Even when ‘strange’ and struggling, Crikey always punched above its weight

Perhaps I should have taken the hint when no one asked me to write anything, but I can’t help but feel waves of nostalgia and gratefulness that Crikey is now, remarkably, 20 years old.

While my contributions to Crikey over the years have been, at best, in a very supporting role, the impact Crikey has had on me — a former lawyer and non-journalist who has in 15 years written around 1000 articles and a (somehow) best-selling business book — has been profound.

My first experience with Crikey was as a bored articled clerk at the blue-chip law firm Freehills back in 2003. Randomly searching Google, up popped a strange website. Like most, I was attracted by a free trial. Within months, lured by a free copy of Rich Kids (the fantastic profile of the collapse of One.Tel by Paul Barry), I was tempted into a paid subscription.

Back then I would print out the often 25-page daily Crikey and read it on the way to and from 101 Collins Street each day on the train.

It became compulsory reading (and in 17 years, I haven’t ever missed an issue, although I still miss the rough and tumble days of Stephen Mayne and Eric Beecher’s early days under editor Misha Ketchell).

Whether true or not, Mayne once credited me (indirectly) with saving Crikey. Shortly before he sold the business, I convinced my bosses at Freehills to take out a group subscription to Crikey of around 50 subs. My rationale being that first I wanted to save a few bucks, and second there were likely relevant articles about our clients and potential clients that the small investment would reap.

That subscription allegedly kept the lights on long enough for Stephen to sell the business, famously, for $1 million.

Fast forward a year and my best mate and I had left our corporate jobs and started our first business. With a fair bit of time on my hands, one day in 2005 in the midst of the Steve Vizard insider trading scandal, I sent Crikey an idea about an article for then-legal contributor (and former ASC chief) Peter Faris.

Faris was too busy at the time and Ketchell asked if I (as a corporate lawyer still holding a practicing certificate) could write an article instead.

I can’t remember what I wrote (I doubt it was any good), but Misha asked me to write some more. I remember in the early days readers who disagreed with my views (of which there were many), would not infrequently (nor unfairly) ask, “who the hell is Adam Schwab?”.

Little did they know how valid the question was given the writer was a 26-year-old guy who’d never done a day’s journalism training. 

Like any opinion writer, I’ve had some wins (exposing ABC Learning’s financial chicanery, predicting the 2007 stock market crash) and some very embarrassing losses (once suggesting Apple was overpriced at $80… it’s now $292).

But writing to you, Crikey’s loyal readership, has been a privilege. Even while my real business has grown in the last 15 years from a couple of guys working in a tiny office to a global business with a turnover of more than $500 million, I still get a kick out of reading comments at the bottom of an article. Whether it be virulent abuse or wholehearted agreement, what matters is that someone cares enough to login and comment).

While its readership numbers pale against that of News Corp or Nine, Crikey continues to punch well above its weight in terms of influence. And perhaps with some bias, I like to think Crikey has made Australia a better place — be it from exposing corporate malfeasance or pointing out how our rights have been eroded or simply broadening readers’ minds.

I look forward to the next 20 years.

Adam Schwab has been a Crikey contributor since 2005. He is the author of Pigs at the Tough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed and has been on the board of Private Media since 2019.

Crikey’s biggest scoops: Paddy Manning’s last stand

This week, Crikey is celebrating its 20th anniversary, so we’ve taken a look through the archives to bring you some of our biggest and most controversial scoops. Today, the column Fairfax reporter Paddy Manning wrote for Crikey that got him sacked.

Fairfax journo hits out: fear and favour in AFR takeover

April 8, 2013

Today’s rubbishy “First Person” sponsored editorial in The Australian Financial Review is a perfect example of why the business sections of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age should not be merged with the Financial Review Group — a decision announced by Fairfax last week.

Brought to you by the Commonwealth Bank, it features a rambling interview (plus vision!) with former Business Council president Graham Bradley, who calls for a wave of deregulation by the incoming Abbott government. Bradley declares over the past five years “we’ve not had a government in Canberra that’s been truly respectful of business, interested in business and supportive of business generally”.

Such creeping advertorial — touted as commercially necessary but also fundamentally ideological in its inevitable pro-business slant — has been noticeable in BusinessDay for at least a year: witness the introduction of saleable sections like Executive Style, My Small Business and IT Pro, as well as the use of outside columnists like mortgage broker Mark Bouris, former fund manager Matthew Kidman and even the return of media buyer Harold Mitchell.

The result has been to cramp space for news, features and the opinions and analysis of BusinessDay‘s own reporters and columnists, who are guided by a code of ethics and have no vested interests to push.

The BusinessDay masthead was pinched from The New York Times but has gradually united the business teams of the Herald and Age, has gelled online and is now head and shoulders above any Australian rival in terms of readership, attracting more than two million unique readers a month.

“Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven ‘churnalism’ …”

BusinessDay is built on the legacy of reporters and editors like Ian Verrender, Michael West, Adele Ferguson, Ian McIlwraith, Elisabeth Sexton, Stuart Washington and countless lesser-known names who have built up a culture of investigative reporting — holding business accountable — and broken stories that matter not just for business but for the public at large.

BusinessDay writes for the consumer, not for industry. We are not the trade press. With exceptions like Neil Chenoweth that nevertheless prove the rule, The AFR‘s business journalism is built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high-level access in exchange for soft coverage.

Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven “churnalism” which shows up as “drops” (the poor man’s exclusive, or as Verrender once wrote, the press release a day early), “herograms” for business leaders, unreadable roundtables and conference-linked spreads featuring plenty of happy snaps of business leaders with a glass of champagne or mineral water in hand.

The result also has been a predictable skew on vital topics like climate change and industrial relations.

It is reporting with fear and favour. And you know what? Nobody reads it. Educated readers — The AFR‘s demographic — hate it. Ultimately, even advertisers shun it. It’s a business model for business journalism that had been tried at both The AFR and The Australian. It doesn’t work.

Business readers are not fools. Very often they know more about a given story than the journalist. They want the facts, balance and genuinely independent analysis and commentary. Tell it like it is.

Management of Fairfax Media including Greg Hywood have assured us that politics, business and sport are the heart of its newsroom. The transfer of BusinessDay into The AFR tramples on the legacy of quality, independent, consumer- and reader-driven business journalism established at The SMH and The Age. Both papers will be much poorer for it.

Paddy Manning is a BusinessDay reporter and former national chief of staff for the section. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and The Australian.

Where are they now

Then-Sydney Morning Herald business journo Paddy Manning’s absolutely savage column on his employer back in 2013 complained of “creeping advertorial” and outside columnists crowding out serious news and analysis.

The piece was a plangent call for change at the Fin and its sister papers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. And change was achieved, in that Manning was immediately sacked.

He landed on his feet, ultimately, covering business for Crikey and writing books about the Greens and Malcolm Turnbull. He’s now the daily editor for The Monthly.

The AFR still relies on cosy relationships with big business for revenue, sponsorship and “prestige”, and as a corollary, has repeatedly shown itself to be out of touch with the non-super rich.

The business sections of Fairfax’s other metro papers were merged with the AFR shortly after Manning left.

Fairfax had a rocky few years. In 2017, it cut 125 editorial positions from its metropolitan newsrooms in cost-saving measures, prompting a seven-day strike, and then had a series of faltering merger attempts. Eventually, it “merged” with Nine to form an all-new company called “Nine”.

At this point, Fairfax’s CEO during the saga, Greg Hywood, took a redundancy. Hywood alienated pretty much everyone who worked for him by buying a Maserati during a round of redundancies in 2014, and was grilled in a Senate inquiry over his reported $7.2 million yearly salary.

His payout, according to the AFR (who you would expect to know these things), was up to $8.2 million.

Charlie Lewis

Crikey’s biggest scoops: boning Eddie McGuire

This week, Crikey is celebrating its 20th anniversary, so we’ve taken a look through the archives to bring you some of our biggest and most controversial scoops. Today, the explosive affidavit claiming that Eddie McGuire had discussed whether the Nine Network should “bone” then-Today presenter Jessica Rowe.

The affidavit Nine didn’t want you to see

June 26, 2006

It was October 2005. Mark Llewellyn was offered the job of running Nine’s news and current affairs by Sam Chisholm… 

Then came the next stage – a meeting with Kerry Packer: 

But before the meeting there was the little matter of salary… 

…and then he meets KP… 

… who tells him how much he loves Channel Nine: 

On January 11 this year Llewellyn has his first meeting with John Alexander — the man who runs PBL for the Packer family: 

Llewellyn is left feeling concerned about the potential for editorial interference in his new job:

His next challenge, a week later, concerns his decision to remove John Lyons, the executive producer of the Sunday program:

Llewellyn decides to tell Sam Chisholm about what happened:

The Lyons affair reinforced Llewellyn’s concerns about management interference at Nine:

On May 31 Llewellyn is summoned to Eddie McGuire’s office … and then comes an unpleasant conversation … 

…and it just gets worse for Llewellyn…

…and there are a few words about loyalty: 

Llewellyn gets the feeling he doesn’t have a big future left at Nine: 

On Friday June 2 it’s back to Eddie’s office: 

On Tuesday June 6 Llewellyn finds himself in Eddie’s office again: 

By June 9 Llewellyn has lost his office… 

…and a little over a week later Llewellyn starts talking to the Seven Network…

The next day word is out that Llewellyn is talking to Seven…

…and within three days the deal is done with Seven: 

Where are they now?

Of all the juicy tidbits in this affidavit, it was Eddie McGuire’s question about whether they should “bone” — or fire — Jessica Rowe that got the most coverage, and is best remembered.

The story made headlines across Australia, and the controversy lingered for years.

Rowe stayed on at Nine until 2007, when she left over a pay dispute. She spent three years at Weekend Sunrise, then a further five at Studio Ten, before quitting to spend more time with her family.

Mark Llewellyn returned to Nine in 2018, serving as news and current affairs creative director. Earlier this year he announced he was transitioning out of the role, tweeting, with delightful clumsiness for a media veteran, that “As Elvis said, ‘it’s now or never’ to – cue Sinatra- do it my way”.

Eddie McGuire resigned as Nine CEO in 2007. Since then, he’s been busy, comparing Adam Goodes to King Kong, joking about drowning journalist Caroline Wilson, and mocked a double-amputee. He also failed to save The Footy Show from terminal decline. And because the media is, and always has been, a meritocracy, he *checks notes* hasn’t lost a single job on account.

Charlie Lewis

Coming up swinging: Crikey’s (unlikely) tale of survival

It started out as jeffed.com, a website dedicated to dislodging then-Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. When the all conquering Kennett suffered a shock defeat at the 1999 Victorian election, Crikey was subsequently born with the overblown moniker “bringing down governments since September 1999”.

Those first five years were a tumultuous ride to say the least.

My family moved house five times in 30 months, I battled three defamation writs and built up an impressive black book of contributors, many of whom wrote under pseudonyms such as Christian Kerr’s memorable Hillary Bray columns, taking a moderate Liberal perspective of the Howard years.

Before Eric Beecher bought Crikey in February 2005 we used to catch up for fireside chats where he would say our greatest asset was simply surviving.

To survive three years was unlikely, to notch up 20 is quite remarkable, particularly in this rapidly changing era of social media and big tech disruption.

We made some reflections on how it all began on Crikey’s 10th birthday in 2010. Fast forward another 10 years and the media market is as tough and competitive as ever, albeit with even more challenged business models and thousands less journalists on the beat.

And all the while, Crikey survives and thrives.

At its heart Crikey is fearless and independent — prepared to have a go at all comers.

We certainly copped some hits from powerful people along the way, whether it was Glenn Milne at the 2006 Walkleys, a 6000 word spray from Terry McCrann in 2004, the Steve Price litigation, “Dollar Sweetie” Peter Costello banning us from budget lock-ups or Kerry Packer asking at a PBL AGM: “Do you deliberately set out to be offensive or is it just natural?”

Kevin Rudd once rang the office in 2003 and delivered a foul-mouthed tirade at the bloke who picked up the phone who was the brother of the tech guy flatting with us at the time. Our sin was including his daughter on our trail-blazing political nepotism list after she’d done some work experience with him in the office.

The Crikey lists were indeed a quirky and often controversial feature of the early years whether it was “lily white” journalists who’d never sold out to politics or PR, journalistic couples and dynasties, honorary doctorates, defamation battles or even unionists who crossed to the dark side.

The early strategy of having anonymous contributors or insiders using pseudonyms also produced some cracking unique insights — such as the 2002 battle for control of the Victorian ALP which included 40,000 words from various insiders using the names Delia Delegate, Harry Hack, Reg the Representative and Betty Branchmember.

A very senior ABC person had great fun penning “The Egan Diaries” about Michael Egan, which used to trigger faxes to the office from the then-NSW treasurer opening with lines like: “Crikey, you little creep”.

We even briefly had legendary ABC and Fairfax investigative reporter Nick McKenzie as the volunteer editor of our “yoursay” pages back when he was still studying journalism at RMIT.

Over these past 20 years, many great names have contributed to and edited Crikey and Private Media has used its experience with Crikey to launch a raft of other publications — like The Mandarin — which have added to the diversity of Australian media.

Some of the earliest contributors, such as Glenn Dyer, remain on board to this day and Crikey certainly wouldn’t be where it is today without the amazing insights of Bernard Keane who started off writing pieces under the name “David MacCormack, failed public servant” way back in 2007.

From small things, big things have grown — but it was only possible thanks to the hard work and dedication of dozens of people.

Finally, as we reflect on 20 years of Crikey and what lies ahead, here are links to few favourite Crikey scoops and stories from over the early years:

Keep the tip-offs and leaks coming, folks! The secret to Crikey’s ongoing success will be the same as ever — compelling original content, fearless commentary, genuine independence and a splash of irreverence.

Thank you to everyone who had made Crikey what it is these past 20 years, and with Peter Fray installed as the new editor-in-chief and bold new initiatives such as Crikey Inq, I’m excited about the period ahead.

Despite Jeff Kennett’s frequent Twitter refrains about a life wasted, we thank him for Crikey and all who have sailed with her.

 Stephen Mayne founded Crikey in 2000 and remains a contributor

Crikey’s biggest scoops: the Quadrant hoax

This week, Crikey is celebrating its 20th anniversary, so we’ve taken a look through the archives to bring you some of our biggest and most controversial scoops. Today, the Margaret Simons report that revealed how Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle had been taken in by a hoax article.

How Windschuttle swallowed a hoax to publish a fake story in Quadrant

January 6, 2009

Keith Windschuttle, the editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.

This month’s edition of Quadrant contains a hoax article purporting to be by “Sharon Gould”, a Brisbane based New York biotechnologist.

But in the tradition of Ern Malley — the famous literary hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley — the Sharon Gould persona is entirely fictitious and the article is studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes.

In accepting the article, Keith Windschuttle said in an email to “Sharon Gould”:

I really like the article. You bring together some very important considerations about scientific method, the media, politics and morality that I know our readers would find illuminating.

“Gould’s” article, which is blurbed on the front cover of Quadrant and reproduced online, argues for the insertion of human genes in to food crops, insects and livestock.

It contains the bogus claim that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation planned to commercialise food crops engineered with human genes, but abandoned the projects because of “perceived moral issues”.

The hoaxer, who intends to remain anonymous, has provided details of how the hoax was constructed, including a blog-style Diary of A Hoax, liberally studded with ironic quotations from Ern Malley’s poetry.

I rang Keith Windschuttle this morning seeking comment. He said that claims the article was a hoax were “news to me” and said he wanted to see the material the hoaxer had provided to me before commenting. A copy of Diary of a Hoax and his own correspondence with “Sharon Gould” was emailed to him this morning.

He rang back a short while ago, and said that he would respond to these events in full on the Quadrant website shortly. More on Windschuttle’s conversation with me below.

“Gould’s” article uses a mélange of fact, misconstrued science and fiction masquerading as science to argue that science research, such as that behind genetically modified foods, should be above scrutiny by the media and the public. It criticizes the Rudd Government for “shameless populism” for inviting “ordinary” Australians to be part of the 2020 Summit. The article says:

What has become unspeakable is that journalists and their publics, like small children reaching for the medicine cabinet, do not always understand what is best.

In a ruse designed to lampoon Windschuttle’s historical research, which began by checking the footnotes of leading historians, the article contains some false references.

In Diary of a Hoax, the hoaxer writes:

Some of the footnotes are completely fabricated. Others are genuine references to science articles, but have nought to do with what’s asserted in the essay.

(The footnotes have not been included with the published version of the article. In keeping with Quadrant practice, a note at the end says that they are available from the Quadrant office.)

The Gould hoax is designed to be a companion and a counter to the famous Sokal hoax, in which the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to a postmodern cultural studies journal to show that post modernists would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.

The Sokal affair became part of the “science wars” which were a series of intellectual battles between post modernists and realists, and a companion to Australia’s “history wars”, in which Windschuttle has been a leading contender.

On the day Windschuttle informed “Gould” that the article would be published, the hoaxer wrote in Diary of a Hoax:

For pity’s sake, Quadrant fell for my ham-fisted ruse! At least with the Sokal hoax, Alan Sokal was a bona fide physics professor. So it’s understandable that a journal editor might unquestioningly publish his nonsense. But so neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn’t even check the putative author’s credentials. Nor it seems did they get the piece peer-reviewed. Nor did they check the “facts”; nor the footnotes. Nor were they alerted by the clues … Still, now my experiment has worked, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Do I feel schadenfreude? Not really. I feel ambivalent. I’m almost embarrassed for you, Windschuttle … I didn’t do this to be unkind to you personally. This experiment wasn’t designed with ill-intent, but to uncover hypocrisy in knowledge-claims, and also spark public debate about standards of truth when anything is claimed in the name of ’science’.

The persona of “Sharon Gould” was constructed with a false e-mail address and a website, which was online but has since been taken down. In it, Gould describes herself as a 41-year-old New Yorker based in Brisbane with a PhD in biotechnology. She claims she is related to the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and has been inspired by his example to embark on a popular science writing career. The website had suggestive links to other “Goulds”.

“Gould” claimed to Windschuttle that the article had earlier been presented at an international conference on genome informatics — but while the conference existed, the paper was not presented there.

The article claims that the CSIRO wanted to put human genes into wheat so they could trigger immune responses to fight pre-cancerous cells, into cows so they would produce milk that would not trigger allergic responses in lactic intolerant infants, and into mosquitoes to render their bites less dangerous.

Commercialisation of both these projects was abandoned … possibly … because of perceived ethical issues in the public and media perception.

“Gould” first submitted the article to Windschuttle early last year, but did not hear back from him until “she” followed up in August. Windschuttle told “her” that the original article had gone missing. “She” resubmitted, and Windschuttle accepted the article enthusiastically. The only contact between the two was by e-mail.

Windschuttle asked for some changes, which involved cutting a lengthy explanation of the Sokal hoax from the first paragraphs — which the hoaxer had intended as a clue.

Windschuttle wrote to “Gould”:

Many of our readers would be aware of the Sokal hoax and its implications, and I think your introduction would lull them into thinking the whole article is another analysis of the follies of constructivism, whereas it is really much more interesting than that.

“Gould” made the changes Windschuttle suggested, but left a reference to the Sokal hoax in the first paragraph. A few other minor editorial changes were made between the version submitted and that published.

Keith Windschuttle is a leading cultural warrior. In recent years he has accused senior historians of falsifying and inventing the degree of violence against Indigenous Australians. He has also accused academic historians of exaggerating the racism involved in the White Australia policy.

This morning in a conversation with me, Windschuttle asked to know the identity of the hoaxer, and was refused. He said that at least some of the footnotes in the article were genuine, and that it was not reasonable to expect the editor of a popular publication to check all footnotes. He asked me to provide him with information on which footnotes were genuine, and which bogus. This will be done by e-mail later today.

Comparing this to the Sokal hoax, Windschuttle made the point that Sokal had been frank about his role in the hoax, and that in that case all the footnotes provided with the article were bogus.

The nub of the Sharon Gould hoax is a play on Windschuttle and Quadrant’s advocacy of empirical research as being divorced from social and political consequences, and therefore beyond question.

Windschuttle said that the hoax would backfire, including on me and on Crikey.

In 2006 the Howard Government appointed Windschuttle to the ABC Board — the last of a number of appointments of leading right wingers, including the anthropologist Ron Brunton (whose term has now expired) and columnist Janet Albrechtsen. Windschuttle’s term expires in 2011.

Windshcuttle replaced the controversial Paddy McGuinness as editor of Quadrant early last year. When his appointment was announced, Windschuttle was quoted as saying that he would campaign against decadence in the arts.

Quadrant is an historically important conservative magazine, praised by John Howard when he was prime minister as his “favourite” magazine and as a forum for “fine scholarship with a sceptical, questioning eye for cant, hypocrisy and moral vanity” and a “lonely counterpoint to stultifying orthodoxies and dangerous utopias that at times have gripped the Western ‘intelligentsia'”. Howard said Quadrant was: “Australia’s home to all that is worth preserving in the Western cultural tradition”. Howard described Windschuttle’s articles on Aboriginal history as particularly close to his heart.

Where are they now?

Crikey, through Margaret Simons, was the first to reveal the Sharon Gould piece as a hoax, and, a few days later, to reveal the identity of the hoaxer — journalist and activist Katherine Wilson.

Simons went on to become a target of a classic The Australian Holy War, and to write several books, including memoirs of Malcolm Fraser and Penny Wong.

Wilson is a freelancer, author and academic.

Windschuttle is still at Quadrant — as is the piece.

— Charlie Lewis

In terror and hope — the world’s 20-year wild ride

20 years ago, the world was watching with amazement as the Republican party chose, as its candidate to go up against heir presumptive Al Gore, the first candidate to fulfil the prophecy of H. L. Mencken: that one day “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron”.

George W Bush, the fauxy Christian ex-alcoholic governor of Texas, set the tone of his candidacy when in an interview by the NBC affiliate in Boston, he was asked to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. He failed on Chechnya and India, got a pass mark on Taiwan but when it came to Pakistan he showed his true grit.

Bush said: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected — not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”

Interviewer: “Can you name him?”

Bush: “General. I can name the general. General.”

He couldn’t. General Pervez Musharraf, later to become an important ally and “friend” to Bush, must have wondered what he was in for.

It was a decade since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then the dissolution of the USSR. China had become a state capitalist one party state. Global capitalism had no limit.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (a global trade deal) was updated in 1994, and then replaced as the World Trade Organisation was established in 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came in to force a year earlier on January 1. Resistance would not be long in coming; the Zapatista insurgency began in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, the same day as NAFTA, and its new social movement uprising led by a former philosophy professor would seed and inspire the global anti-capitalist movement of the late ’90s.

The challenge appeared to be one of neoliberal capitalism, turbocharged by a lack of major state opposition, expanding into every of social life, comodifying existence.

The Onion became the go-to site of this period, with its wry, melancholic pseudo news-stories documenting the transformation: “New Crispy Snack Cracker To Ease Crushing Pain Of Modern Life“, “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size“, “Cher’s ‘Believe’ Now Faintly Audible Everywhere In America“.

Seinfeld documented the minutiae of the new atomised modern life: were you allowed to break up with someone with an answering machine message? The Simpsons became a clearing-house for a half-century of accumulated mass culture.

An ascendant US began a series of “human rights” wars that extended its visible and invisible empire. The brief hopes of the UK left were dashed by New Labour’s neoliberal tilt, with worse to come.

Towers had begun to rise in Pudong, Shanghai, on the shore opposite the old European Bund, as the country’s economy surged to take-off point. The words capitalism and socialism all but disappeared from mainstream discourse, until about 1997-98.

The question, for those of us on the latter side of that disappearance, was how to revise the most basic sense of political contestation and alternatives, as western societies became a vast squeeze, switch, trade-off: declining wage power, rising inequality, higher necessity costs, offset by a world of cheaper luxury shit that made people feel richer and more prosperous, financed by a world of debt.

Then on September 11, those planes hit those towers, and everything changed. Or seemed to. The western global right — the Bush administration, the Howard government, Blair’s new Labour — abandoned fanciful notions of globalisation and peace-through-trade.

With no effort at all, they returned to a neoconservative state-power model, enforcing civil liberties crackdowns, a bellicose expansionary policy which would culminate in the Iraq war of 2003, and a culture war for the superiority of “western civilisation”.

That seemed to be the great closing down of an era. The great right-left struggle of modernity that had begun, now in its last phase: the October revolution was over, and the crappy old game of nations and empires had returned. 

As it turned out, the opposite occurred.

Iraq was the fire into which US supremacy lowered itself, a three, four, five trillion dollar disaster, which not only drained the country at a time when China was recording 10% a year growth, and India not far behind, but also exposed the American elite as incompetent, clueless, lacking in purpose and will, incapable of projecting power.

The brief years of bellicosity inside the US had yielded to a renewed internal focus, as new media and cultural shifts had moved the social revolution of the ’60s onto the next stage. Women had now thoroughly entered the full-time workforce, and people of colour were in positions of power.

As the briefly triumphant G.W. Bush era cratered on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and a global economic crash set up by the pre 9/11 deregulation, a woman and a black man vied to be the president presumptive of the US.

In Australia, our counter-cyclical right-wing culture war government appeared to be the author of the neoliberalisation of everyday life, but was really doing little more than running the rapids of a greater process, staying afloat and offering a few conservative moves to its base. 

Yet what is most significant was the way in which the neocon era created by 9/11 faded with the decade in which it was born.

As Iraq was written off, and President Obama replaced full neocon wars with boutique drone attacks, the Arab world faded as an “other”, even from the minds of the most fevered Fox viewers.

The Iraq war’s decline to quagmire had coincided with the virtually simultaneous emergence of the smartphone and social media, each amplifying the other, and casting the 1991 invention of the modern internet/world wide web as no more than prologue.

As Moore’s Law continued its relentless process of exponentially expanding everyday computing power, a capitalism that had been running out of puff was wired up to what was really a post-internet connectivity not yet named as such, so radically global, total and modular as to constitute a new historical moment.

Simultaneously the central banks of the world began massive “quantitative easing” programming which has now pumped up to $15 trillion into the global economy, most of which has simply flowed to existing holders of finance.

The flood of money, the new mobility of the world, the whirlwind transformation of everyday life finally sewed its opposition — not on the left, but on the right, as a grassroots nationalism rose up, and gained the adherence of millions who had felt de-homed and annihilated by the new world, and excluded by its new operant class.

The knowledge class, whose progressivist movement had more or less replaced the old left, and emphasised the causes of gender, race and other identities, over material class, had both achieved a new degree of liberation, but had also become divided from, and even antagonistic to the old working class.

It had become blind to the degree that it was an advancement of their own knowledge class interests, disguised as the old general interest of humanity that the socialist movement was once held to represent.

Finally, after the drubbings of Trump, Brexit, European nationalism, as real economies withered in the acid rain of quantitative easing, as the “bad” billionaires bought themselves global surveillance systems, and the “good” billionaires bought themselves half-billion dollar yachts, people began to rebel not merely against this vast global inequality, but against the progressivist insistence on the division and privilege of identity politics, beyond the real triumphs of gender, race and other liberations.

The right, suddenly threatened by this, and by the exponential expansion of understanding of global warming and biosphere catastrophe, retreated to pure irrationalism, as a precursor to explicit authoritarian violence and the toppling of such democracy as exists.

So the fight has at least been clarified.

If you want a quick takeaway from someone who has been in the thick of it in the last two decades, it is extraordinarily melancholy to see how far backward we have slid in that time, how exact a copy the 21st century has been of the 20th in some respects.

And yet, how vast the resistance now is — not merely woke but awakened to the way of the world, and how loud untold million fists of flesh are, when they batter against the gold doors of the towers.

Crikey’s biggest scoops: the News Corp books

This week, Crikey is celebrating its 20th anniversary, so we’ve taken a look through the archives to bring you some of our biggest and most controversial scoops. Today, Paddy Manning’s exclusive revelation of the News Corp accounts in 2014.

Exclusive docs show News’ Australian papers dragging down the empire

August 20, 2014

Internal operating accounts for the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation show alarming revenue and profit falls across the metropolitan newspapers in fiscal 2013, and widening losses at flagship broadsheet The Australian.

Combined with the sharp earnings drop already reported in 2013-14, and with circulation and advertising revenues continuing to decline, the accounts suggest News Corp’s Australian newspapers, including the national, metro and regional publications, will struggle to break even this financial year.

The confidential operating accounts for News Corp Australia have never been seen by investors and provide a detailed picture of a print business in rapid decline, with swingeing cost-cuts, cover price increases, new digital subscriptions and digital advertising failing to make up for the loss of revenues from advertising and circulation.

Crikey has received a copy of the last weekly financial statements for 2012-13, which provide line-by-line, year-on-year comparisons across the business, from a well-placed source concerned about misrepresentation of the profitability of News Corp’s Australian newspapers.

The accounts raise the question of how long the rest of the News Corp empire can carry the underperforming Australian newspapers business.

The accounts were produced last year just as Murdoch spun off his troubled print media assets worldwide from the profitable Fox film and cable television empire in the United States, in the wake of the UK phone-hacking scandal.

News Corp was spun out on June 28, 2013, from the renamed 21st Century Fox, and houses mastheads including The Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the US, the Times and Sun in the UK, News’ Australian newspapers, plus book publisher Harper Collins, Foxtel and Fox Sports in Australia, and a 62% stake in ASX-listed REA Group, which operates the successful realestate.com.au website.

The Australian newspapers are dragging on recovering newspaper operations in the US and UK, as well as divisions reporting profit growth, such as book publishing.

Listed on the NASDAQ and the ASX, News Corporation, valued at $11 billion, goes to considerable lengths to avoid breaking revenue or earnings down by country or masthead, lumping its worldwide newspaper operations plus other businesses together into the “news and information” segment, which accounts for 71% of the group’s total revenue, and only offering finer detail selectively.

Crikey can reveal that, amid a forest of negative brackets, revenue from News Corp’s Australian newspapers fell 14% to $1.9 billion in 2012-13, with circulation revenue dropping 5% and advertising revenue falling 18%, while operating income fell 67% to $94 million.

Within the division, The Australian stands out as the worst performer: revenues dropped 20% from $135 million to 108 million in 2012-13, while operating income fell 41% from a loss of $19 million to a loss of $27 million. After depreciation, the masthead’s operating loss fell to $30 million.

The profit drop in newspapers was only partly offset by growth in other operations like REA Group and Fox Sports, with total operating income falling 38% to $221 million. After income from investments including Foxtel, the group recorded a total profit before interest or tax of $367 million, down 28%.

After a recent visit to celebrate The Australian’s 50th anniversary, Rupert Murdoch tweeted he’d had an “exciting week in Australia with great team digging company out of many holes” but the heavy falls in print have continued if not accelerated through 2013-14. This is confirmed in News Corp’s most recent quarterly earnings update and annual report, showing the Australian newspapers are dragging on recovering newspaper operations in the US and UK, as well as divisions reporting profit growth, such as book publishing.

News reported that earnings before interest tax depreciation and amortisation from Australian newspapers fell by US $67 million in 2013-14, or $73 million — which by Crikey’s estimate represents roughly an 80% fall on the previous year, nearly wiping out the division’s entire operating income. The division dragged heavily on the news and information segment, which reported a 16% drop in EBITDA in 2013-14.

The operating accounts show Melbourne’s Herald Sun was the mainstay of News Corp in Australia, with the weekday paper generating revenues of $250 million in 2012-13, down 13.5% on the year before, and operating income of $35 million, down 41%. Revenue for the Sunday edition fell 17% to $75 million, while operating income fell 31% to $21 million.

Of the major tabloids the weekday edition of News’ monopoly masthead in Brisbane, The Courier-Mail, suffered the steepest falls, with revenue dropping 18% to $158 million while operating income fell 68% to just $17 million. The Sunday Mail revenues fell 15% to $71 million and operating income fell 33% to $20 million.

The weekday edition of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph was another weak performer, with the lowest profit margins at 5%, with revenue dropping 14% to $160 million while operating income fell 65% to just $8 million. The Sunday Telegraph revenues fell 15% to $94 million and operating income fell 53% to $7 million.

At that level Adelaide’s Advertiser‘s weekday editions alone made a much stronger contribution than the Tele in 2012-13, generating revenues of $138 million (down 15%) and operating income of $22 million (down 47%) — without counting the Sunday Mail.

The financial performance of the newspapers has only worsened. In its latest accounts News Corp revealed that overall revenue from the Australian newspapers had fallen by another 18% or US $359 million in 2013-14, compared with the previous year, made up of US $314 million decline in advertising revenue and a US $45 million decline in circulation revenue. Of that, News said US $199 million — a bit over half — reflected the impact of a weaker Australian dollar versus the greenback, which pointed to an 8% decline in revenue in local currency to below $1.8 billion.

On News Corp’s quarterly earnings dial-in chief executive Robert Thomson conceded there were advertising headwinds in Australia but said there were signs of a turnaround, with “green shoots on the Nullarbor”. In the June 2014 quarter Australian newspapers ad revenue fell 11% in local currency terms, which was a slight improvement on the mid-single-digit falls in the March quarter. SMI data show advertising revenue aggregated across New Corp’s mastheads fell 18% in the first six months of 2014.

Where are they now?

Crikey‘s editor at the time, Marni Cordell, described the peak of her Crikey sick feeling” — the anxiety that takes over when one is about to publish something consequential and potentially damaging — with the publication of News Corp’s “blue book”.

Crikey eventually agreed to take the documents down and destroy them, but the stories based on them — not just on Crikey, but across Australia — remain.

Cordell went on to become head of news at BuzzFeed, and is now the major projects editor at Guardian Australia.

These days, News Corp continues to be dragged down by a major loss leader — although now it’s Foxtel. And while we’re yet to see another blue book-style leak, we did get an internal taste of one possible cause.

— Charlie Lewis

20 years on, why Crikey matters even more today than it did back then

If you are reading this and you are a Crikey subscriber, then pardon me for telling you what you already know: independent Australian-owned inquiry journalism is vital to our democracy — and should, when done right, spark joy in your life.

(Yup, we are to news what Marie Kondo is to the sock drawer.)

Crikey today celebrates its 20th anniversary. That’s quite an achievement given the forces set against it — and the state of the news media industry.

So thank you very much for being a subscriber, if you are.

If you are taking a sample, then welcome. If you are wondering if you should stick around, please indulge me and read on for a bit.

In 2000, when Crikey started, Google was just two years old, Facebook four years away from springing forth from a college dorm, and Apple’s first iPhone seven years out from market. It was a different world.

The web had barely touched our lives; the idea of a political blog, saying things that many people thought but were often left unspoken, was revolutionary. And, in terms of news media, legacy mastheads and titles were still making heaps of money.

I remember saying to colleagues at the Sydney Morning Herald at the time something like: “Crikey is fun but it won’t last”. I was a bit arrogant.

We all know what happened next: nascent tech grew up and ate the news media’s revenues for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Legacy media couldn’t cut costs fast enough — and over ensuing years, several thousand journalists lost their jobs. There are now fewer reporters around to scrutinise the powerful.

It’s not all gloom and doom. Journalism is weakened but not disempowered. Far from it. Huge tech has come to a broad understanding that it needs — more to the point, that significant parts of its audience needs — quality news media.

But no genie is going back in the bottle here. The news media’s business model has changed forever. But, of course, several things haven’t:

  1. Politicians and people in authority still need to be held to account;
  2. Journalism needs to ask the awkward questions — and say what needs to be said;
  3. Australia needs an independent, Australian-owned news media.

I would love to claim that Crikey could do all this alone. It can’t. The news media needs to rebuild and re-imagine its ecosystem. But Crikey can do a lot of it with your support. Last year, we launched our investigative unit, Inq. You can catch-up with some of its recent work today.

Crikey runs a subscription-based model and we like it that way. We have a close relationship with our audience. We are independent of outside influences.

Every day we set out to be true to the idea of being fierce and independent, unflinching and forthright. That’s what propels our journalism and commentary.

We hope you like it. We know many of you already do.

If you are here for the first time — or returning — we’d love it if you gave us a chance to prove that 20 years on, Australia needs Crikey more than ever.

Please think about taking out a subscription. It would be a good way to celebrate our birthday and more to the point, ensure that Crikey is around to ask the hard questions and look under rocks for another 20 years.

Peter Fray is the editor-in-chief of Crikey and the managing editor of Private Media.

Crikey’s biggest scoops: Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans

This week, Crikey is celebrating its 20th anniversary, so we’ve taken a look through the archives to bring you some of our biggest and most controversial scoops. Today, the 2002 email sent to subscribers scooping Laurie Oakes with the revelation that Australian Democrat defector Cheryl Kernot and Labor’s Gareth Evans had an affair.

Wednesday, July 3, 2002, 10.13am

Dear Sole Subscribers,

Well, well, well, the Packers should have Buckley’s chance of insisting on privacy over the breakdown of the James and Jodhi marriage now that Laurie Oakes has chosen to draw the public’s attention to the rumors of an affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans.

The Bulletin will sell off the shelf today and the Packers will profit from some of these lines from Oakes which are only available on the mag’s website to subscribers. This is the first third of Laurie’s column:

Secrets and lies

By Laurie Oakes

“In the long whinge that Cheryl Kernot has produced to explain why she bears no responsibility for the collapse of her once brilliant political career, a constant theme is media intrusion. And there is no doubt that she has grounds for complaint over some incidents. The dredging up of aspects of her private life from many years before she went into politics is an example. So is the behaviour of a few journalists and photographers who tried to breach her hospital security when she was ill at the end of 1999.

But, while it is unlikely that she would admit it, Kernot has been protected by journalists, too.

For a long time now, some members of the Fourth Estate have been aware of the biggest secret in Kernot’s life. If made public, it would cause a lot of people to view her defection from the Australian Democrats to the Labor Party in a different light. It helps to explain some of her erratic behaviour. It was a key factor in the erosion of her emotional and physical health that contributed to her political disintegration. It even caused a lie to be told to the Parliament — not by Kernot, but by a colleague. But it was also personal, so as far as the media was concerned it was treated as out of bounds.

While it is one thing for journalists to stay away from such a matter, however, it is quite another for Kernot herself to pretend it does not exist when she pens what purports to be the true story of her ill-fated change of party allegiance. An honest book would have included it. If Kernot felt the subject was too private to be broached, there should have been no book, because the secret was pivotal to what happened to her. Had Kim Beazley, John Faulkner and other ALP leading lights been aware of it when then-deputy leader Gareth Evans proposed bringing Kernot into the Labor fold, they would have thought twice about the idea and probably said “no”. Without the distraction and distress it caused Kernot at crucial times, she would certainly have been a less flaky and more effective shadow minister. To white out such a major element resulted in serious distortion.”

Etc etc etc

Crikey’s Response

The reaction this morning has been as follows: Cheryl laughed and said there is no big secret when asked about it on Channel Seven. Jenny Macklin refused to be drawn when door-stopped on the issue at a Melbourne school this morning. Joan Kirner said Laurie Oakes should “lift his game or get out” and said journalism is now in the gutter. Neil Mitchell ran big on the Oakes story but refused to run the rumour because he didn’t know it to be fact. His callers were split. Some said he was a gutter-dwelling rumour-monger and others said Cheryl deserved everything she got.

Mitchell is right to say that the issue will not go away now that Oakes has chosen to put it in the public arena.

The actual rumor is not as bad as the concept of “Cheryl’s big secret” and will now inevitably get around on email and chat rooms before the mainstream run with it. The genie is out of the bottle and Cheryl will now have to deal with it. She has no choice because Australia’s most powerful and respected political commentator has treated it as fact, not rumour. And Oakes has no doubt checked with several Labor heavyweights before taking this highly controversial step. Crikey only regarded it as unsubstantiated rumor but Oakes has come out and effectively said “Gareth and Cheryl had an affair which was pivotal to her defection and subsequent political failure — this is fact”.

So, what do we know about this rumored affair with Gareth Evans? It is speculated that the affair started around the time of the Mabo debate.

Cheryl’s husband, Gavin, certainly knew about it and is said to have taken it very badly. It contributed to the breakdown of their marriage which in turn contributed to Cheryl’s own ill-health.

Clearly Gareth Evans’ family is the biggest victim in this story becoming public because their marriage is still together. The rumor is that Cheryl is said to have regularly rung Gareth and it was he who ended the affair to save his marriage.

We’ll probably get an almighty bucketing from some people for running this but believe me, it is out. Inevitably, the parties will now have to deal with it after The Bulletin chose to reveal that Cheryl had “a big secret” in the first place.

Oakes should have gone all the way and actually spelled out what it was. And the timing of it — right in the middle of her interview circuit — was designed to cause maximum damage. Ironically, it will cause Cheryl’s book to sell better. Clearly Oakes is incensed at what he sees as the hypocrisy in Kernot’s attacks on the media.

Okay, I’m turning off the phone and going to yoga for a few hours. Just email [email protected] if you want to cancel your subscription but if Crikey is serious about “disclose, disclose, disclose” and claims to fearlessly report political gossip, then we would not be doing our job if we ignored this issue.

Do ya best,

Stephen Mayne

After the affair: where are Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans now?

Back on the 15th anniversary of Crikey, founder Stephen Mayne nominated the revelation of the affair between former Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and Labor’s Gareth Evans as his favourite scoop. The story was written in 2002 (taken out from under the mainstream’s nose), after Laurie Oakes teased the “big secret” he was planning to reveal about Kernot.

Kernot became the centre of a media storm and has since described the way that coverage “cancels out [her] professional worth”. Nevertheless, she was good enough to talk to Crikey about the ordeal in last year’s Media Roadkill series. She is now the Social Business Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact.

Post-politics, Evans went on to write a memoir that kept almost entirely schtum on the subject of Kernot, before becoming ANU chancellor and having to wrestle with the whole Ramsay Centre debacle.

Laurie Oakes continued in the press pallery for another 15 years, retiring in 2017 after nearly 50 years covering politics in Canberra. He’s still tweeting about politics, his time at Nine, and books. Last week he made a rare public appearance to launch the Sydney Media Club.

Since selling Crikey in 2005, Mayne has continued as a regular contributor while pursuing shareholder activism, and campaigning on transparency, governance and accountability, as well as against the gambling industry.

— Charlie Lewis