It’s milestone time for Crikey.
This Valentine’s Day — Saturday, February 14, 2015 — marked 15 years since Crikey was launched at the very peak of the dot-com boom in 2000.
And on March 9, it will be officially 10 years since Eric Beecher and the team at Private Media took editorial control of the publication.
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Fifteen years is an eternity in internet terms, and it won’t be long before Crikey interns will be able to boast they weren’t even born when the business was launched.
So how and why did this whole venture come about?
While we all have many fork-in-the-road moments, my biggest was the decision in June, 1994, to quit the Kennett government media machine and a potential career as a Liberal MP after just 18 months and return to the bosom of Rupert Murdoch as Herald Sun business editor.
Despite leaving on good terms, relations steadily deteriorated over the next three years due to ongoing editorial criticism of Kennett’s governance practices with great back-up from Terry McCrann, as you can see from this package.
However, given Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing instincts, which have long been mirrored by veteran Herald Sun boss Peter Blunden, the paper was never going to call for Kennett’s resignation. When it came to the crunch, ultimately they backed Kennett over their own business editor. So much for loyalty!
When Kennett’s then-press secretary Steve Murphy told me in 1995 that Kerry Packer had given the premier a $400,000 tax-free defamation settlement, I resolved to do everything possible to bring him down.
This involved playing the “nuclear card” – inside information on the way the premier had successfully chased preferential allocations of shares in hot floats.
The first outlet was Today Tonight, which, in May, 1996 – just a few weeks after Kennett won a second term with another landslide – reluctantly broadcast the story about how pokies mogul Bruce Mathieson was connected to Felicity Kennett’s $50,000 investment in the obscure Hong Kong cladding company Guangdong Corporation, which floated on the ASX in September, 1993.
Almost 20 years later, this Today Tonight saga has again been thoroughly examined in the two recent biographies that have been published on Seven’s proprietor Kerry Stokes.
McCrann beautifully summarised all that was wrong with Kennett’s Guangdong share play, and the aftermath produced a whole bunch of new information, which further strengthened the case against Kennett.
Just a few weeks earlier in March, 1996, Four Corners reporter Sally Neighbour and producer Mark Maley had put together a story called “The Crown Deals”, which trawled over the Kennett government’s casino tendering and permissive regulatory practices, which enriched Crown’s shareholders, including the likes of Lloyd Williams, Ron Walker and Kerry Packer.
McCrann and I helped Four Corners with some research, and when Neighbour and Maley returned for a more direct crack at Kerry Packer in a story about ANI in April, 1997 (which led to one of Packer’s many defamation writs), I was impressed with their courage and approached Sally with the offer of being an on-camera whistleblower against Kennett.
Almost 20 years on, Sally Neighbour remains a superstar at the ABC, having just finished a three-year stint as executive director of 7.30 to take the reins at Four Corners.
Given the premier’s utter political dominance, not to mention his litigious record, this was always going to be a do-or-die effort, so I took 18 months leave without pay from the Herald Sun, recorded the two-hour interview with Sally Neighbour and then headed overseas.
The Four Corners story went to air on September 22, 1997, although quite a bit of the hot material was removed by lawyers. That said, the rockets still went off in all directions, including this live argument with now-billionaire Bruce Mathieson on 3AW’s breakfast program the following morning.
However, Teflon Jeff somehow survived, and despite his efforts to have me banished from the Murdoch empire, a gig was arranged as business editor of The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.
Fast forward to August, 1999, and Kennett called the election seeking a third term. Herald Sun political reporter Damon Johnston (now editor) and then-editor Peter Blunden produced a famous front-page story about Kennett banning all Liberal candidates from debating their Labor opponents.
Sitting at Fairfax HQ in Sydney, this was all too much, especially after AFR editor-in-chief Michael Gill spiked a feature on Kennett that I’d been commissioned to write by Mal Schmidtke.
With a rush of blood, the $105,000-a-year job editing the AFR’s Rear Window gossip column was ditched after just two months and, in effect, Crikey’s predecessor website was born.
The plan was to run in Jeff’s seat of Burwood, but after just three days back from Sydney calling for royal commissions, the electoral authorities declared my candidacy ineligible as I was still on the electoral roll a few doors up from Paul Keating at 77 Queen Street, Woollahra.
On hearing this, unsuccessful attempts were made to first get the Rear Window job back and then land the vacant gig at The Sydney Morning Herald as editor of the CBD gossip column. If Fairfax had said yes, there would be no Crikey today.
Thank you, Michael Gill!
When all this failed, a press release was dispatched declaring the campaign would continue online and then an 11,000-word explanation was pounded out over a marathon 10-hour sitting on the Saturday and published on www.jeffed.com on Sunday, September 5, just 13 days before the election.
774 ABC morning presenter Jon Faine called on Monday to declare he would give it a big plug the next morning, by which time it had morphed into this 18,000-word treatise on everything wrong with Kennett. This has remained unchallenged online for 16 years. Jeffed.com ended up attracting 115,000 page views in two weeks and, from a standing start, proved more popular than the ALP’s website.
When the biggest Australian electoral shock in decades unfolded on September 18, it immediately raised questions as to what would happen next. There was momentum for more but, with Jeff gone, you can’t stick with jeffed.com.
Having slammed most of the mainstream press for being too soft on Kennett, the only work on offer was a part-time gig writing gossip for Eric Beecher’s new magazine, The Eye.
However, this wasn’t quite the same adrenalin rush as battling the rich and powerful online without editors, publishers, advertisers or lawyers getting in the way.
This appetite for risk and publishing freedom was reinforced by a series of late 1999 AGM showdowns with the likes of Kerry Packer, Frank Lowy and then, most memorably, Rupert Murdoch at the News Corp AGM in November, 1999.
It was Sydney-based journalist-turned-entrepreneur Andrew Inwood who really pushed the idea of starting Crikey, and with four original shareholders we launched on Valentine’s Day in 2000 with a $5000 function at The Imperial Hotel in Spring Street, opposite the Victorian Parliament. Check out the invitation that was sent to various corporate, political and media players around town.
It was the very top of the dot-com boom, and the original business model was completely hair-brained.
This was going to be a free website updated with six to 10 new stories each Sunday. Readers would be given the option to subscribe and pay just $30 to get a Crikey T-shirt, access to the archive, plus very occasional emails alerting them to new stories on the site or any “sealed section” material that was too hot to publish online.
After the shareholders spent $100,000 getting the site off the ground — including $5000 on the seven-foot Crikey foam suit — the first defamation writ landed five months later when my wife, Paula, and I were in Amsterdam on an indulgent two-month, round-the-world, pre-wedding honeymoon.
On returning to Australia, we enjoyed the Sydney Olympics, got married and then attempted to get Crikey back into the news by careering down the shareholder-activism path with nine board tilts in two months.
Immersion journalism through corporate AGMs was first tried in 1998 with a 14-part series for The Daily Telegraph.
When this won the 1999 Walkley for business reporting, it semi-validated the tactic as an editorial approach, so the logical extension was to combine AGM questions and reportage with a board tilt.
The post-Olympics board blitz in 2000 was, in effect, a free direct marketing campaign that hit more than 5 million households, because every printed platform in the notices of meeting said “publisher of www.crikey.com.au”.
In November, 2000, we had our first $1000 week, but then by Christmas we discovered Paula was pregnant – there goes the barrister’s income – and copped a second Supreme Court defamation writ, this time from shock-jock Steve Price.
The first birthday turned into a Steve-Price legal fundraiser, and we spent 2001 in a blur of nappies, court documents and a greater focus on daily email editions.
Like any start-up venture, Crikey needed a circuit breaker to secure its future, and it came thanks to a succession of big events in 2002, which tripled monthly revenues to about $30,000, where they stayed for the following three years.
The first was losing the original Crikey bunker — a Becton apartment in the old Jolimont rail yards — and settling with Price for $50,000. The sympathy subscriptions and donations this generated was huge, and Pricey was appointed “honorary marketing director”.
We then got into much more appropriate rented digs in Park Street South Melbourne, where it was possible to accommodate two RMIT journalism graduates, Kate Jackson and Ben Shearman, as the first Crikey interns.
The four other transformational stories of 2002 were the Cheryl Kernot-Gareth Evans affair, Hillary Bray’s amazing job destroying the Democrats, the huge Victorian ALP factional fight, and then Garry Linnell’s hatchet job on the cover of Good Weekend.
All this publicity and notoriety just generated more contributors, more tips and more subscribers. And Australia’s best email list also grew like topsy when the concept of squatters was introduced in 2002.
From this point on, managing Crikey was more about harvesting a deluge of emails and an ever-strengthening black book of contributors.
Liberal moderate and longtime Christopher Pyne buddy Christian Kerr, aka Hillary Bray, was the key contributor in the early years and drove Crikey’s attacks on John Howard, particularly as he lurched to the Right in 2001.
Christian shed the Hillary nom de plume through this piece in The Sunday Age in 2004 and then defected to Team Murdoch in 2008.
Charles Richardson and I worked together in the Kennett government, and he has contributed continuously for the full 15 years, while Glenn Dyer came on board from Channel Nine in 2003 and single-handedly changed the depth and breadth of television industry reporting.
As the Crikey personality continues to evolve, the two most important additions to the team of writers since the 2005 sale have been Bernard Keane and Guy Rundle.
In the end, it was absolutely the right move to sell to the professionals from Private Media Partners in 2005. Crikey, to this day, continues its basic mantra from those early Kennett battles: fearlessly publishing uncomfortable news and commentary about powerful people and institutions.
The early over-blown slogan — “bringing down governments since September 1999” — has been superseded by “that thing on the internet”, but it is worth revisiting the original philosophy:
“Crikey will point out theft, corruption, deception and collusion whenever and where it can. It is our self-appointed task to take a long thin spike to the bloated egos of political, media and corporate Australia and to take clear black and white snap shots of the men and women who have their fingers in the till or who simply get paid too much for doing shoddy work. We will at all times try to have fun, respect the laws of our country in as far as they make sense and to fill the gaps the Australian media seem unable or unwilling to fulfil.”
May there be more seismic stories like that in the years ahead.
Many thanks to all the wonderful contributors, editors and subscribers to Crikey over this hair-raising journey. It couldn’t have happened without you.