Wally Walkey gives us the run down on the story of the Walkleys and several West Australians give us their versions on on what’s been going on out West.

Wally Walkley writes:

Make no mistake, the story of the Walkleys was Mike Southwell’s victory in the best news story category.

The West Australian always struggles to get a look in at the Walkleys – I can’t remember the last West journalist to win before last night. His Alcoa stories didn’t resonate much outside WA but they caused a huge stink here in the West and have caused Alcoa to pay out millions in compensation and tens of millions fixing their plants

Best of all, Southwell did it all himself. He hasn’t spoken to editor Brian Rogers in years, and many of the stories got their best run because Southwell – who’s a cunning bugger – would file them on a Sunday when Rogers was away or on holidays.

Southwell’s been running these Alcoa yarns for about 18 months, yet not once as any senior person on the paper sought to assist or coordinate the coverage. Think about that – NOT ONCE. He just files into a black hole and sometimes the yarns have been run up front; other times they’ve been back with the classifieds.

No one, not the chief of staff nor the section editors – certainly not Rogers – has ever consulted Southwell about the best way to illustrate or display a story or maximise its impact. When he won a national George Munster award for investigative journalism last month, the West buried the announcement in the briefs and Southwell was forced to pay his own accommodation after organisers felt pity for him and shouted the airfare to Sydney.

Management was reluctant to even pay his way to the Walkleys. He’s been knocked back on three pay rise requests since Rogers became editor.

Southwell has been disciplined several times over his Alcoa stories. One of the West’s local subsidiaries ran an Alcoa press release across its front page denouncing a Southwell story. When Southwell rang the local rag to argue that he should have been contacted about the story, he was
disciplined by the West.

Only a few weeks ago one of the West’s carpet strollers presented him with a long letter of complaint about his performance. Rogers has been out to get Southwell since he arrived, and the West is so P*ssweak that not one senior person has stood up for him. As the awards have started rolling in, Southwell’s internal stocks have risen slightly – West staff may be sniffing the wind since Rogers is believed to be on the nose with management.

But Southwell knows who his friends are – and he could count them on two fingers during the dark times.

Journalism is tough enough when you’re getting the full support of your editors and masthead. Notice how Gold Walkley winners Kate and Anne of the SMH heaped praise on the Herald for the help they got with the Bulldogs scandal.

For three years Southwell has soldiered on with management constantly on his back – Rogers once went on radio bagging Southwell for lack of research as an excuse for pulling one of his front page stories – which turned out to be spot on.

It will be interesting to see whether the knives remain out for Southwell – surely he’s untouchable with a Walkley on his desk. And as for the local WA media awards? Southy missed out there as well.

WEST AUSTRALIAN STAND-OFF

The tragi-comic stand-off between West Australian editor Brian Rogers and his Walkley award winning journalist Michael Southwell continues.

Southwell won the best news story last Thursday night for a series of exposes on Alcoa. Over 18 months Southwell received no assistance or encouragement from Rogers or his senior staff with the stories, has been disciplined several times and hasn’t spoken to the editor for more than two years.

It was always going to be interesting to see how The West trumpeted Southwell’s victory. Needless to say, Rogers fell well short of the sort of shameless bragging we’re used to from Walkley winners.

Here’s what he told readers the morning after Southwell’s victory.

‘The editor of The West Australian, Brian Rogers said Southwell’s award vindicated the newspaper’s role in exposing the Alcoa health and environment issues. “The Walkley acknowledges Michael’s dogged persistence,” Rogers said. “Over the months the various reports have been subjected to vigorous scrutiny — inside and outside the newspaper. “But at this level of reporting that is not only to be expected, but is proper.”

Hardly effusive, and it was pretty obvious Rogers was making a pre-emptive strike to defend his relentless victimisation of Southy.

That’s not all. By Monday morning, Southwell still hadn’t heard from Rogers. Then came a message to all staff to gather around the backbench.

Would this be the public mea culpa we all expected? Not exactly.

Rogers begans his speech “So I guess you all know Michael won a Walkley …” and then went on to explain that there were plenty of other award winners at the West, indeed the newsroom was full of them. We all cringed with embarrassment since Southwell is the first West journalist to be nominated – let alone win – a Walkley since the 1970s. After referring to people who’ve won much lesser awards – let’s face it, the Walkley is the Brownlow, especially the best news story category – Rogers went on to hail other West journalists who did good work but hadn’t won awards.

It was hilarious, especially when Rogers started singling out the unsung heroes of the features section. By the end, he’d lauded practically everyone in the building, except Southy.

The speech ended with a cursory presentation to Southwell “…well, here you are Michael.” And that was that. Sadly, Southwell’s response was brief and restrained.

Technically, Rogers still hasn’t spoken to Southy – we’ll keep Crikey informed if/when the drought breaks.

Right now it’s 6 days since Southy won the Walkley and still no conversation with the editor.

SOUTHWELL NOT ALWAYS A HERO

A journalist on The West Australian writes:

“Now that we’ve apparently canonised Walkley-award winner Michael Southwell and demonised just about everyone above him at The West Australian, let’s put things into a bit of perspective.

Southwell is a decent bloke, a good journo and a man who will take a story by the balls and not let go. He is also a pretty good manipulator of office opinion with a tendency to be selective with the facts – both with his copy and his colleagues.

Sure, Southwell may have legitimate claims about lack of support at The West but while it may hold some truth the situation is mostly self-created. It is also revisionist and mischievous.

Southwell’s Alcoa yarns got some pretty decent runs in the paper — several front pages (hell, you can’t apply for a Walkley if your stories aren’t run) and if he sometimes got flack from management it might have been because he has also been responsible for more than one payout and forced the newspaper to publish continuous corrections as a result of pretty serious (and self-confessed) errors in many of his yarns.

He tends to shoot from the hip and often doesn’t care if his ammunition is entirely on the mark. When he’s good, he’s damn good. But history has shown that consistency is not his strong point.

The damage control over Southwell’s hot and cold journalistic run is such that a senior staff member now has the unenviable responsibility to vet complaints about Southwell, including legal actions and the often required corrections and ‘clarifications’ which have had to be published.

It is no secret that the appointment of Brian Rogers as editor put many noses out of joint. Rogers’ and Southwell’s history dates back to their time together in Perth television. Many at The West love this ‘us and them’ mentality and talk of a campaign against Southwell serve it well. Southwell has managed to have any attempts to discipline him over inaccurate and careless stories be seen as a vendetta against him from up top.

Some journos at The West love the idea of an ideological battle against Rogers and Southwell basks in the Ned Kelly-eque reputation he has created for himself. If there truly was such bitter animosity between Southwell and his editor, then The West’s first Walkley award winner in decades would have been out of the door by now (like business editor Steve Loxley a couple of weeks back, only with a much cheaper payout).

It is a romantic journalistic notion to think that Southwell has triumphed against adversity to take out Australian journalism’s top honour.

Southwell won a Walkley and he should be congratulated for it. But to make him a journalistic martyr as well is perhaps stretching things a tad too far.

Wendy West

IN DEFENCE OF MICHAEL SOUTHWELL

A media watcher in Western Australia writes:

“The attack on Walkley Award winning journo Michael Southwell by an anonymous
assassin who is clearly at management level was outrageous — and it was a good explanation for why The West Australian is the nation’s worst newspaper.

Truth is, they’re a lot more comfortable with mediocrity than they are with real journos who give a hoot about keeping the b*stards honest.

That manager – whoever he or she is – might also remember Southwell’s role in uncovering the finance brokers’ scandal and in exposing Doug Shave as Australia’s Worst Minister of his time. Southy was a bit of a handful then, too, refusing to schmooze with Doug like the paper’s political editor did.

Oh, and breaking that yarn about the convention centre debt that the government lied about. Trouble maker.

It’s clear that The West management prefer journalists who run with the pack, stay mates with the PR flacks and don’t upset the big end of town. That’s why their service to the people of Western Australia is so woeful — and it’s getting worse.

The email criticising Southwell is one of the most passionate pieces of writing to come out of the paper all year — shame the effort wasn’t put into criticising someone in the government or business.

You’ve got to wonder if Rogers approved of that email? If not, he should hunt down the writer — just as West management did when other anonymous missives ended up on Crikey.

And a little food for thought … when Rogers and Southwell were both at Channel 9, didn’t they fall out over a story involving bad deeds by a company called Iluka Resources? Two directors of that company? Ken Court and Rogers’ long-term de facto, Val Davies.

No wonder Rogers can’t congratulate true journalism.

Peter Fray

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