Never before in the history of Australian journalism has an incumbent Gold Walkley winning journalist walked into the well-paid embrace of public relations.
That was until Hedley Thomas came along and quit The Australian to became general manager of external relations for booming coal seam methane player Queensland Gas just weeks after taking out the Gold Walkley for his Mohammed Haneef coverage.
The Walkleys are run by the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, so Hedley was hardly in a position to reject a request to speak at this week’s MEAA public affairs conference in Sydney.
He gave a keynote 30-minute address this morning, taking the audience through his stellar journalistic career along with his first few months at Queensland Gas.
We were played this story from the 7.30 Report last week as an example of what happens when you are open and transparent. Thomas explained that he rang ABC reporter Peter McCutcheon on the morning this damaging story appeared in The Australian about ASIC taking action against sacked Queensland Gas chief financial officer and company secretary Mukesh Panchal over his share dealings.
The strategy was to provide complete open access to a credible journalist and it was a triumph, because McCutcheon’s piece didn’t even mention the insider trading scandal.
Thomas is still thinking like an investigative journalist as he preached an admirable message of transparency and openness to the assembled spinners.
This was all too much, so I got up an asked the opening question: how much did it cost Queensland Gas to burgle the best investigative journalist in Queensland from a profession that is the midst of a depressing debate about funding investigative journalism?
To his credit, Thomas was prepared to admit that his base salary starts with a two and there was an additional incentive payment if the company performs, but he wouldn’t go further because it might blow the budget for the company’s current recruitment drive.
That glowing story on the 7.30 Report and a very positive profile of CEO Richard Cottee in The Weekend Australian should certainly count towards the Thomas bonus if positive press coverage is one of his key performance indicators, as it should be for any spin doctor. Even if Thomas is on a share price incentive he’ll be a millionaire before long because Queensland Gas shares have almost doubled since he joined.
Whatever the case, let’s hope Hedley can make enough money quickly enough to then justify a return to the profession that needs him. And we all might be the winner for that, because hacks who have tasted the dark arts of public relations usually return as even better journalists.