williams vs Melbourne university academic Miles Lewis

Greenchip vs The Age

Steve Price vs Richmond legend Kevin Bartlett

Steve Price vs The Fat’s Dr Turf

Steve Price versus the general manager of Triple M Paul Pirrie.

Labor MP Bob Sercombe against Crikey

Southern Cross Broadcasting CEO Tony Bell vs Derryn Hinch

Neil Mitchell vs Peter Couchman

In fact, no firm has sued The Age more than Corrs Chambers Westgarth. But the committee of the Melbourne Press Club don’t seem to give a toss about this, or the fact that Corrs are currently taking three journalists down the path of contempt and possible jail in Sydney.

This is how the committee members lined up with their proxy votes.

Neil Mitchell: Press Club chairman and 3AW presenter: 42 votes, only voted against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons. It would be very interesting to know who did Mitchell’s soliciting as this would have taken several hours work. Naturally, Corrs are the lawyers for 3AW and Southern Cross Broadcasting chairman John Dahlsen is a former partner and continuing consultant to Corrs.

Marco “Rocky” Bass: head of ABC news and current affairs in Victoria and committee member: 16 votes, only cast against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons.

Herald Sun faction on the committee, Keith Moor, John Trevorrow and Geoff Wilkinson: 23 votes, only voted against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons.

Mike Smith: former Age editor, Mitchell mate and committee member turned spindoctor who gloats about having clients such as Brian Quinn, crooked Mexican banker Carlos Cabal, Japanese whalers and the Governor General. 10 votes, only cast against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth faction of Adrian Anderson, Richard Leder and Justin Quill, 16 votes only cast against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons

Hamish Fitzsimmons cast his 10 proxies against the two Corrs lawyers Richard Leder and Adrian Anderson.

Gayle Austen: Channel 7 uses Corrs Chambers Westgarth so it was no surprise their rep voted her 4 votes only against Crikey and Hamish Fitzsimmons.

I voted my three votes against the Corrs lawyers and Keith Moor and John Trevorrow from the Herald Sun for their ridiculous public grovelling to thin-skinned Herald Sun editor Peter Blunden. Mike Smith also got a no vote because you can’t endorse having spinners who represent dodgy clients on the Press Club. As promised, I also voted against myself as there would have been too many conflicts being a media critic sitting on the Press Club committee.

This is how the no votes finished up.

Stephen Mayne: 131

Hamish Fitzsimmons: 126

Adrian Anderson: 16

Richard Leder: 14

Keith Moor, Mike Smith, John Trevorrow: 3

John Rees (RACV): 1

Gayle Austen (CVh 7): 1

It was understandable that Crikey got flogged but what about poor old Hamish Fitzsimmons. He copped it the neck because he was the only other outside candidate and the committee clearly colluded and decided to vote themselves back on to keep the two outsiders off.

Rather than picking on greedy lawyers or dodgy spindoctors, the committee decided to vote out two online journalists meaning the medium has no representation amongst the 20 Press Club office bearers.

It would be interesting to know if Marco Bass told the 16 proxies he collected at Aunty that he’d be voting against a former ABC staffer and for a controversial spindoctor and a legal firm that has cost Aunty millions in writs.

And what an irony that the meeting was held at the headquarters of the RACV, the sister road service mutual of the NRMA, that shocking organisation which is currently using Corrs Chambers Westgarth to sue journalists to force disclosure of sources.

And few people realise that Corrs lawyer Richard Leder is the man representing the Catholic Church and drawing up all those confidentiality agreements for victims of sexual abuse. Should such a man be on the Press Club? Where’s the public interest and free speech campaigner on that issue?

There was very little discussion during general business. I got up and said the Press Club should stop taking cash from that insidious poker machine outfit Tattersall’s, which lifted its contribution from $22,000 to $40,000 this year.

The Quills still lost the club $46,000 so they really should take up Crikey’s suggestion and abandon the cash prizes for winners and make the night more affordable for members.

The voting system was very odd. You couldn’t cast your vote by proxy but they disclosed exactly who held the individual proxies after I asked for it.

I’d be interested to hear some feedback on all of this as I was more than happy to not get on the committee, but the way this club acted like a cartel to keep Hamish Fitzsimmons, a Walkley Award winning online journalist, off the committee was pathetic.

Neil Mitchell was gloating about how the Quills judging system had been improved this year and it was Hamish Fitzsimmons who initiated the debate and reform process at last year’s AGM. Thanks for nothing Hamish.

ends

Finally, this item was also sent to subscribers in the second sealed section on Friday:

FAIRFAX BANS REPORTERS FROM COVERING NRMA

Speaking of the NRMA, this one just came from a Fairfax insider this morning:

“The SMH’s Anne Lampe and Kate Askew were last night taken off any further reporting of the NRMA for the term of whatever this current challenge regarding sources takes which, as Fairfax lawyers have pledged, will go all the way to the High Court if necessary. So they are banned from covering – not only this current court case where Whitlam is a defendant in an ASIC case – but possibly for many months during which crucial events are coming up for the NRMA – which has millions of members in NSW.

Reasons given by the editors were – not that the newspaper’s management had done their own investigations and found reason to suspend their journalists.

No, they seem to revolve around ‘perceptions’. By their actions, the editors of the SMH are conceding there is a case to answer about the journalists to whom they have long entrusted the coverage. As we know, Lampe is a Walkley award winner for investigative finance journalism. What the action is saying, given her credentials and the length of time she’s been covering this complex fight, is that we will put a lesser journalist on the case, giving the readers B grade copy.

Besides, this case has nothing to do with accuracy – that is not in question – it is about sources. It’s a clear signal to anyone that seeks novel ways to curb the media coverage of their activities. It is schizophrenic to vow to go to the High Court to protect your journalists then stop them from doing their jobs.

Can you imagine the New York Times sending such a message to its readers – or those who seek to muzzle it?

Name Withheld”

Peter Fray

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