Slowly, slowly, Crikey’s
investigation into circulation rorts is starting to bite. Ten days ago,
the Audit Bureau of Circulation announced it was looking into the issue
– hardly an independent inquiry, but a start. Today, the biggest figure
in Australia’s multibillion-dollar media buying industry, Harold
Mitchell, has thrown his substantial heft behind our investigation.

Mitchell
is chairman of market leader Mitchell & Partners, generous
charitable benefactor and politically astute player. When Harold speaks
the industry listens. And he has plenty to say on an issue that
threatens to break reputations.

We caught Mitchell on the hop
yesterday as he arrived in Canberra to chair a meeting of the National
Gallery of Australia. At first, he was circumspect: “I haven’t seen any
evidence of rorts,” he told Crikey. “And I’m not that cyncial to
presume that publishers would risk their credibility by trying to rort
the system. It would be a very great concern if the figures weren’t
compiled and audited appropriately. I’ve no reason to believe the
figures aren’t within the generally accepted 1% margin of error.”

But
what happened ten minutes later raised the heat on the industry.
Mitchell called us back: “I’ve been wandering the corridors of Canberra
thinking about this issue,” he said. “How would I feel if these
allegations were proved correct? Well, I’ll tell you: I’d be
devastated. I’d be the angriest man on the planet”.

“Just
thinking about this has made me very cranky. These are people I know.
I’ve been sitting over the desk from them all my career. These are some
of the biggest companies in the country”.

Crikey: “Well, what we’re suggesting is corruption.”

Mitchell: “It would be corruption. It would mean people are engaging in a monstrous lie.”

Crikey: “And you’ve not heard any suggestion of these kind of practices?”

Mitchell: “Certainly not. Absolutely not. What I want to know is why hasn’t this been reported before?”

Crikey:
“Some would suggest it’s a case of Dracula in charge of the blood bank.
Maybe the media isn’t too inclined to report on its own dirty secrets.”

Mitchell:
“If that’s the case, I’d support Crikey’s investigation. I have a high
regard for Eric Beecher, and if these allegations have any foundations
he has my support in hunting them down and eliminating them.”

Mitchell’s
comments come as the industry’s umbrella group, the Media Federation of
Australia seeks assurances from the Audit Bureau of Circulations that
its review of circulation rorts will identify and lead to the
elimination of malpractice in the industry.

“We want to be
reassured it’s not possible to rort the system”, John Sintras,
president of the MFA, told Crikey. “The entire process needs to be
reviewed comprehensively to ensure its integrity and accuracy”. Sintras
said he spoke last week with ABC chairman Stephen Hollings to emphasise
the industry’s concerns and ensure it had input into the inquiry.

Sintras
said the federation, which represents the nation’s major media buyers,
wanted direct input into the review via its research arm. “At this
stage, it looks like the ABC is assembling a comprehensive process, and
we wanted to make sure we have appropriate input”.

Hollings told The Australianten
days ago he’d never seen any proof of promotional copies being
illegitimately counted towards a publication’s paid circulation.
“Senior auditors are signing off on these [audits] – are putting their
signatures on them – as are senior publishers. So the sort of thing
appearing on Crikey in essence defames those people,”he claimed.

But
Sintras said there was no need to quarantine auditors and publishers
from the ABC’s probe. “Of course we’ll want to be reassured their
auditors are above board. That should form a legitimate part of the
review”, he told Crikey.

“We are satisfied at this stage that
the ABC will review all terms and definitions within the current rules
to remove any potential ambiguity”, said Sintras, who is also chief
operating officer of the large media buyer Starcom. Media buyers are
pushing for more regular audits, saying the current half-yearly audits
are too infrequent.

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