Veteran 3AW morning presenter Neil Mitchell is a smart guy who has spent more than 40 years in journalism, including as a daily broadsheet newspaper editor in Melbourne before Rupert Murdoch took control of The Herald in 1987.
So when Channel Nine’s last remaining truly tabloid TV show, A Current Affair, came knocking for an interview about local government recently, you would think Mitchell might have something intelligent to say. Instead we got this:
“What do councils actually do other than collect bins? There’s not much else, they collect bins, they book you and they supposedly mow the grass at the local park. That’s about all they do.”
And Mitchell’s centralist undemocratic solution? “Do away with them, close down councils, get rid of them.”
Last week’s comprehensive 11-minute A Current Affairhatchet job on councillor expenses across Australia was a crude example of keeping part-time politicians honest, which really just attempted to build public contempt for those who serve. At least we don’t kidnap children in foreign countries to try to make a profit.
There are some rorters on councils who should be exposed, but the sector also does a lot of great work that rarely gets any mainstream media recognition. A typical council delivers more than 100 services, manages a large network of public assets and funds and hosts or facilitates hundreds of events every year.
For instance, in spite of the endless negativity from the Herald Sun about wasteful council spending, News Corp recently put its hand out for $230,000 from City of Melbourne to help them run an Easter family day associated with its Good Friday telethon to raise funds for the Royal Children's Hospital.
This followed an earlier request for a $4135 fee waiver for an event to celebrate the passing of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch in late 2012.
The idea of ratepayers funding News Corp’s Easter event was opposed by City of Melbourne officers in this 21-page report but then approved by councillors (see resolution) in a confidential session last December. At least the report and resolution was made public, albeit only recently.
This was a tough ask for councillors. Help raise funds for sick kids or potentially face the wrath of a powerful media company leading into council elections. We shouldn’t have been put in this position.
The Murdochs are very skilled at leveraging public funds for their favourite causes shortly before elections, as Crikey explained after a Herald Sun splash five days before the 2014 Victorian election extracted an immediate $25 million medical research commitment from both sides of politics.
I abstained on the $230,000 Easter cash splash, citing my own potential bias given ongoing disagreements with News Corp and the Murdoch family about corporate governance, shoddy editorial standards and abuse of power.
This latest rent-seeking episode was first covered last week by the only independent stable of local newspapers left in central Melbourne: CBD News, Dockland News and Southbank News. Its story included a fruity attack on my concerns by an unnamed News Corp spokesperson.
Shane Scanlan, the proprietor of the feisty independent stable, which receives very little support from the City of Melbourne advertising, took the opportunity to editorialise on this very point.
Why should News Corp get a $230,000 councillor-driven hand-out at short notice when the officers were opposed?
Maybe this is a point that the Herald Sun, A Current Affair and Neil Mitchell might take up when they next bang on about councils wasting money.
The City of Melbourne was promised great exposure on 3AW if we handed over the $230,000. The management report included the following:
"City of Melbourne would gain presenting rights for the KDO (Good Friday Appeal Kids Day Out, brought to you by the City of Melbourne) including a benefits package that offers Council substantial media profile around the event through the Herald Sun, Channel 7 and 3AW 693 as event media partners."
Instead, the City of Melbourne was barely mentioned during 3AW’s Easter coverage and its best-known presenter then pops up on A Current Affair making ill-informed comments about councils, including that we do sod-all and should be abolished.
Mitchell doesn’t even seem to realise that we run the enormous 18-acre Queen Victoria Market site in central Melbourne, where veteran 3AW reporter David Mann sits on the board.
It’s absolutely fine to aggressively cover local government. But don’t lecture councils about sticking to roads, rates and rubbish at the same time as demanding ratepayers subsidise events run by your own media company.
*Cr Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance Committee at City of Melbourne and was not paid for this item.