As The Australian duly noted in its Media section today, Crikey officially turned 10 yesterday. That’s an eternity in internet years, so how and why did this whole venture come about?
While we all have many fork-in-the-road moments, my biggest was the decision in June 1994 to quit the Kennett Government media machine after 18 months and return to the Herald Sun as business editor.
Despite leaving on good terms, relations steadily deteriorated over the next three years due to on-going editorial criticism of Kennett’s governance practices with great back-up from Terry McCrann as you can see from this package.
However, given Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing instincts, his mother’s habit of displaying Liberal Party posters at Cruden Farm and editor Peter Blunden’s then record of never having editorialised for Labor, the Herald Sun was never going to call for Jeff’s resignation.
When Kennett’s press secretary Steve Murphy told me in 1995 that Kerry Packer had given the Premier a $400,000 tax-free defamation settlement, I resolved to do everything possible to bring him down.
This involved playing the “nuclear card” — inside information on the way the Premier had successfully chased preferential allocations of shares in hot floats.
The first outlet was Today Tonight, which, in May 1996 — just a few weeks after Kennett won a second term with another landslide — reluctantly broadcast the story about how pokies mogul Bruce Mathieson was connected to Felicity Kennett’s $50,000 investment in the obscure Hong Kong cladding company Guangdong Corporation, which floated on the ASX in September 1993.
McCrann beautifully summarised all that was wrong with this play and the aftermath produced a whole bunch of new information, which further strengthened the case against Jeff.
Just a few weeks earlier in March 1996 Four Corners reporter Sally Neighbour and producer Mark Maley had put together a story called “The Crown Deals” which trawled over the Kennett Government’s casino tendering and regulation practices that enriched Crown’s shareholders, including the likes of Lloyd Williams, Ron Walker and Kerry Packer.
McCrann and I helped Four Corners with some research and when Neighbour and Maley returned for a more direct crack at Kerry Packer in a story about ANI in April 1997, I was impressed with their courage and approached Sally with the offer of being an on-camera whistle-blower against Kennett.
Given the Premier’s utter political dominance, not to mention his litigious record, this was always going to be a do-or-die effort so I took 18 months leave without pay from the Herald Sun, recorded the two-hour interview with and then headed overseas.
The Four Corners story went to air on September 22, 1997, although quite a bit of the hot material was removed by lawyers. That said, the rockets still went off in all directions, including this live argument with Mathieson on 3AW’s breakfast program the following morning.
However, Teflon Jeff somehow survived and despite his efforts to have me banished from the Murdoch empire, a gig was arranged as business editor of The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.
Fast forward to August 1999 and Kennett called the election seeking a third term and then banned all Liberal candidates from debating their Labor opponents.
This was all too much. With a rush of blood, the $105,000-a-year job editing The AFR’s Rear Window gossip column was ditched and, in effect, Crikey’s predecessor website was born.
The plan was to run in Jeff’s seat of Burwood but after just three days back from Sydney calling for Royal Commissions, the electoral authorities declared the candidacy ineligible as I was still on the electoral roll a few doors up from Paul Keating at 77 Queen St, Woollahra.
On hearing this, I attempted to get the Rear Window job back and then made an unsuccessful call to land the vacant gig at The SMH as editor of the CBD gossip column. If Fairfax had said yes, there would be no Crikey today.
Thank you, Michael Gill!
When all this failed, a press release was dispatched declaring the campaign would continue online and then an 11,000-word explanation was knocked up on the Saturday and published on www.jeffed.com on Sunday, September 5, just 13 days before the election.
774 ABC morning presenter Jon Faine called on Monday to declare he would give it a big plug the next morning, by which time it had morphed into this 18,000 word treatise on everything wrong with Kennett. Jeffed.com ended up attracting 115,000 page views in two weeks and proved more popular than the ALP’s website.
When the biggest Australian electoral shock in decades unfolded on September 18, it immediately raised questions as to what happens next. There was momentum for more but with Jeff gone, you can’t stick with jeffed.com.
Having slammed most of the mainstream press for being too soft on Kennett, the only work on offer was a part-time gig writing gossip for Eric Beecher’s new magazine, The Eye.
However, this wasn’t quite the same adrenalin rush as battling the rich and powerful online without editors, publishers, advertisers or lawyers getting in the way.
This appetite for risk and freedom was reinforced by a series of AGM showdowns with the likes of Kerry Packer, Frank Lowy and then, most memorably, Rupert Murdoch at the News Corp AGM in November 1999.
It was Sydney-based journalist-turned-entrepreneur Andrew Inwood who really pushed the idea of launching Crikey and with four original shareholders we launched on Valentine’s Day in 2000 in a $5000 function at The Imperial Hotel in Spring St opposite the Victorian state parliament. It was literally the very top of the dotcom boom.
The family popped in for pizza last night wearing our Crikey shirts and it was amusing to consider what the 150 guests were told 10 years earlier.
This was going to be a free website updated with 6-10 new stories each Sunday. Subscribers would pay just $30 and get a Crikey T-shirt, access to the archive, plus very occasional emails alerting them to new stories on the site or any “sealed section” material that was too hot to publish online.
After the shareholders spent $100,000 getting the site off the ground, the first defamation writ landed five months later when we were in Amsterdam on an indulgent two-month round-the-world pre-wedding honeymoon.
On returning to Australia, we enjoyed the Sydney Olympics, got married and then attempted to get Crikey back into the news by careering down the shareholder activism path with nine board tilts in two months. This, in effect, was a free direct marketing campaign that hit more than five million households because every printed platform in the notices of meeting said “publisher of www.crikey.com.au”.
In November 2000 we had our first $1000 week but then by Christmas we discovered Paula was pregnant — there goes the barrister’s income — and copped a Supreme Court defamation writ from shock jock Steve Price.
The first birthday turned into a Steve Price legal fundraiser and we spent 2001 in a blur of nappies, court documents and a greater focus on daily email editions.
Like any start-up venture, Crikey needed a circuit breaker to secure its future and it came thanks to a succession of big events in 2002, which lifted monthly revenues to about $30,000 for the next three years.
The first was losing the Jolimont apartment and settling with Price for $50,000. The sympathy subscriptions and donations this generated was huge and Pricey was appointed “honorary marketing director”.
We then got into much more appropriate rented digs in South Melbourne, which was followed by the Cheryl and Gareth story, Hillary Bray’s amazing job destroying the Democrats, the huge Victorian ALP factional fight, and then Garry Linnell’s hatchet job on the cover of Good Weekend.
All this publicity and notoriety just generated more contributors, more tips and more subscribers. And Australia’s best email list also grew like topsy when the concept of squatters was introduced in 2002.
From this point on, managing Crikey was more about harvesting a deluge of emails and an ever-strengthening black book of contributors. There was little time for AGMs or writing, but the regular ABC radio spots in Melbourne and Sydney were always there building the brand.
In the end, it was absolutely the right move to sell to the professionals from Private Media Partners in 2005. Crikey to this day continues its basic mantra from those early Kennett battles: fearlessly publishing uncomfortable news and commentary about powerful people and institutions.
There will be plenty of time to celebrate all the wonderful contributions from so many people over the next year, but for now I’d just like to thank everyone who was involved in the first decade. May there be many more.