The Northern Territory is a frontier town where red-necked politicians
send 15 year old Aboriginal kids to jail for pinching a pack of
bisciuts, as a complacent local media cheers them on. Being a
journalist in Darwin is only marginally less dangerous, says
experienced TV reporter JEREMY THOMPSON.
On the wall of my home
office in a leafy Canberra suburb hangs a framed front page of the
Northern Territory News of which I’m perversely proud. Over a
photograph of a journalist, me, being strangled by a politician, Max
Ortmann, a headline proclaims MAX DIDN’T TUG HARD ENOUGH. Back in 1993
I was working for the 7.30 Report based in Darwin and, in early August
that year, was celebrating the birth of our son Harry and enjoying the
paradise that is the top end in the dry season.

But I’d heard a rumour that Max Ortmann, the Minister for Works in the
Country Liberal party NT Government was handing out favours to people
who had helped him attain office. The stories had it that a committee
of local businessmen had backed Max – and backed him solidly with
substantial amounts of money – during the last election. I had checked
the back issues of the NT News and discovered that Max was the only
individual candidate who had advertised extensively in the paper during
the election campaign, but that’s about as far as my digging had
progressed.

Chance threw up an opportunity to advance the story when we filmed a
little piece on a couple of young blokes who were having no luck
getting government approval to set up a paragliding business; the
relevant minister was Max Ortmann, so I teed up an interview on the
subject with him at his earliest convenience, scheduled for two days
later, Thursday August 11 at 1pm.

Not wishing to waste the opportunity I started asking around about this
rumoured committee; finally, a CLP stalwart admitted cheerfully that he
was a member, that “we got Max up” and gave me the names of a couple of
other members. What was intriguing was that one of these men, Mr X, was
the developer of a highly controversial canal residential suburb on the
pristine Darwin harbour, and the other, Mr Y, was a member of the firm
constructing a second highly controversial harbourside development.
Both developments were approved by the Minister for Pubic Works, Max
Ortmann.

So the obvious questions I wanted to put to him were: did these men
help you, financially, in your election campaign? Did you subsequently,
as minister, approve developments that would advantage them
financially? If so, is such conduct proper for a minister of the crown?

In the lift, on the way up to Max’s office on the fifth floor of
Northern Territory House, I briefly filled in cameraman Gerry Meyer and
sound recordist big Bill Simmons on the interview, telling them it was
going to be more than just the paragliding story. Gerry raised his
eyebrows.

We set up, one microphone on a stand on Max’s desk and another – called
appropriately a “neck mike” – clipped to my shirt, lights on, camera
rolling. I asked Max about the paragliding matter; he’d been nicely
briefed and deflected my questions easily. Then, the time honoured
phrase “on another matter, minister”. I began asking the planned
questions – but never finished them. Max grew clearly agitated and
angry as the line of questions continued, seizing the desk microphone
and hurling it across the room. Rising, he advanced around the desk and
tore off a page of my notepad, crumpling it and throwing it to the
floor.

Then, as I removed the neck mike from my shirt, Max grabbed at it and
tried to jerk it from its socket in the video recorder. He couldn’t, so
from behind he wrapped the cord around my neck and gave it a good solid
jerk.

What does one do under these circumstances? I left the room. David
Hill, then head of the ABC, told me later I should’ve “jobbed the
prick”.

A few minutes later Gerry and Bill joined me outside with the good news
that they’d kept rolling during the brief attack. The bad news was that
I’d left my bag in Max’s office, the bag that contained documents and
other material I wouldn’t want that government to see. Gerry gallantly
retrieved it for me.

The ABC is only a few hundred meters from Northern Territory House. I
almost ran, tape in hand, and immediately had one of the videotape
editors to copy the tape and secrete three copies around the station.
Paranoid? Maybe, but after a few months in the Territory I would not
have been surprised if the government sent in the troopers if they so
chose.

What followed was, for a journalist, very instructive. Suddenly I was
in the position that people who are pursued by journalists find
themselves. A highly newsworthy event had occurred and everyone was on
the phone wanting an interview. But I had an advantage not enjoyed by
most in that I knew who was worth talking to and who was not, so I
confined my comments to the ABC, some newspapers and a couple of
commercial outlets of repute, giving the tabloid current affairs shows
and the talkback jocks short shrift. I must confess it was good to call
the shots to the bottom-feeders of our industry.

Among the journalists I spoke to only two, Andrew Olle and Liz Hayes,
brought up the possibility that I may have acted unethically; that I
arranged the interview under false pretences, requesting it to canvas
one topic while really laying an ambush on another. If so, it wasn’t a
planned ambush. It was only after the paragliding interview was granted
that I even began thinking about the developers and their dollars.
Should I have then called Max’s office and told them about my new line
of questioning? I knew that there was no way the interview would then
proceed under those circumstances. I also believed, and still do, that
the public has a right to have the conduct of their elected
representatives put under scrutiny and that a minister should be able
to field any questions of propriety put to him or her.

It wasn’t long before a more famous “ambush” took place – also on the
7.30 Report – when Kerry O’Brien stunned then opposition leader John
Hewson live on air with the results of secret Liberal Party polling
which showed Hewson was on the nose and on the skids. I can’t recall
much criticism of Kerry’s approach at that time, but for John Hewson it
was finish.

No less instructive were the reactions of other players after the
event, including that of the Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, who
defended Max with vigour. “I can understand the frustration that is
felt by politicians who are faced with people who conduct themselves
like animals,” Mr Perron told ABC radio, “We saw an example of
arrogance and bad manners which this journalist is not unknown for.”

David Hill, much to my pleasure, wrote to Marshall saying, “I believe
your comments have inaccurately and unfairly defamed ABC journalists”
and informing the Chief Minister that I had been informed of my legal
rights.

I had indeed been informed of my legal rights and the law of assault.
Legal eagles told me that in case of such a public assault, televised
even, that the NT police force would charge Max with assault. Four days
passed with no move from the police so I filed a complaint… which
later I regretted. Although Max had clearly assaulted me and, at the
time, I harboured fears for my safety, in the end it was really no more
than part of the job.

Max pleaded guilty and was placed on a three-month good behaviour bond,
lost his job in the ministry and, later, lost his pre-selection. His
political career was over, but I don’t believe the Northern Territory
was any the poorer for that.

On October 19, 1993, Max appeared on the tabloid Channel Nine show, A
Current Affair, telling the reporter of the fullsome support he’d had
for his assault in the community. “The one thing they’re telling me
that I did wrong was that I didn’t tug hard enough. Ninety-nine percent
of the people I talk to say,’well, it was a normal reaction’.” Hence
the headline that adorns my Canberra office.

The Max Ortmann affair, and the events that lay behind it, is just a
small vignette of the political landscape of the deep north. Those of
us who have worked there have seen a system of government and the use
of public monies that is deeply disturbing and can only be resolved by
a Royal Commission with wide terms of reference.

Editor’s Note: Jeremy Thompson has also
worked as a political reporter in the Federal Press Gallery for the
Seven Network and was one of a group of journalists shown the door by
Kerry Stokes at Today Tonight after a brave attempt to re-introduce
investigative reporting to TV current affairs. The last straw for Kerry
was an examination by Thompson’s team of Jeff Kennett’s share dealings,
which threatened various commercial relationships Kerry had in Victoria.