At 5.30am each weekday for the past quarter century, Neil Mitchell has bowled up to the 3AW studios, three hours before airtime, to decide what Melbourne should be thinking.
For 1000 minutes a week it’s Mitchell the city hears talking in its ear, starting with an 8.30am gee up and ending — after countless phone-ins and blow torch questioning — with a righteous victory for commonsense.
It might be a gripe lifted from the front page of the Herald Sun, to which he contributes a weekly column, but more often it’s a community concern, like a battler’s struggle with authority or a child with an untreated deformity. Some 300,000 listeners appear to hang on every word.
“It’s a gift,” explains mentor and former editor Les Carlyon. “He’s one of those people with a great sense of audience … a feel for what is going to cause joy or not. Neil’s got a tremendously honed sense of what the community’s thinking.”
The real power is held by “the audience, not us”, Mitchell explained to The Power Index last year. He’s just a megaphone for an irascible everyday Joe.
Mitchell is not only powerful, he actively trumpets his successes, whether it’s petrol taxes, bank bashing, curbing CBD crime, the election of an backer (Robert Doyle as lord mayor) or the dismissal of an enemy (Simon Overland as police commissioner). The city’s elite aren’t listening but their media advisers are, and when Mitchell issues a clarion call up Collins Street, they hit the phones to make good with the masses.
Listening to Mitchell’s interviews, his famed “connection” sometimes comes across more like a calculated cynicism. He might know what makes Melbourne “go off”, but the objectivity can seem like a mask for a carefully rehearsed button-pushing designed to keep the switchboard blinking.
The 60-year-old’s skewed mic levels pick up every haughty grunt and patronising sigh, relegating his whining targets to the status of a provincial crank.
Last year he had two unfortunate — some would say puerile — run-ins with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, on the flood levy and another on the carbon tax. The duo later settled their differences in private. (His repeated utterings of “another tax”, “another tax” in the flood tax stoush was particularly galling).
His connections at the top end of town are, as you’d expect, impeccable. He even hosts a very private lunch club that includes Eddie McGuire, Herald & Weekly Times CEO Peter Blunden, Peter Costello and Mitchell’s manager Tony Beddison. Last month, even Gillard found the time to attend in person, perhaps to discourage another year of prickliness.
His weekly chats with Premier Ted Bailleu are also essential listening for the Victorian political class. And he walks both sides of the media street — at AW, owned by Fairfax, where he broadcasts from, and at News via the Herald Sun. Not many operators can achieve that.
Ron Walker, another of Mitchell’s regular CBD dining companions, unsurprisingly backs his charge to the hilt.
“People think he’s one of the most informed journalist in Australia today, his sense of accuracy is respected by all. They regard Neil Mitchell as being an honest broker, a person who will not distort the facts.”
It’s true that Mitchell still breaks news — in the past 12 months, he announced the appointment of Ken Lay as the state’s new chief commissioner, tracked down US court documents revealing the NSW Police’s hunt for the Mosman bomb hoaxer and uncovered the racial abuse of an 11-year-old junior footballer. That’s where he’s at his strongest, his newspaper past slicing through the talkback hot air.
For years, rumours have swirled of a return to the rigours of print. In 2004, he was offered the post of managing director of The Age by Ron Walker, 12 months before Walker ascended to Fairfax chairmanship. Instead he re-signed with 3AW. Last year he signed up again for another three years.
After arriving at Graham Perkin’s Age fresh out of high school in the early 70s, Mitchell was assigned the industrial beat, possibly the toughest round on the paper. Bob Hawke was ACTU president and to get yarns you had to play the game.
Carlyon recalls the scene: “The way it worked was that they were all dinosaurs down there and you had to go to the John Curtin Hotel at about 6 o’clock at night and just keep ordering beers until you got a story.
“In those days you could file as late as 10 ‘clock … and often 20-year-old Neil with about 73 beers in him would be filing late. And he got it right. That was sort of the Russian front that he copped early on his life and that’s where he found what it was all about.”