How Neil Mitchell played his Age cards wrong

Subscriber email – 25 July

3AW Morning host Neil Mitchell really doesn’t know how to play his
politics very well. The bearded burbler was obviously keen to ascend
the throne at The Age but was overlooked for Englishman Andrew Jaspan.

Mediaweek reports today that Mitchell missed out because he wanted to
“change the reporting system at the paper and was therefore an
unacceptable candidate”.

Hmmm, sounds like the notoriously big journalistic ego was done in by
his own inflexibility. Given that Mitchell was in the running right
until the death over the past three months, we also find it a little
odd that he is being quoted as some sort of independent commentator
about what is wrong with The Age.

Have a look at this transcript from Saturday AM. The key Mitchell quote
was as follows:

“I’ve been a bit confused about the way Fairfax has
been going for some years. You need the right environment to run a good
paper, the environment hasn’t been good. There’s been a perception and
perhaps even a reality of too much Sydney control and I think that’s an
issue. I think The Age has to stand up for itself.”

Mitchell would have been a poor choice because he is too close to Ron
Walker, is too feral against traditional basket-weaving Age readers who
oppose things like the Grand Prix in Albert Park and did his
credibility too much damage by going soft on Jeff Kennett for all those
years.

For instance, when the story broke about Jeff Kennett having that
portrait of Henry Bolte in his home, Mitchell went in with kid gloves
when Kennett should have been left lying flat on the canvas.


The Age’s
opinion editor Paul Austin, one of the leading internal
candidates for the top job, wrote a devastating piece on Mitchell’s
basic failings as a journalist in that episode. If Mitchell had then
been made boss of The Age, you can imagine the prospects for
retribution against people like Curly Austin who had rumbled him over
the years.

You also have the issue of what Mitchell thinks about newspapers.
Mediaweek has interviewed four political commentators this week and
Mitchell is quoted claiming newspapers have less influence than
television or radio. This is wrong and not the sort of thing to say if
you want to be put in charge of a major metropolitan newspaper.

Finally, it will be interesting to see if Mitchell has any problems
with Herald Sun boss Peter Blunden as even applying for a job at The
Age
is usually a very bad career move. Could the Mitchell column in the
Hun go the same way as Eddie McGuire?

Meanwhile you can check out this strong opinion piece by Paul Austin in The Age
in March 2000, which reveals how soft Mitchell was on Kennett
during the whole Bolte portrait saga. Here are some of the
highlights:


The strange case of the missing questions …

… or how talkback king Neil Mitchell let private citizen Jeff Kennett off the hook.

IMAGINE it’s last week, you’re a cadet journalist, and you’ve secured
an interview with Jeff Kennett. It’s your big chance, because that
morning a story has broken in the papers that makes the former Premier
the journalistic prey of the day.

The papers have revealed that a $50,000 portrait of Sir Henry Bolte,
belonging to the National Gallery of Victoria, but which had been
missing for more than four months, has just been recovered from
Kennett’s Surrey Hills home.

How it had come to be there is the talk of the town, and Kennett’s
explanations as published in the papers have left plenty of scope for
further questioning.

The Herald Sun reported Kennett saying: “About four years ago a Bolte
painting, as best we can recall, appeared at the office (at Treasury
Place)…

“It was said it was left by some person we thought was moving into a
flat and didn’t want the painting any more and was leaving it with us,
in part.

“I have been gifted a lot of bits and pieces.”

The Age reported Kennett saying he had a “very, very vivid memory” of a woman offering him the painting.

So, what sort of things might you want to ask the former Premier?
Perhaps you would inquire as to what else he could remember about that
fateful exchange with the unknown woman – an exchange about which his
memory was “very, very vivid”. When did it happen? Where? What
precisely had she said to you? How exactly did she get the quite bulky
painting into your office?

You might ask how he could explain the comments of the gallery
director, Gerard Vaughan, who had said on breakfast radio that day: “My
understanding is that Mr Kennett and his staff came around and looked
at a number of works and they, his staff, went back with suggestions
and ideas. They’d seen that painting (the Bolte) and so it was on their
list and it was one that they chose to take.”

You might also inquire about the painting’s subsequent move to Surrey
Hills. How was it transported? How was it hung? In what room?

You might even venture so far as to ask whether there were any other
items in the Kennett home that had been “gifted” to him and about
which an inquisitive public might be interested.

As far as I know, no cadet journalist had the chance to conduct such an
interview with Kennett last Tuesday. But one very experienced, highly
regarded and well-paid journalist did.

His name is Neil Mitchell, and this is how the top-rating broadcaster
chose to begin the exchange, as transcribed by Media Monitors:

“The inference in the newspapers today is that Jeff Kennett is a thief.
They’re dancing around it, but they’re saying that when he cleaned out
his office he stuck a painting owned by the public in the back of a car
and took it home; a painting of Sir Henry Bolte, his political hero.
The inference is clear. I’d suggest it’s nonsense. On the line, the
former Premier, Mr Kennett, good morning.”

After Kennett said, “I can only say I am obviously sorry for what has
occurred, but it was a genuine mistake, and as soon as it was brought
to my attention it was returned,” Mitchell replied: “I don’t think
anybody would doubt that.”

Mitchell: “Is there a bit of dirty trick in this? Is it malicious action by the Government?”

Kennett: “…I think the Government have been very, very silly.”

Mitchell: “Are you annoyed by it? Are you irritated by it?”

Then this: “Do you like the painting?”

And later: “Would you like it permanently?”

And towards the end: “I’m surprised you’re taking it so calmly … I mean, it does … it gets at your reputation.”

And that was pretty much it. Just time for a few talkback callers before the news.

Janet: “Good morning, Neil. I’m sorry, but I just can no longer believe anything that Mr Kennett says…”

Mitchell: “…But Jeff Kennett’s not a thief, Janet.”

It was left to Mitchell’s on-air colleague at 3AW, Steve Price (himself
a long-time friend and former producer of Mitchell) to lament on his
drive-time program that afternoon that “there are a lot of unanswered
questions”. Several unasked ones, too. But I don’t suppose Jeff
Kennett would ever agree to be interviewed by our imaginary cadet
journalist.

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