The Douglas Wood story has not just
captured the public’s imagination – the journalists covering it have
been drawn into the unfolding drama. A scene at the Parliament House
press conference last Thursday held by Wood’s family raised questions
about just how close journalists should come to the action.

Wood family’s PR representative, Neil Smail, moved to end the
conference featuring Doug’s brothers Malcolm and Vernon: “That’s it,
unless anyone’s got a burning question?”

Nine network reporter
David Turnbull spoke up: “Malcolm, I’m not a spokesman for the Press
Gallery. I’ve been around for a fairly long time, on behalf of
everybody else, and I don’t want to be presumtuous of others here,
you’ve mentioned you’ve been inspired by the Austraian community’s
response to you – I’ve been inspired by you.”

Turnbull’s coments
were followed by a round of applause from some of the gathered hacks.
For some, there was a direct link into the drama: Malcolm Wood’s
daughter, Mary, is a well-known and liked adviser who used to work for
the Democrats and now works for Labor’s Tanya Plibersek. Others were
expressing their relief at the happy ending, and their thanks for what
has been an extraordinarily smooth media operation coordinated by the
Wood family and DFAT.

But others were unimpressed: “We are here to report the news – not act as a cheer squad,” one senior gallery member told Crikey.

a long-term Canberra PR operative, was contacted by the family six
weeks ago when Wood was first kidnapped. He took on the open-ended job
pro bono. Speaking to Crikey yesterday, Smail said he had never
encountered that kind of response from the media at a press conference.
“The family was certainly touched.” He said: “My job was to deal mainly
with the Australian media and make sure no-one was left hanging. My aim
was to keep them off the front lawn at home. And they certainly
respected the family’s privacy.”

Smail succeeded; but when The Gold Coast Bulletin
unloaded a crate of VB outside the Wood family home in Kew on Monday,
there was a camera on site to record the PR coup. To ensure smooth
communications – and that the family got their lines right – Smail
liaised with foreign affairs communications operative Chelsea Martin, a
former Financial Review press gallery reporter. This was helped
enormously by the Wood family toeing the government line and refusing
to accede to the kidnappers’ demands.

So who was responsible for
the smooth public performance of the Wood family during the crisis? we
asked Smail. “Well, that was a bit of me, a bit of them. Mostly me.”
With the action moving back to Melbourne, Smail has handed over PR
responsibilities to Paul Quinn, who works for Pubic Relations Exchange,
run by Stephen Kerr, son of the late PR guru Laurie Kerr.

the unusually intimate relationship he enjoyed with the media, Smail
left this note on the Press Gallery bulletin board on Sunday: “With
Douglas’s release my role as spokesman for the Wood family comes to an
end. Thank you all for your unfailing professionalism and courtesy over
the past six-and-a-half weeks.”

It was, however, a different
story for Australia’s other freed Iraq hostage, SBS journalist John
Martinkus. To compare his treatment, check out this piece on online
ezine Signature,
where Martinkus makes some scathing comments about his treatment on his
release from captivity: “The Australian government tried to discredit
me because my assessment of the situation in Iraq was directly
contradictory to theirs.”