The West Australian Newspapers AGM in Perth on Friday was full of drama with plenty of lively debate and interesting voting, although none of it has yet been reported anywhere in the mainstream press. Chairman Peter Mansell was victorious in the contested election against yours truly but the turnout was less than one-third as the largest shareholder, Kerry Stokes’ Seven Network, stayed out of the fray, along with many other institutional investors.

Stokes’ offsider Peter Gemmell has recently requested two board seats which is not surprising given that WAN shares are under pressure and hit a 10-month low of $12.61 this morning, meaning Seven is now underwater on its $400 million investment.

The final voting results have only just been released this morning with Mansell receiving 55.33 million votes in favour and 5.78 million against. Getting him under 90% in a poll was a good effort, especially after he used more than 5 million in undirected proxies to boost his percentage. I had 7.56 million proxies in favour and 34 million against, whilst the final poll result was 7.72 million in favour and 42.25 million against – a creditable 15.44% which is slightly above my long-term batting average.

The West Australian’s editor Paul Armstrong sat in the front row as we had some ripping debates about whether he should be sacked.

I accused Armstrong and some of his senior journalists of being way too close to the Brian Burke forces of darkness. Burke’s main factional enemy is WA Attorney General and Health Minister Jim McGinty, the man who established the very Corruption and Crime Commission which exposed the nefarious tactics of Brian Burke and Julian Grill earlier this year.

Rather than pillorying Burke, Armstrong has instead been at war with McGinty for much of the past couple of years. This all came to a head on 24 January this year when the paper splashed with a picture of a woman lying on seats in a hospital waiting room with the huge caption: “How would you feel if this was your grandmother, Jim?”

The story claimed an elderly woman was left waiting for hours for a neurological problems. McGinty later successfully complained to the Press Council claiming the patient was young, only waited 15 minutes and had a serious skin ailment. Rather than sacking Armstrong for this debacle, CEO Ken Steinke said he “is doing a fine job” and then came up with the remarkable statistic that six adverse Press Council findings in four years isn’t a bad batting average and The Daily Telegraph has a much worse record.

Raising all these issues at the AGM is certainly taking the debate about Armstrong to a new level. At the end of the day, Kerry Stokes will be the kingmaker here and it all depends whether he thinks Armstrong is good for business.

Given the recent share prices woes and a disappointing quarterly result on Friday, Armstrong should be under more pressure than ever.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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