The close relationship between PBL CEO John Alexander and The AFR’s editor Glenn Burge has long raised eyebrows in media circles. But the failure of one of the world’s most expensive financial dailies to thoroughly cover ASIC’s civil action against Jodee Rich and Mark Silbermann has put the spotlight back on the issue.

Today’s papers were an interesting case in point. The AFR confined its coverage to a couple of lame paragraphs in Rear Window. Contrast that with strong stories in The Australian and The SMH, which backed up the news story with a strong CBD column pointing out that ASIC’s kid glove treatment of Steve Vizard has strong parallels with its failure to act against James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch over the One.Tel collapse.

You have to feel sorry for former One.Tel chairman John Greaves, who caved in and did a plea-bargain with ASIC over the One.Tel collapse, yet James Packer was left untouched even though PBL at one stage had more than 20 people posted inside One.Tel operations around the world keeping track of the disastrous business.

This ASIC press release last September explains how Greaves copped a four-year ban, a $20 million compensation bill that destroyed him financially and, adding insult to injury, he was required to contribute $350,000 towards ASIC’s costs. Contrast that with ASIC wanting serial inside trader Steve Vizard to be banned for five years, fined $390,000 and asked to contribute $200,000 to ASIC’s costs. Justice Finkelstein’s judgment will be released at midday tomorrow, but South African immigrant Greaves is one of the classic examples of Australia’s two-tiered system of treating small fry offenders much more harshly than big-name establishment figures with loads of money and connections.

There’s little doubt that Jodee Rich manipulated information at One.Tel, so why wasn’t Greaves, a humble non-executive chairman with no substantial resources of his own to deploy, treated in the same way as James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch and not charged.

The One.Tel struggle is certainly proving expensive for all concerned. Jodee Rich is said to have spent $10 million defending himself so far and Australian taxpayers are spending $700,000 so ASIC can carry out two weeks of hearings in the UK next month.

The word on the street is that more witnesses will be shown to have connections to the Packer empire, which is certainly sensitive about the whole saga. It remains puzzling why The AFR is being so deferential to this sensitivity. Is Glenn Burge punting on a Fairfax purchase of PBL’s media assets when open season is declared on media ownership by the Howard Government? Let’s hope all this talk about PBL emerging with 30% of this putative media conglomerate isn’t clouding Burge’s news judgment.

Peter Fray

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