Readers of the weekend’s Financial Review were treated to a searing assessment of the personality and style of Geoff Cousins, the government’s nominee for the Telstra board. The story, written by Katrina Nicholas, quoted a host of anonymous ex-associates who, quite apart from commenting on his business acumen, went straight for the man:

“Geoff is probably one of the most unpleasant and rudest people I have ever encountered in my entire career,” says one advertising executive who worked alongside him for the most of the 1970s and 1980s. “He is an extremely aggressive, vindictive character, so overtly rude that people are terrified of him. It’s like dealing with someone out of The Sopranos …”

Nicholas continues:

Those who remember Cousins from his time at Optus Vision are no less complimentary…Another associate describes Cousins as “terribly overbearing, hugely egotistical, pigheaded and dogged in his own views…he will not listen to reason.”

It’s not the first contribution the AFR has made on the issue, nor is it the first time it has sunk the boot into Cousins, which raises questions about the paper’s motives for taking such a line. 

And it was all too much for at least one reader – Professor Michael Cousins, head of the Department of Anaesthesia & Pain Management and Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, and Geoff’s brother. Michael’s strident defense of his brother ran in today’s AFR, addressing directly the personal slurs published in the original story.

A substantial part of the article painted a picture of a very rude and “vindictive” man, very focused on himself and his own opinions. This does not ring true, when one considers his extensive and generous community service: founding chairman of the Starlight Foundation…founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art…; board membership of the Smith family and the Sydney Theatre Company and chairman of Cure Cancer Australia.

He is also most generous to family and friends. A major example is his standing down from nearly all company board positions when his dear first wife, Gayle, struggled with cancer more than seven years. This was the real reason that he resigned as CEO of Optus Vision.

Brotherly love or fulfilling a duty to correct the public record? Whichever, the fact that Michael needed to weigh into the debate in such a way highlights just how much like a schoolboy spat the fight — fuelled by the AFR — over Geoff’s appointment to the Telstra board has become.

Peter Fray

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