Neil Chenoweth, the veteran journalist driving The Australian Financial Review‘s coverage of alleged pay-TV piracy by a News Corp subsidiary, has been acclaimed as one of the country’s most forensic and tough-minded reporters — but also as a purveyor of beat-ups and conspiracy theories.

Chenoweth’s allegations against News’ former anti-piracy unit, NDS, have attracted global attention and sparked a vituperative response from News Limited executives and pay-TV insiders.

News Limited CEO Kim Williams yesterday slammed Chenoweth’s reports — which have stretched across 20 pages of newsprint over the past week — as full of “falsehoods, fanciful conclusions and seriously misconstrued evidence”. Mike Lattin, the former head of Optus pay-TV, has dismissed the allegations as “rubbish” and “pure fantasy”.

As well as his work for the AFR, Chenoweth acted as a consultant on last week’s BBC Panorama program — airing tonight on SBS — that accused NDS of using hacking and piracy to undermine British pay-TV rival ITV Digital. The program-makers have generated controversy by filming and broadcasting off-the-record interviews with former NDS employees.

Distinctive for his bushy moustache and pronounced stutter, Chenoweth has been a close Murdoch watcher for over three decades.

In 1990, he penned a magazine article that triggered a secret investigation into Murdoch’s family companies by the Australian Securities Commission (the forerunner to ASIC). In 2001, he published an exhaustive biography, Virtual Murdoch: Reality Wars on the Information Superhighway. It was republished a year later in the US under a different title.

The book, like much of his work, was praised for its depth and lively style but criticised for being too heavy on innuendo and extraneous detail. Bloomberg BusinessWeek‘s Ronald Grover described the tome as “larded with minutiae that often lack an organizing principle, and the author has a tendency to skip back and forth in the narrative like a VCR switched between fast-forward and rewind”.

“Of greater concern is that Chenoweth spies a Murdoch-led conspiracy at every turn, despite evidence to the contrary,” he wrote.

Editors and executives at News Limited have long accused Chenoweth of running a vendetta against the company, a fact the Sydney-based journalist has himself acknowledged.

“From late last year, the Murdochs and News Corporation executives have taken to complaining to my employer about almost everything that I write about them,” Chenoweth said in a 2002 interview. “I have fairly strong personal views about Rupert Murdoch, but in writing about him I decided that the most important thing for me to do was not to focus upon whether or not I thought he was a good person, nor what I thought about his media product, but rather to try to understand and explain how he operates, and why he has the global effects that he has.”

As well as his Murdoch yarns, Chenoweth has produced other memorable scoops.

He took out the Gold Walkley in 2004 for helping uncover a money trail from a $53 million payout on the Offset Alpine Printing fire to secret Swiss bank accounts held by Rene Rivkin, Trevor Kennedy and Graham Richardson. He won a second Walkley in 2006 for his book Packer’s Lunch and a third in 2008 for his reporting on the Opes Prime scandal.

Before the 2010 election, he revealed that Andrew Forrest, a vigorous critic of the federal government’s mining tax, had not signed a corporate income tax cheque for any of the listed companies he has run in the past 16 years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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