Stephen Mayne is a former City of Melbourne councillor who has given evidence to Ian Freckelton QC regarding sexual harassment allegations against Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. Doyle has denied these allegations.
It has been nearly 30 years since Melbourne had a female lord mayor (Winsome McCaughey – 1988-89) but the door might be opening as the future of incumbent Robert Doyle hangs in the balance.
It was broadcaster Neil Mitchell’s idea that Robert Doyle run for lord mayor in 2008. The long-serving 3AW morning host and Melbourne power-broker was worried about who would replace John So after seven years, so he took the former state Liberal leader to lunch and talked him into running.
Doyle won narrowly after spending $80,000 in 2008 and then, blessed by excellent communications skills, progressive liberal policies, a supportive media and $300,000-plus campaign budgets, surprised on the upside to become Melbourne’s longest serving Lord Mayor with an increased majority at the subsequent 2012 and 2016 elections.
Media support has been a key part of the winning Doyle formula with Mitchell on board from day one, along with Australia’s biggest selling newspaper, the Herald Sun.
Alas, it now appears unlikely that anyone will be able to save Doyle, who has not been seen in public for a month since his Team Doyle colleague Tessa Sullivan resigned and lodged a 24-page dossier with City of Melbourne CEO Ben Rimmer alleging sexual harassment, indecent assault and various other wrongdoings.
Ian Freckelton QC is due to hand his report to Rimmer before the end of January and, while the process is far from clear, most council-watchers are privately predicting the Lord Mayor will simply resign — rather than risk a media, councillor and state government push to remove him.
Although Doyle is widely regarded to have done a good job in most respects, when the allegations first surfaced on December 15 last year there was a distinct lack of independent voices talking up Doyle’s performance as Lord Mayor or questioning the validity of the claims.
Instead, after three weeks of silence, the Lord Mayor relied on a tawdry exercise involving the hiring of Sydney-based PR firm Newgate Communications, and then the leaking of private text messages with Tessa Sullivan to the local Murdoch tabloid.
Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston has long been mates with Doyle and they’ve dined together many times over years. The same applies to long-time Herald Sun editorial boss Peter Blunden, although he’s been out of action in recent weeks after heart surgery.
Immediately after Doyle gave evidence to Freckelton on Friday, January 5, it was Johnston who did the negotiating to get access to the private text messages and he was the person who made the stupid decision to put a huge picture of Tessa Sullivan in her bikini on page 1 of the paper on Monday, January 8.
It was a big mistake of Doyle to supply the private text message of the bikini shot and an even bigger mistake by his mate Damon to splash with it on page 1. Johnston immediately went on planned leave after the story ran and questions are now being asked about his tenure and judgement after five-and-a-half years in the job.
Neil Mitchell has been on holiday since the Tessa Sullivan resignation and sexual harassment allegations were first splashed across the media, but his senior producer and occasional fill-in Heidi Murphy was singularly unimpressed by Doyle’s tabloid hit on his accuser through the Herald Sun, calling it “grubby” and “trashy”. Indeed it was.
Freelance journalist Jane Gilmore summed up what many people were thinking with this opinion piece in The Age and it was noteworthy that no other credible media outlet followed up the Herald Sun story.
The smell became so bad that by the end of the week Newgate spin doctor Miche Paterson made the controversial decision to publicly distance her firm from the Herald Sun leak in this Melissa Davey piece in The Guardian.
As the AFR’s Rear Window column noted today, this is the same Newgate spin doctor whose rejected advice by the Ardent Leisure board after the Dreamworld tragedy somehow became public through this Sharri Markson piece in The Australian’s media section.
Newgate has a couple of historical connections with News Corp as one of its partners, Greg Baxter, spent eight years as the combative Murdoch spin doctor in Australia. Before that, he was the chief spin doctor for James Hardie during its controversial asbestos years.
And, as Joe Aston revealed today, Miche Paterson is the current partner of former News Corp Australia chairman John Hartigan. Oh dear.
Doyle is a keen reader of Rear Window and has a history of churning through spin doctors at the City of Melbourne so there’s every chance Newgate won’t be handling the messaging once the Freckelton report has been completed.
However, not even infamous pants man Shane Warne — who Doyle controversially appointed King of Moomba in 2015 — would be able to spin himself out of this spot as the #MeToo movement sweeps the globe.
Doyle finds himself up against a determined adversary in Tessa Sullivan who has no obvious motivation and also happens to be a lawyer with access to resources. And as The Age reported on Thursday, the Herald Sun is now also in the cross-hairs of Sullivan’s lawyers and there is already talk that she has a very strong defamation case.
Since the legal letter was sent to Damon Johnston on Wednesday last week, the Herald Sun has gone very quiet in its attacks on Sullivan.
Meanwhile, a new Doyle front opened yesterday when The Age splashed with a story about Victoria’s Local Government Inspectorate investigating an undeclared $40,000 donation to the $314,000 Team Doyle re-election campaign. This only emerged because of Sullivan’s whistleblowing about life inside the Doyle camp.
Loyal to a fault, the Herald Sun didn’t report a word of it today.