Insiders tell: Westacott killed News at Channel Nine

Monday June 15, 2009

By several Channel Nine insiders

John Westacott presided over the most dramatic demise in Australian media history.

Nine News regularly plummeted to a breathtaking, humiliating fourth in the ratings on his watch. He personally signed the death warrants of Sunday and Nightline. The nosedive Westacott put ACA into as its executive producer became a mortal spiral under his directorship.

Yet somehow his “retirement” was allowed to become a scoop-for-favourable-comment whitewash by The Australian by a journalist seemingly ignorant of the facts.

A man who tried to betray and sabotage his network and colleagues – by offering then-successful Jana Wendt and himself to Seven – was allowed to spruik shamelessly and unchallenged about the “return of decency” to Nine as rationale for his departure.

The snake oil sales pitch of ACA to Seven is all in both The Oz archive and Crikey’s.

The briefest of searches in its own electronic clippings library would have unearthed years of evidence of one of the great polemicists in TV industry history. A call to just about any one at Willoughby would have added fresh insights. Any analysis at all would have at least questioned whether this was actually a long-mooted sacking, not a voluntary move.

Fellow media writers at News Ltd, indeed many in the industry, would have offered one of the most laughable quotes of all time when Westie in early 2007 claimed “that’s news fixed, now to ACA“. He’d been fooled by a couple of weeks of news ratings in the notoriously uneven summer period and thought he’d only had to turn up to win.

His News staff would have recounted how his only advice was “…stick the best pictures up the top”.

Or how he bungled and stumbled through his senior news appointments. Firstly, appointing fellow dinosaurs Ian Cook and Graham Thurston (as Director and EP) with public quotes that deified their ability.

Then lacking the courage or will to replace them, foisting Mark Calvert onto the production desk without a staff announcement as to his role. Three men were all left vying to show who was really boss. News reporters were left bewildered as to who they should run their scripts by as Thurston and Calvert swooped like vultures on them for the right.

News Director Cook was left virtually mute at his own ediorial meetings for months before his “dead man walking” status was confirmed.

Then there was Westacott’s crocodile tears as he put Sunday and Nightline to the sword after previous incumbents had successfully fought off the bean counters’ calls for their blood. When running Sixty Minutes, Westacott often and openly derided the “worthy wankers” at Sunday. This self professed tough nut rolled over to protect his own soft Underbelly.

The industry is rife with rumours that two other senior department executives thinking of leaving were kept at Nine with personal assurances by David Gyngell that Westacott would be gone in six months.

A call to those still at Sixty Minutes — and those previously like Mark Llewellyn – would had revealed how Westie was able to buy his ratings and himself out of trouble at the most lavishly funded current affairs show in history. A budget of $18m plus free use of another $6m worth of CBS material (paid by news’ budget) to prop up the show with cheque book journalism, Hollywood stars and freakshow profiles.

This lowest common denominator crap sadly yielded high enough ratings to ensure real journalism was consigned to the begging bowls.

Westie makes much of the revival of Today show but neglects to mention that the major reason for this – Lisa Wilkinson – was hired by his predecessor Garry Linnell. You know, the man that Westie so blatantly undermined and climbed over to get the job?

The Oz made a sidebar virtue out of Westie taking Nine “digital”. This is the bloke who, when he took over, ordered us not to cooperate with Ninemsn! That’s before he read the tea leaves with Ian Law.

You know, the head honcho who promoted Westie just before Gyngell came home.

Let’s end on Decency. You know, like Westacott’s s-xist and demeaning comments against women in general and Christine Spiteri specifically. All there in every media archive in the country.

Peter Fray

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