The
siege-like mentality at the Nine Network’s Sydney bunker at Willoughby
continues. Not only is David Gyngell on the phone answering every
whisper of gossip, but his Sydney news boss, Max Uechtritz has burst
into print in The Australian Media section to reply to the critics of
the now infamous Jim Waley flak jacket in Baghdad effort from Nine last
week.

And now Crikey hears that Nine’s paranoia has
gone further with reports that it is actively monitoring email traffic
in and out of Willoughby at least to see who inside the bunker is
receiving and sending information, tips and gossip to outsiders, or
corresponding with TV writers or people from other networks.

Such monitoring caught a finance department employee on a completely unrelated matter last month that resulted in dismissal.

It’s
the sign of an organisation floundering in confusion, even though it
remains the ratings leader across the country. But the signature News
and Current Affairs hour from 6 to 7pm is being lost more often than
not in Sydney and more than occasionally nationally.

Separately
in The Australian’s Media section today, Amanda Meade, the section’s
editor, in a long rewrite of the last couple of week’s articles from
Terry TV, reveals that John Westacott, the EP of the struggling A
Current Affair
(and the better performing 60 Minutes) broke down and
wept, probably in frustration, at a staff meeting late last month when
discussing the program’s problems and declining ratings.

Meade’s
story was also quite critical of Nine news host in Sydney, Jim Waley,
who wore the blue flak jacket in Baghdad for news crosses, but not when
on the road and doing stories. (see here Nervous Nine bosses feeling the heat as ratings fall)

She
described Waley as resembling Ted Baxter, the news host from the Mary
Tyler Moore Show of 20 or so years ago, but Nine insiders have also
referred to Waley as “Jim Dial”, from the Murphy Brown show, a more
contemporary metaphor. But whatever, the Meade piece will not go down
well in The Bunker and may earn Amanda a call from someone like
Gyngell.

Or could that be Max? Judging by his piece in the Media section today, yep.

The
stakes were certainly raised by Uechtritz in his piece (which
surprisingly didn’t make it on to The Australian’s website). In it the news director of six week
accuses Seven’s corporate development manager, Simon Francis, as
leading the charge over the Waley (and Bob Penfold) flak jackets. I
know it sounds very petty when there are bigger issues about, but it’s a
measure of the touchiness and volatility of Nine that it has become an
issue.

“All of this puts into perspective the odious
campaign waged by Channel Seven executives against Waley, ridiculing
him for wearing a flak jacket in his broadcasts,” Max wrote.

(Meade cruelly reported a “critic” as saying that “Jim would wear a flak jacket in Honolulu”)

Uechtritz
went on to say “While Waley and Penfold filed their stories, these
characters fired bile, their grubby little emails and text messages to
journalists sometimes finding their way unchanged into copy.”

“Seven’s
corporate development director Simon Francis is the only one I’ll name
here-because we have his email that started the rot- but there are
others who should know better.”

The rest of the piece is a stirring defence of the jackets and Jim’s and Bob’s performance.

He
does mention the rocketing of the hotel in Baghdad where journalists
were staying, including Adrian Brown, the Seven Network reporter who
was in Baghdad, and is an experienced foreign correspondent.This is
used to justify the Nine approach to security.

Max
quoted Brown from last Sunday’s Sunday Telegraph as saying that if the
rocket had been any lower he may not have survived, and goes on to use
this to justify the jackets.

But Max, Brown wasn’t
reporting from his bedroom. He would not having been wearing a jacket
while asleep and nor would Waley and Penfold (were they in Baghdad when
the rocket attack happened?). Brown may have been injured if the rocket
attack had hit his room regardless of what he was wearing. He certainly
wasn’t broadcasting.

He didn’t wear a jacket while
broadcasting. His call and Seven says they were taking advice from the
same place as Nine was getting their’s about taking precautions in
Baghdad.

Max and Nine’s spokespeople, on and off the
record ( led by David Hurley, the news and current affairs pr
director), were on this issue last week and last weekend.

It
should have been allowed to die. Max has simply re-ignited the story
and again emphasised how poorly Nine’s news did last week in Sydney in
particular. And while it won the week nationally, Seven has the best of
a couple of nights. But in Sydney Nine was done like a dinner, with the
damage spilling over into A Current Affair and then into 7pm and beyond.

That’s
why Max should have shut up. That collapse in viewers in Sydney is the
real story and what Max should really be concentrating on.

And
finally, Amanda Meade also reported that Nine has private research
showing that from the viewers point of view Nine’s problems in News and
Current Affairs showed up early last year and that some Nine insiders
were saying, “see Meakin was boss then and its his fault.”

No, its not!

He
was not responsible for Ray Martin being appointed to A Current Affair.
That was Sam Chisholm and John Alexander in particular and David
Gyngell.

Kerry Packer twisted Jim Waley’s arm, with
Alexander and Gyngell helping, to do the 6pm news and move away from
Sunday and Business Sunday after 20 years there.

Meakin resigned in February last year after being forced to sack Finance Editor, Michael Pascoe, on the orders of Alexander.

Alexander was responsible for Jim Rudder’s appointment ( again with Gyngell’s ok) as Meakin’s replacement.

Many
of these decisions were taken in the wake of Kerry Packer’s sacking of
David Leckie at the start of 2002 ( and he remains under pressure at
Seven).

So if the blame game is to be played, look no
further than the third floor at Willoughby and the executive floor at
54 Park Street.That remains the big story, how Kerry Packer’s assault
on his own network has turned to dross, damaging his own investment and
its standing among viewers.

Talk about hubris!

Peter Fray

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