Former editor Jason Whittaker and current editor Marni Cordell cut Crikey’s 15th birthday cake
When I took the job as Crikey editor two years ago, I took a crash course in its unique brand of journalism. Speaking truth to power? It’s more like flipping the bird at it. I learnt that its audience can be exacting, demanding and terrible gossips, and the work is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting.
Crikey has had six editors in its 16 years on the internet, all with their own trade secrets and tales of legal threats, awkward calls and scurrilous gossip.
It was a young Sophie Black, then working as a junior reporter, who coined the term “Crikey sick feeling”, to describe the dread you feel in the pit of your stomach when you’re about to break a big and potentially damaging story.
As Black, who went on to edit Crikey from 2009-2012, tells it: “I had to make an unpleasant call to a politician to ask them some rather unpalatable questions and held the phone away from my ear as the response was yelled down the phone. I learnt pretty quickly that you couldn’t shy away from difficult questions if you wanted to hang around for long.”
My first Crikey sick feeling came in August 2014, on the day we published News Corp’s infamous blue book. These confidential operating accounts, long kept hidden from the scrutiny of shareholders, showed Murdoch’s Australian outfit had not weathered the changing media landscape as well as its shareholders — and staff — had been led to believe. In fact, the national broadsheet in particular was bleeding cash.
The docs had fallen off the back of a truck and into the hands of Crikey’s then-business editor, Paddy Manning, a few days before. I knew that if News Corp caught wind of the story the behemoth would take legal action to stop us publishing, so I kept the circle of people who knew about them tight, even freezing out one of my subeditors because he’d only been with us a week and I wasn’t yet sure if he was trustworthy. (Sorry, Dan! You’ve earned your stripes.)
The Insider went out two hours late that day, but we got there without an injunction. Not long after it landed in inboxes, News Corp’s lawyers were on the phone. We agreed to shred the original docs, but the stories — and the humiliating figures in them — remain online.
The founding editor of Crikey (2000-2005), Stephen Mayne, says his most memorable Crikey sick feeling came on the morning of July 3, 2002, as he dispatched a special edition of the Insider to reveal federal MPs Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans had had an affair. Laurie Oakes had referred to a Kernot secret in his Bulletin column that day, but he hadn’t gone into specifics, Mayne says. Crikey took it one step further and named names.
“For seven hours after that late-morning special edition, the national media weighed up whether to report our report of the affair, and the bunker was getting deluged with abuse. Then Laurie Oakes went bang on the 6pm news, quoting from emails between Cheryl and Gareth, and he became the main focus of a debate about media ethics and whether public-private lines had been crossed.”
“The debate never really stopped because we then went straight into the implosion of the Democrats more broadly in 2002, a story that Crikey also led courtesy of endless tips from disaffected Dems who wanted to, and did, bring down Natasha Stott-Despoja seven weeks later.”
Misha Ketchell (2005-2006) says he felt sick “pretty much every morning” as Crikey ed. “I don’t miss the sheer terror of being on that tight morning deadline, or coming home at the end of the day a shell of a human being. I’ve never since worked under the same sort of compressed time pressure that we did at Crikey in those early days.”
One of the most awkward, however, was “probably when I published a poem that Guy Rundle wrote as a tribute to Antony Loewenstein, called ‘Ballad of the self-hating Jew‘.
“When the poem arrived I realised it was genuinely affectionate tribute to Loewenstein, but it was riffing in a typical Rundle edgy way and I was worried that some people might not get the satire and think it was anti-Semitic,” he says.
“I rang Antony and asked him to vet the poem. He liked it and said we should publish it, so we did. Then the calls started to come in accusing us of anti-Semitism. Some very important advertisers pulled their advertising. Eric Beecher was great about it — he never said a word — but I knew it hurt Crikey commercially.”
The ever-cool, calm and collected Jonathan Green (2006-2009) says: “I must have had a tame time of it at Crikey — I don’t recall any great sense of apprehension around any of the things we published in my three years as editor …” Before adding: “There was the time we were sued, almost, by the obscure Sydney blogger Tim Blair over … well, let’s not go into that.”
Green oversaw a golden era of Crikey, as he describes it, “a time of freedom and opportunity, a moment before so many other outlets woke to the possibilities of daily electronic journalism. When editing Crikey was pretty much the best fun you could have at a keyboard.”
Highlights include “punking Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant with a hoax article purporting to be by ‘Sharon Gould’, a Brisbane-based New York biotechnologist, who detailed the CSIRO’s interesting work in enhancing food crops with human genetic material. Crikey was in on the gag and reported it with some enthusiasm.”
Green also signed some of Crikey’s best-loved names:
“When Christian Kerr left in a chauffeur-driven huff, his departure created a great opportunity: the hiring of Bernard Keane. And then as we counted down to the local election of 2007 I was pestered daily, by phone, mail and email by some guy called Firstdog Onthemoon, a cartoonist, wanting work. Whatever happened to him? We brought bloggers into the Crikey fold at some point there, signing up Possum Comitatus, William Bowe and more.”
Crikey’s readers are smart, engaged, and not afraid to tell you what they think. They will critique your politics, check your facts and tell you how to spell things — but that’s not all. Jason Whittaker, who was editor from 2012-2014 and left to launch Crikey’s sister publication The Mandarin, says: “I once did a radio spot, which led an hour later to an eviscerating letter from a listener who found my email, and the considerable time, to critique my broad vowels — apparently the ex-Queenslander in me — and other rhetorical crimes.”
One of my most memorable pieces of reader feedback was when Derryn Hinch rapped me on the knuckles for defending Jacqui Lambie during Package-gate.
Mayne recalls the time Kevin Rudd called the bunker and “swore like a trooper at the poor bloke who answered the phone — a younger brother of the IT guy who was temporarily living at the bunker — because we’d put him on our political nepotism list when his daughter Jessica had only done unpaid work experience with him.”
Ketchell says his worst calls were from serial Crikey objector Andrew Bolt: “He always sounded so deeply personally aggrieved, so perplexed by what he perceived as our deviation from what he considered basic decency, that I always left those calls feeling a bit of an arse. It was only when I weighed up what he’d written and what we’d written that the feeling started to fade.”
Mayne also fell out with Bolt, whom he once considered a friend: “Given he was a Murdoch man through and through, and Crikey was hopping into John Howard, the falling out was inevitable, but I was surprised how nasty he got. He once stormed the ABC studio when I was filling in for Jon Faine and declared ‘the ABC is disgraced by your presence’.”
But it’s not all vitriol from readers. “Subscribers sent us presents, baked us cupcakes and offered opinions on everything, including my hair,” Black remembers. “One of them printed out an entire copy of Crikey, wrote notes in the margins, and sent it back.”
The best thing about Crikey’s quick-witted, well-connected audience is the tip-offs. We hear about job cuts and budget cuts. You tell us about affairs, about who said what in the Qantas lounge, and who got messy at the races.
All editors have a fish that got away: a story they couldn’t get over the line because they couldn’t verify it, or it was too defamatory, or no matter how hard they squinted, they just couldn’t manufacture a public interest justification (the public might be interested, but …)
Well, here are some of those fish, care of Crikey’s prolific tipsters:
Black: “A juicy affair. Can’t go even close to naming names but we received the tip over and over and OVER AGAIN. That makes it true, right?”
Mayne: “Alleged and very specific bribe allegations to a political legend from an infrastructure player.”
Ketchell: “There was a story about a potential miscarriage of justice in a court case in Queensland that I spent a long time working on, but we could never get enough information to get it over the line.”
Whittaker: “Some highly salacious and frankly stomach-churning detail on a certain senior journalist’s sex life sticks in my mind.”
And mine involved a high-profile person drunkenly pissing on the parliamentary lawn. The public sure would’ve been interested, but …
Today I step down as Crikey ed to take up a job as head of news at BuzzFeed Australia — and pass the baton to my managing editor, Cassidy Knowlton. I’ll miss this crazy little internet scat sheet and the whip-smart team who put it together.
It’s over to you, Knowlton. You’ve landed one of the best gigs in journalism.