Michael West, business editor of The SMH, is one of the standout business journalists of the past 20 years.
Fearless, entertaining, relentless and analytical, he’s added plenty of zing to The SMH business pages since editor Peter Fray last year decided to poach the columnist who was the biggest traffic generator on Fairfax’s BusinessDay.
West did more than any other finance hack to hold the financial engineers to account during the great credit bubble and copped defamation writs or threats from the likes of Macquarie Bank and Gold Coast outfit City Pacific along the way.
Macquarie ended up spending more than $5 million bogged down in a legal quagmire over West’s Beaconsfield Gold feature for The Australian in 2005.
After a bruising court battle, which The Australian’s editor in chief Chris Mitchell ran regularly on page one to embarrass Macquarie, Justice Gray awarded no damages last year but did observe:
“There is, in my view, no justification for the tone of the article or what can only be described as ‘cheap shots’ that the article takes at Macquarie’s expense.”
West could have walked away relieved that his Walkley and reputation were left relatively unscathed from the battle, but instead he continues to wage what has become something of a jihad against Macquarie.
The latest was this huge feature in The Age and The SMH today, which was billed: “How Macquarie used the taxpayer credit guarantee to rebuild the bank and its bonuses.”
What followed is the latest instalment of West’s crusade against the fact that Macquarie borrowed $16 billion of federally guaranteed money after the GFC.
While West would no doubt have been happier if Macquarie went to the wall along with its less risk-conscious imitators Babcock & Brown, Allco and MFS, the fact remains that it is one of Australia’s few international success stories.
The focus on Macquarie accessing the federal guarantee seems to forget the fact that virtually every bank in the world was assisted by government during the GFC. Besides, Macquarie has paid $200 million to Canberra so it is hard to imagine just what Treasurer Wayne Swan is supposed to be privately furious about.
Banks borrow from depositors and wholesale investors and lend it for a margin. So what?
At first the implication seemed to be that Macquarie was doing something wrong by lending the money offshore. No, as it happens, a majority went into Australian assets, which is precisely what Canberra wanted to happen.
Whilst today’s feature carried the by-line of Michael Evans, it is obviously continuing the theme first pushed by Michael West in this story on March 17 last year.
Sure, it was interesting that young Macquarie gun Ben Brazil had bought a $16 million house in Vaucluse and once worked for James Packer. But does taking a photo of the lad leaving his mansion really warrant such a conspiratorial feature in today’s paper?
After all, Brazil doesn’t even run the much-hyped Corporate and Asset Finance division, which is supposedly borrowing cheap through Canberra and then making these ill-gotten gains by on-lending it at a margin. Naughty Macquarie! Naughty Ben! For some strange reason Garry Farrell, who actually does run the CAF division, wasn’t mentioned in today’s story.
If The SMH wants to really get behind a big business story, then it is the Securency bribery scandal pioneered by The Age’s crack investigative reporters Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.
The Howard and Rudd governments have been implicated through their refusal to move on the Reserve Bank subsidiary so it has been left to Bob Brown to make the running in Canberra after McKenzie’s superb Four Corners report last Monday.
While The SMH has belatedly given the story a burst on page one twice over the past week, for many months last year it was largely disinterested, seemingly too focused on pillorying the Millionaires Factory instead.
As for the Murdoch press, their failure to run hard with Securency is a disgrace, especially compared with the huge coverage The Australian meted out on AWB, that other notable briber of foreign officials.