So you have an aggressive, hard-charging Opposition leader given to demanding the Prime Minister resign, prone to litigation in his former life as a business leader, and unapologetic in going hard at the Government.
And who does he ask to be his chief media adviser? One of Australia’s most aggressive, hard-hitting business journalists, unapologetic in going hard at business miscreants, and prone to litigation — albeit on the receiving end.
Of all the jobs in the country, Mark Westfield seems least-suited to the one he has just walked into, as Turnbull’s chief spinner, replacing Liberal factional player Tony “Concoct” Barry.
Westfield has a formidable reputation as a business journalist. He won a Walkley for his 2001 coverage of the HIH debacle. He also has a formidable reputation as a writ magnet.
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Chris Anderson sued him in 1999 when he was with The Australian. The Oz settled with a grovelling apology.
Then-BHP CEO Paul Anderson sued him and The Oz in 2001 and got an apology.
Westfield also copped a writ in 2003 from Geoff Hill but won that one.
But he wasn’t so fortunate when charged, along with The Oz, with contempt of court for an article during the trial of Brian Quinn in 1997. It led to a $75,000 fine for the paper and a $10,000 fine for Westfield, who was described by the judge as “nasty”, “spiteful” and “grossly careless”.
Westfield himself and a Liberal Manly councillor sued each other over Westfield’s renovations in 2002 (Westfield has had quite a bit of litigation arising from his Manly property). Westfield lost and the councillor — who had been assisted by Tony Abbott — dropped her claim.
Other public figures have preferred giving Westfield serves rather than writs. Allan Fels also got stuck into him in a speech in 1996 when the then-head of the ACCC called Westfield “simply wrong” and accused of “repeatedly erring” on the issue of market definition. There was a similar tone to a savage rebuttal of a Westfield article by Richard Alston in 2002.
And of course Turnbull himself, who appears to have carefully followed the example of Kerry Packer when it comes to litigation, sued Westfield in the early 1980s after he repeated the dead cat story following Turnbull’s successful action against Richard Ackland for the same in The National Times.
Westfield’s hardly Robinson Crusoe there, as we all know. Michael Pascoe, who had an extended stoush with the “hopelessly inaccurate, not very bright and with a bit of carelessly malicious defamation thrown in” Westfield in Crikey several years ago, is another business journalist who has had the dubious pleasure of settling with Turnbull.
Being sued is hardly a badge of dishonour among journalists. But Westfield’s career suggests the same bull-at-a-gate mentality as his new boss, at a time when the Government is making Turnbull’s judgment a key issue. Political logic might suggest Turnbull, whose chief of staff is former television journalist Chris Kenny, needs a media adviser who can pull back on, not reinforce, his boss’s inclination to shoot first and ask questions after the litigation has been settled.
Westfield has also never worked in a political office or in the Press Gallery. He’s had two stints in public relations — once at Cosway and more recently at Crosby Textor, which he left to join Turnbull. The lack of political experience is by no means a black mark, but not the best background for an office that has struggled to get its own message across against a Government focussed like a laser on controlling the daily media cycle. Ask the man he’s replacing, Tony Barry, who blew up in the Ten Network office earlier this year, how difficult it can be to get into the political debate against Rudd’s media machine.
Then again, Westfield is exactly the sort of appointment Turnbull would make. The Opposition Leader doesn’t do things anyone else’s way but his own. Westfield, as a senior gallery figure pointed out, is a respected journalist and therefore a coup for an unpopular Opposition leader.
Measured, sensible, conservative tactics aren’t part of the Turnbull arsenal, and who knows — Westfield might provide the sort of cut-through and innovative media management that a more traditional hack won’t. It could be a huge success, or a disaster. Sound familiar?