After spending more than $1 million taking the Howard Government to the High Court on the important principle of FOI, News Ltd has lost the man who waged the five year campaign to its most hated commercial rival.

Michael McKinnon quit as The Australian’s FOI Editor on Friday to take a position at Channel Seven – the first time any television network has appointed someone exclusively to pursue Freedom of Information claims.

McKinnon told Crikey this morning that he looked forward to expanding the use of FOI for television and was delighted that Seven had committed to provide the resources necessary to fully exploit this avenue of news gathering.

McKinnon will remain based in Brisbane but will have administrative support as he fires off FOIs across the country for Seven news and current affairs programs. Peter Meakin’s decision to hire McKinnon has also strengthened rumours that the network has plans for a new current affairs show, although McKinnon said he knew nothing of this.

It will be interesting to see if The Australian replaces McKinnon. His appointment was trumpeted by News Ltd CEO John Hartigan in this speech to the Australian Press Council in 2003.

McKinnon would not be drawn on the specific circumstances of his departure and would only praise News Ltd for backing his FOI campaign for almost five years. However, the fact remains that News Ltd lost 3-2 in the High Court last year and it would appear it was not prepared to spend the money to match whatever was on offer from Seven.

McKinnon will soon be back in Melbourne before AAT, attempting to have the High Court decision interpreted more positively for press freedom in a new challenge he has against Prime Minister & Cabinet over documents surrounding the WorkChoices regime.

The former bouncer, who has a Masters in Public Policy, has amassed vast files which he now takes to Channel Seven. There is no notice period to be served, his office has already been cleared and he starts with Seven next week.

Seven chairman Kerry Stokes has been waging his own war against News Ltd ever since Seven lost the AFL rights, and he’ll presumably enjoy having someone who’s been inside the Murdoch legal machine working for him. Maybe McKinnon could even fire off an FOI or two about various matters pertaining to his old employer.

Disclosure: Stephen Mayne recruited Michael McKinnon to the Herald Sun business desk in 1995.

Peter Fray

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