The media world was split last Friday as News Corp held its in-house awards on the same night as the Andrew Olle lecture, leading to only minimal attendance at the ABC event from the country’s largest newspaper publisher.

The lecture, in its 17th year, is held annually to celebrate the life of ABC broadcaster Andrew Olle, who died of an undiagnosed brain tumour in 1995. It has developed into an anticipated event on the Sydney media calendar, and while attendance from News Corp was noticeably down, some did head along to the Olle at Sydney’s Australian Technology Park, such as Oz econ wonk Adam Creighton and Brad Norington, also from the national masthead.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, a highly respected Gold Walkley winner famous for her exposure of Eddie Obeid’s corrupt dealings, is the fifth woman to give the lecture and the second in as many years after Lisa Wilkinson spoke of sexism in the media industry last year. But there was no such controversy with McClymont’s speech — her job is combative at the best of times, but standing up to corrupt politicians is uncontroversial in the journalism fraternity, who lapped up her comments on the importance of the free press. But it wasn’t all chest-thumping by media types — McClymont’s speech was peppered with anecdotes, like the time she called up Obeid’s office for response and had the press secretary forget to hang up the phone while the entire office began discussing how to throw McClymont off track. “I took notes for a good 20 minutes and then I rang their office number and said: ‘As much as I would love to listen to your fascinating scheming — courtesy of the mobile phone you have inadvertently left on — I do have a story to write.’ All I heard was an expletive before the line went dead. And I never did get a reply.”

Investigative journalism is a difficult and lonely profession, McClymont said, paying tribute to some of the investigative scribes she respected, such as The Australian’s Hedley Thomas and her stablemates at Fairfax, Adele Ferguson, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker. And while she praised local News Corp reporters, she had some strong words for the company about the phone-hacking scandal in the UK. “The damage wreaked on our profession by the behaviour of the British tabloid journalists has been immense. For decades the British Red Tops have engaged in the betrayal of ethics and human decency on an industrial scale.” But whatever the faults of the local media, McClymont continued, “by and large we have not sought to profit from the ruthless destruction of the famous or the powerful for the mere exercising of the human frailties which beset us all”.

She ended with a call for a public interest exemption to be added to the new counter-terrorism laws, saying Lachlan Murdoch was “spot on” in his call to remain vigilant against the “gradual erosion of our freedom to know, to be informed, and to make reasoned decisions in our society and our democracy”.

The speech was warmly received, not least by two tables of McClymont’s friends from university, non-journalists who turned out to support their mate. “It gave the event a nice feel,” one observer said. We heard good things about the food but grumblings about the alcohol, which was apparently doled out in “small portions” and even appeared to run out at one point in the night, before more magically appeared to the delight of those gathered.

Those Crikey asked didn’t spot any politicians in attendance, which is strange, given at least one or two high-profile pollies generally turn up. Only former NSW premier Nick Greiner made an appearance this year. Today’s Australian reveals News Corp managed to lure Malcolm Turnbull to their awards in another part of Sydney.  

Peter Fray

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