By Margo Kingston
March 18, 2013
I reckon it’s time for journos to start spilling the beans on the ‘free speech’ nonsense being spouted by big media. The big boys’ self-righteous, self-interested hypocrisy in the media reform debate is surely too much for any of us who care about the survival of our profession to stomach.
Today the Oz – of course – tells us Kerry Stokes will make a surprise appearance at the Senate hearings into the media reform bills ‘to denounce the bills and argue passionately in favour of a free press without government oversight’. The article lists all the heavies who will come to Canberra – they are a cabal on this, orchestrated by Murdoch’s boys – and explicitly threatens to campaign against the government right up to election day if they don’t get their way:
“The implicit assumption that by getting these bills through this week it means the debate will calm down is completely wrong and a fundamental miscalculation,” a senior media boss said. “It gives every media company in the country the incentive to keep campaigning on it right up to the election, and will strengthen the resolve of all the media companies to keep campaigning to make sure that if the Liberals get into power they honour their promise.”
They know and Labor knows Abbott will do their bidding if he wins office. Those quotes are code for telling Labor it ain’t seen nothing yet if they don’t back down. It’s crude, thuggish blackmail.
That’s how brutal they are. Who is running the country? Not voters, that’s for sure. Gillard has clearly had enough, and is going for broke. In an interview with Fairfax today, she said:
”Government in my view isn’t about looking at the powerful stake-holders and saying, how many can I get in my corner? Government is about serving the national interest and doing what the nation requires… I never expected people in the media to applaud any reform agenda because their agenda is looking at it through their eyes and what meets their needs rather than doing what I’ve got to do – stand back and say what meets the national interest.”
In this she echoes UK, Labor leader Ed Milliband, who has also put his career on the line to take a stand against big media bullies and demand serious accountability at last:
“Now we are at this moment which is a sort of crossroads: do we change or is it more of the same?”
The Observer reported:
Miliband says that now is the moment to break with the past, when “politicians were fearful of speaking out because they thought: ‘I’m going to get bad publicity, it will turn the press against me’.” He says that he believes the country is now “24 hours away from putting in place a system that I believe will work”, to ensure that the treatment meted out to the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked after she disappeared, and the parents of missing Madeleine McCann, can never be repeated. “I think it is an important moment because we have had decades of failing to ensure that we have a system of press complaints and redress which means that ordinary people aren’t left at the whim of a sometimes abusive press.
“Monday is the day that politics has got to do the duty by the victims and has got to stand up for the victims.”
If Stokes appears, I hope his bullshit bluster will be called and he will be asked about his free speech record (by the way, Stokes is not a man of his word and is gutless to boot). I personally know of a case where he dressed down a producer for allowing a tough interview on Murdoch because, he said, he needed to keep him onside. But there is a famous case of Stokes’ censorship on the record. Here’s an extract from a 1997 4 Corners program on Kennett’s culture:
Sally Neighbour: Last year in Melbourne, the most damaging story of Jeff Kennett’s Premiership came to a head in a drama that was made for television.
Archive, Today Tonight with Jill Singer: Hello and welcome to the program. Tonight we had planned to bring you a story about poker machine king Bruce Mathieson and a link with the Premier Jeffrey Kennett.
Sally Neighbour: An expose on the Kennett family’s share dealings was pulled by Channel Seven minutes before it was due to go to air.
Archive, Today Tonight with Jill Singer: However, we can’t bring you that report because we have been instructed by senior management not to put the story to air.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996:
Q: Why do you believe the story was pulled?
A: To placate the Premier.
Sally Neighbour: The episode was a graphic illustration of the political culture that’s grown under Jeff Kennett’s rule.
Archive Four Corners, Kennett at 3AW: Is this for local ABC or is it for that awful bloody program…
Sally Neighbour: It’s a culture that punishes criticism and dissent. In this culture what the Premier says, goes. The state is run like a business and accountability and transparency are sacrificed in the interest of results.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: It’s a crash-through approach and it certainly has achieved some great things in Victoria but some pretty serious corners have been cut as well.
Sally Neighbour: The drama of that evening became as big a story as the share deal itself.
Archive, Today Tonight: We start tonight with the story of a…
Sally Neighbour: While Seven later claimed it had acted for legal reasons there were questions in Parliament about whether political pressure had been applied.
Archive, Today Tonight: As John Mort reports, Mackay is now under investigation by health and immigration officials.
Today Tonight Control Room Audio: TT2, TT2, we need Greg urgently on the floor.. or David Johnson….we need someone on the floor, urgent. We need a first aider, Jill is ill on the floor.
Archive, ABC News: A bitter battle of the airwaves has erupted between Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and the Channel 7 current affairs program, ‘Today Tonight’. Melbourne presenter Jill Singer collapsed during last night’s program after network management withdrew a story critical of the Premier’s business dealings. The Victorian leader has denied applying political pressure to have the story spiked.
Warren Wilton, Executive Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996:
Q: Why do you think the story was pulled?
A: I think there’s little doubt that er the Seven management thought it would do them too much damage in terms of the way they operate in Victoria.
Archive, Today Tonight: Monday night a response from the Premier arrived on Today Tonight’s fax machine. Mr Kennett…
Sally Neighbour: There was a public outcry and the story was run the next day. But the journalists responsible were later told their contracts would not be renewed.
Jeremy Thompson, Today Tonight Producer, 1996: I think it’s one of the most tawdry episodes that’s occurred in television journalism in this country.
Archive, Today Tonight: He has now turned his attention to the booming economy of China by…
Sally Neighbour: Those journalists now speak publicly for the first time along with a former Kennett staffer who’s told Four Corners he witnessed the share deal.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: I worked there. I must have a couple of hundred conversations with him about the share market…
Sally Neighbour: That it’s taken so long for them to tell their story is a symptom of the culture that prevails…
Sally Neighbour: This was the culture that the team at Channel Seven’s Today Tonight show found themselves up against last year. The events surrounding their story on Mrs Kennett’s share dealing would reveal the intense pressure in Victoria to toe the Premier’s line.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: It’s often been said that all of this was part of some get-Kennett conspiracy on the part of a group of people. Nothing could be further from the truth because it was me who initiated the story and my interest was quite simple. There was, in the roll-out of poker machines across Victoria there was one player that had emerged as the most successful in this field, and that was a chap by the name of Bruce Mathieson.
Sally Neighbour: As well as his poker machine business Bruce Mathieson is the Chairman of a firm called Sino Securities, which specialises in listing Chinese companies on the Australian Stock Exchange. It was here that the connection with the Premier emerged.
In the records of a company called Guangdong Corporation, Today Tonight discovered a parcel of shares held by Mr Kennett’s wife.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: We then enlisted some support in Hong Kong to go off and check the share register and the name of Mrs Kennett soon emerged. We knew immediately what the significance of it was. We knew how it had happened and we knew it would be an embarrassment to the Premier, though we had not actively set out to embarrass him.
Sally Neighbour: It would become the story of the year in Victoria. But the journalists suspected almost from the beginning it was a story Channel Seven wasn’t keen to tell.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: We were quite astonished at the resistance to us taking part in this…in this story. It was made clear from the word go that it wasn’t a welcome report to be done on the program and enormous pressure was applied for it not to get to air.
Sally Neighbour: The chairman and controlling shareholder of Channel Seven is the Perth businessman, Kerry Stokes. His company Australian Capital Equity has enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the Kennett government.
It began with an extraordinary deal during the privatisation of Victoria’s power industry. This deal is a story in itself and one that helps explain how the staff at Channel 7 would later view the saga of Today Tonight.
The deal involved the privatisation of the research and development arm of Victoria’s State Electricity Commission. It’s know as the Herman Research Laboratory, or HRL.
HRL had spent five years and more than $30million of taxpayers money developing a new way to make clean, cheap electricity from low-grade coal. Still in the experimental stage, the potential profits from this technology are huge.
Graeme Pleasance, Managing Director, Herman Research Laboratory:
Q: What sort of returns are we talking about? Millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions?
A: It would be…if the technology is successful as we obviously hope, it would be hundreds of millions of dollars, yes.
Q: We’re talking sales all over the world, to many countries?
A: Sales all over the world, yes. Many countries would be involved in purchasing the technology.
Sally Neighbour: There was no tender for the privatisation of HRL and its research. The deal was rushed through on the last day of the financial year in 1994, the details not disclosed. It was finalised by Jeff Kennett, who signed the documentation himself.
Graeme Pleasance, Managing Director, Herman Research Laboratory: We had to have it done by June 1994. There was some confusion I guess in terms of what was happening with the industry, and the Premier when he heard that in fact that if those ‘blockers’ if you like couldn’t be cleared away, we might miss the deadline. I understand he freed up the system and made it happen at the time. So in effect he had facilitated the process.
Sally Neighbour: As Kerry Stokes tells it, it began when the Premier rang personally inviting him to invest in Victoria. According to a glowing account by Mr Stokes in his company newsletter, the Premier said, “Just bring your money and come. If there’s any red tape, we’ll cut through it.” It was a complicated deal but, “amazingly” Mr Stokes recalled, “after what seemed like a wave from Mr Kennett’s magic wand, all the complexities disappeared”.
Graeme Pleasance, Managing Director, Herman Research Laboratory:
Q: I take it Kerry Stokes was extremely impressed by the Premier’s role in this?
A: Yes I’ve heard Kerry say that on a couple of occasions. Not quite sure why.
Sally Neighbour: The attraction of the deal — apart from the potentially huge profits — was the fabulous tax benefits.
Under a Federal scheme to promote research and development, the money invested in the HRL research is refundable and tax deductible. Hence the rush to complete the deal by the end of the financial year. Even if the project fails, the investment syndicate led by Mr Stokes company will get back all of its money plus a guaranteed return of between 20 and 30 per cent. This scheme has since been abolished by the Federal Treasurer, who said it had more to do with tax minimisation than genuine research.
Graeme Pleasance, Managing Director, Herman Research Laboratory:
Q: What do you see as the benefits of this particular privatisation?
A: The short-term benefits, it’s enabled a technology that wouldn’t otherwise have been developed to be developed and be put in place.
Sally Neighbour: What the investors had to pay the state for this goldmine has never been revealed. The government refused to release any details. It even changed the law to make privatisations in the power industry exempt from Freedom of Information.
Shedding HRL meant the state was spared the cost of its research.
But Four Corners has learned that apart from saving the taxpayer got virtually nothing from the deal. HRL was effectively given away. The state got a debenture or corporate IOU — for 182 million dollars.
The catch is it’s not payable for another 20 years and it may never be paid at all. Amazing as it seems, that decision is up to the investors. They don’t have to pay anything unless they judge their research to be a commercial success.
Professor Arie Freiberg, Head, Criminology, Melbourne University: The problem is that we don’t know how typical this is. There are hundreds and hundreds of deals and contracts being let every year.
Sally Neighbour: Professor Arie Freiberg believes HRL illustrates serious concerns about the way this government does its deals.
Professor Arie Freiberg, Head, Criminology, Melbourne University: I think there’s an enormous culture of secrecy developing and the exclusions of all others other than the contracting parties is a fundamental misunderstanding of government. So this mask, this shield of commercial confidentiality is all part of this process of excluding the public because government think they know what is best. Secrecy is danger.
Sally Neighbour: For Kerry Stokes and co, the HRL deal and Premier Kennett’s role in it was a good story. He even suggested later to his staff at Channel Seven that they report it for Today Tonight.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: The chairman was telling us how great he thought Jeff Kennett was to do business with and it was suggested to us that we should do a story on this wonderful research and development project into brown coal that had just been purchased from the state government.
Archive, Today Tonight: Today Tonight has identified a company listed on the Melbourne Stock Exchange as Sino Securities International.
Sally Neighbour: It was a year or so after this that the Today Tonight team came across a very different story – the story of the Kennett family’s shares.
Archive, Today Tonight – Text from Kennett Speech: The shares belong to my wife and there is no requirement for the assets to be listed.
Sally Neighbour: The Kennett’s had a keen interest in the ups and downs of the share market. At one stage the Premier held shares in more than 30 companies, reportedly worth around $400,000. These were declared as required. All of them have since been sold.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: We used to talk regularly about the share market. I was a former share market reporter, former business reporter. I had a few shares of my own. He had quite a few shares…
Sally Neighbour: Stephen Mayne’s worked in the Premier’s office as Press Secretary to the Treasurer. He left in 1994 to become Business Editor at Melbourne’s Herald-Sun newspaper. When he left, Treasurer Stockdale delivered this tribute.
Archive, Treasurer Stockdale, 1994: Stephen is leaving today. I actually feel that this is a grievous loss myself and I’d like to take this opportunity with those of you who have worked with him to thank him for what I think has been a terrific job he had done for me in particular and for the government generally. He could never be replaced.
Sally Neighbour: Mayne says while he was with the government, the Premier would often discuss investment in shares.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: We developed quite a rapport on the share market and we would talk about it nearly every time I saw him, which’d be over the 18 months I worked there I must have had a couple of hundred conversations with him about the share market.
Sally Neighbour: Under the MP’s register, the Premier must declare any interest that entitles him to a financial benefit and any interest held by a member of his family that he considers might appear to raise a material conflict between his private interest and his public duty.
Text from Member of Parliament Register of Interests Act, 1978:(i) Any other substantial interest whether of a pecuniary nature or not of the Member or of a member of his family of which the Member is aware and which the Member considers might appear to raise a material conflict between his private interest and his public duty as a Member.
Sally Neighbour: The rules were introduced when Sir Rupert Hamer was the Liberal Premier in 1978.
Sir Rupert Hamer, Victorian Premier, 1972-81:
Q: Sir Rupert, how do you think elected politicians, especially leaders should approach their private business dealings while in office?
A: They should distance themselves as far as they can. Well, politicians, I won’t say politicians…Ministers should because to be a Minister is a full-time job and therefore he has to make other arrangements and try to distance himself from anything which would give even the whiff of conflict of interest.
David Edwards, CEO, Victoria Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry: I think Premiers, Prime Ministers, Ministers shouldn’t actively trade in the market, particularly those Ministers or Premiers that do have a very close relationship with business and are aware of a whole range of projects.
Q: Why do you think that’s so?
A: Well, undoubtedly…particularly in Victoria but any state or federal government which is close to a whole range of business projects is undoubtedly going to be, become aware of inside information if you like about future investment prospects.
Jeff Kennett in Parliament: What a stupid question! What a stupid question!
Sally Neighbour: Mr Kennett always insisted he was not obliged to declare his wife’s shares. But new information obtained by Four Corners raises the question once again of whether there might appear to be a conflict between the Premier’s private interest and public duty. By Mr Kennett’s own account, the investment came about like this.
Kennett in Parliament, 16 May, 1996: Mr Speaker, I can’t remember the actual day….Mr Speaker I think I indicated to the House yesterday or the day before I had to the best of my memory two meetings with the people from Sino Securities…
Sally Neighbour: The Premier’s first meeting with directors of the underwriter Sino Securities was at this office in September 1993. They came to announce the listing of Guangdong Corporation, the first Chinese company on the Australian Exchange. The meeting was arranged by Sino’s Chairman, Bruce Mathieson. Also present was Managing Director, Richard Li. This was the first of two official meetings hosted by the Premier.
Kennett in Parliament, 16 May 1996: At some stage between the two, after the first, I got the prospectus. I can’t remember on which date but I got it but I think it came from Mr Li who I think was the, or is the CEO of Sino.
Sally Neighbour: Two days after this meeting the float of Guangdong Corporation opened on the Exchange.
Archive, Richard Li, Managing Director, Sino Securities, September 1993: Okay, you guys say that you are part of us. You said that you like our market. Well, here it is. Here is an investment vehicle for you to share in the growth of China.
Sally Neighbour: Guangdong Corporation was one of the hottest floats of 1993. A Hong Kong based construction company, majority-owned by China’s richest provincial government, it seemed like a sure thing.
The float was due to stay open for three weeks. But after only five days, Richard Li made this announcement to the Exchange – “Due to the overwhelming response, we regret to advise that we are unlikely to accept any further application for shares.
Several days later, Premier Kennett rang Richard Li from his office at Treasury Place.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: Jeff came around and asked if I’d heard about this Chinese company that was floating…
Sally Neighbour: Stephen Mayne says Mr Kennett discussed the investment with him at the time.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: …and again he said, “Oh, I want to get into this Chinese company, I think it’s gonna be a good investment, it’s gonna go well, apparently the, you know, the shares are hard to get and you know…,”. All the signs were, he was saying, that it was going to be a good thing to get into.
Sally Neighbour: Richard Li was in his office at Sino Securities when the Premier called. Stephen Mayne says he was with Mr Kennett, who was on a speakerphone.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: Richard Li was just ecstatic and excited that the Premier had called him and he was clearly in awe of the fact that he was taking this call. And the conversation went along the lines of, you know, ‘How’s the Guangdong float going?’, and Richard Li said, ‘It’s going very well’ and the Premier then went along to ask and say, “Well can I get 100,000?” And Richard Li sort of said, ‘No, how about 20,000?’ and the Premier said, “Okay, fine”.
Sally Neighbour: Richard Li has confirmed that he received a call from the Premier but says that Mr Kennett simply told him that his wife would be bringing up a cheque for the shares.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: …and then it moved along. Jeff rang his broker, I don’t know who his broker was, I think he used a couple of different brokers, but he rang his broker and said, instructed him to send off an application for Guangdong.
Sally Neighbour: Sino Securities received two applications in Mrs Kennett’s name, for a total of one-hundred-thousand shares. She was later issued fifty-thousand.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: Well, he came around three or four days later, I think, and he was very excited, and he told me that as it turned out, he got an extra 30,000 or Felicity got an extra 30,000 shares.
Kennett in Parliament, 16 May 1996: Mr Speaker, I responded to a prospectus and that has been put on the public record on a number of occasions over the last few days. And secondly, in terms of there being no conflict of interest, if you have a look at the register of interest requirements you will see that it is not required.
Sally Neighbour: The week after Mrs Kennett received her shares, Guangdong Corporation opened for trading on the Exchange. It was a phenomenal debut. Almost a million shares were traded on day one. The price climbed from 78 cents to $1.15 a share.
That same day, the Premier took the step of holding an official reception for the Directors of Sino Securities and Guangdong Corporation. The group was photographed on the steps of Parliament House.
That evening, we’ve learned, Mr Kennett joined his new Chinese friends yet again, to celebrate the success of the listing.
The venue was a fancy Melbourne restaurant. Mr Kennett didn’t stay for dinner, but came to drink a toast to the company’s success.
Lay Chun, Selbys Restaurant: Oh, he very happy, he very happy.
Sally Neighbour: The restaurant’s proprietor remembers the occasion well.
Lay Chun, Selbys Restaurant: Well, everybody’s excited, and I think he, they were excited and I think anybody like to be seen with you know somebody VIP or dignitary, whoever it is, yeah.
Q: Were the Chinese businessmen impressed that the Premier turning up?
A: I think they were very impressed, yes, yes, everybody impressed. Everybody say cheers and when he left everybody gave him three cheers as well.
Q: And so did they drink to the health of the company?
A: They drink to the health of the company and to Victoria and to the Premier, yeah, to everybody, yeah. They were very pleased to see each other.
Sally Neighbour: There was good cause to celebrate. The shares were in such demand that the price had jumped nearly 50 per cent. The value of the Kennett’s’ investment had risen $18,000 after a single days trading. As it turned out that paper profit was never realised, as the price had fallen by the time Mrs Kennett sold.
Dr Simon Longstaff, St James Ethics Centre: The first thing I’d like to say is that I’m not in the business of making judgements about particular individuals, especially when I haven’t heard their side of the story.
Sally Neighbour: Four Corners asked Dr Simon Longstaff, a specialist in business ethics, to comment in principle on the Guangdong affairs. He believes Mr Kennett’s actions after his wife’s share purchase raise serious ethical issues.
Dr Simon Longstaff, St James Ethics Centre: If a political leader lends the authority of their public office in support of a private cause in which they have an interest, then it gives rise to the perception that they are using public power for private profit. It may be an unwarranted assumption by the public but nonetheless that is a real risk that leader runs and it’s one I think they ought to avoid.
Sally Neighbour: Mrs Kennett’s share dealings didn’t end there. Four Corners has been told of a second occasion when the Premier had a role in his wife’s acquisition of highly sought-after shares. It was the float of the gardening supplies firm Yates in October ’93.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: Quite late in the piece he asked me if I could get hold of a prospectus for Yates, and I then rang.
Sally Neighbour: Stephen Mayne says the Premier discussed this investment with him as well.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: I just rang up as Joe Public and they said, “I’m sorry, sir, there’s no more prospectus’ available. The float is fully taken and we can’t give you a prospectus and there are no more shares for anyone”. So I then told the Premier I couldn’t get hold of a prospectus in Yates and he asked me who the broker was doing it and I said, “Well, it’s Potter Warburg”. And then I think he asked me who the Chairman of Potter Warburg was and I said, “Oh, actually, well it’s Laurie Cox”.
Sally Neighbour: Laurie Cox was also then the Chairman of the Stock Exchange and a member of the Premier’s business round table. When asked about this by Four Corners, Mr Cox first said he had no recollection, and then said he had no comment.
Stephen Mayne, Press Secretary, Victoria Premier’s Office, 1992-94: So I sort of suggested well, you know, you could try Laurie. And the Premier said, “Yeah, I’ll give Laurie a call”. So he went back to his office, and I think he came back around half an hour to an hour later, again quite excited, this was another coup.
Sally Neighbour: The Premier’s wife acquired 20,000 shares in Yates. It was another hot float, the price rising 40 per cent on the first day of trading. Press reports says Mrs Kennett made a profit of between six and eight-thousand dollars when she sold her Yates shares.
Four Corners requested an interview with the Premier and submitted a series of questions to him on the Yates and Guangdong shares. Mr Kennett responded last week: “We do not wish to be interviewed by the Four Corners program, or answer the inane question you supplied, as the ABC continues to justify its appalling bias and waste of public money.”
When the journalists at Today Tonight first discovered the Guangdong shares last year, they believed there were issues of major public interest to be raised. But as the story developed, extraordinary pressure began to build.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: By now we were acutely aware of the undercurrents if you like, within the network of concern about this story. That’s what made it so tense. We knew by now we were effectively tippy-toeing through a minefield, but the story had taken on a life of its own by then.
Sally Neighbour: Four days before the shares story was due for broadcast, a viewing of the program was held. Present were the journalists and lawyers and the network’s managing director, Gary Rice.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: Well, they watched the story through. It was the first time that Gary Rice had seen it. When it was finished he said and I remember the words as if they were yesterday: “This story has the potential to do us enormous damage in Victoria, not just our relationship with Tattersalls, but the whole way we conduct our business in Victoria.”
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: Namely, that it could do great damage to commercial relationships, for starters with the Tattersalls Group who were involved in the allocation of poker machines but secondly Gary Rice kept putting it ‘in the way that we do business in this state’.
Sally Neighbour: Gary Rice says he doesn’t recall making those comments but confirms he believed the story would not be helpful to the company.
Tuesday May 14th was the day the shares story was due to go to air.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: It was extremely tense in the office that day. There were lawyers everywhere.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: The faxes were flying, the phone calls were flying, it was quite melodramatic by this stage.
Sally Neighbour: A team of lawyers had been involved in vetting the story.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: Channel Seven’s lawyers in Melbourne had been involved quite closely with the production of the story once it actually got to the editing processes. Two Senior Counsel then saw the first edited version of it. The edited version was seen by Jeffrey Sher QC who’s a leading defamation barrister and he also saw the final version. So it was legalled very extensively.
Sally Neighbour: It was early evening, less than an hour before airtime when the phone rang. It was Premier Kennett.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: I was in my office and a call came through. It was the Premier and the producer of the program John Boland took the call in my office because all the lawyers were still next door. It was a most astonishing conversation to overhear. The producer kept saying, “Mate, Jeff, you know we’re mates. We go back a long way, we’ve known each other a long time. I’m instructed. I have my instructions — to make sure you’re happy.”
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: When the Premier was on the phone we dropped everything and tuned in. But he…he seemed to be in a rage. I heard him a couple of times very loudly, it wasn’t hard to hear because he seemed to be speaking at high volume. He seemed to, kept saying, “Go ahead, run it. I need a new house,” — that was the quote we kept hearing — “I need a new house”. I heard that said twice.
Q: Meaning what?
A: Meaning I assume that if we did run the story he’d sue us and at the very least he expected the proceeds would buy him a new house.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: John Boland reported back that Jeff Kennett was ropeable about the story, the allegations that we were making, but that he wouldn’t be interviewed, that — he kept saying — ‘he’s ropeable about it’ and this appeared to be his main response.
Sally Neighbour: Despite the Premier’s anger, the story was completed and ready for air.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: The final conference call involved Michael Lloyd-Jones, the corporate Counsel. I finally said to Michael Lloyd-Jones, ‘Does this mean we can run the story?’ And he said, “Well, of course, there’s not question about that”. He even rang back a little while later and said, “Look, Warren, you know I’m answerable to the shareholders. I have a responsibility to them, but there’s no question of the story not going to air”.
Sally Neighbour: But a short while later, and just 20 minutes before airtime, the phone rang again and the bombshell was dropped.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: It was Michael Lloyd-Jones, the Sydney network lawyer on the phone, and he said, speaking to Warren Wilson, the executive producer, and he said, “Pull the story”.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: He said, “It’s a management decision”. And I said, ‘Well, well, why? You know we’ve had it legalled, we’ve had QC’s look at it, we’ve been talking about it all day, why, what’s the reason, you know, why shouldn’t it be shown?’ He said, “Well, I’m instructed to tell you that it’s a management decision, it’s not to be shown”.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: All hell broke loose, there were lawyers yelling, journalists yelling.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: I must say that I felt just an overwhelming sense of numbness.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: I’m saying what do I get on air and say? What can I possibly say about this?
Archive, Today Tonight: Tonight we had planned to bring you a story about poker machine king Bruce Mathieson and a link with the Premier Jeffrey Kennett. However, we have been instructed by senior management not to put the story to air. We start tonight with a story of a former American marine…
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: I felt the most enormous pressure building up in my head and pain, intense pain, in fact as I was sitting there trying to read, it felt really like something had exploded in my head. I managed to get it through to the end of the link and the pain was so intense I hit the floor.
Archive, Today Tonight: …as John Mort reports McKay is now under investigation by health and immigration officials.
Sally Neighbour: The collapse of presenter Jill Singer prompted a public furore. The story went to air the following night, unchanged. It was the highest-rating program ever on Today Tonight.
Archive, Today Tonight: In 1993 Premier Jeff Kennett touched down in the Chinese Province of Guangdong to meet businessman…
Sally Neighbour: Premier Kennett denied that he’d pressured Channel Seven to pull the story. He never did sue. Seven Chairman Kerry Stokes says he knew nothing of the report until after it was pulled but was later appalled at how his journalists had behaved.
Archive, 7.30 Report, Kerry Stokes, Channel Seven Chairman:The simple facts of the matter were in regard to that particular item, is that those journalists didn’t go through our corporate legal structure. When you’re responsible for a company there are procedures in place — and ABC have the same procedures. They chose to go to somebody outside of our corporate law department for advice. And we were appalled to find that a story criticising the Premier would possibly go to air without us having been made aware of any defamation responsibilities that would flow.
Sally Neighbour: The journalists’ accounts of how the story was legally vetted have been independently verified by Four Corners.
Jeremy Thompson, Today Tonight Producer, 1996: The story had been looked at the Channel Seven lawyer, the lawyer they brought in from Corrs, a barrister, another barrister, and then the person who’s reputed to be Melbourne’s finest defamation lawyer, that’s Jeffrey Sher QC.
Sally Neighbour: By the end of last year, seven journalists from the Today Tonight office in Melbourne had been informed their services were no longer required.
Archive, 7.30 Report, Kerry Stokes, Channel Seven Chairman:That particular group of people and that program failed to perform. We gave them a very long time.
Warren Wilton, Executiver Producer, Today Tonight, Feb-May 1996: Well, I think it, they just wanted all the people who’d been involved in it off the premises.
Jill Singer, Today Tonight Host, 1995-1996: In the end I…I suppose they decided that they wanted to take a different direction with the program and we were not part of it.
Greg Hoy, Today Tonight Reporter, 1995-1996: For a politician to tame the media is a fairly attractive proposition. He’s been quite brazen about doing that down here. It’s had a..it’s worked profoundly in his favour. I think it’s very difficult now to report anything that is even constructively critical of this Premier. He has them intimidated out there and Channel Seven is certainly no exception.
Four Corners Archive, Kennett at 3AW: “Good morning team, are you all well? Who do we have here this morning? We have an intruder. Do we not have an intruder?”
“ABC. Is this for local ABC or that awful bloody program…? Who are you working for?”
“Yes. Which part of the ABC?
“Four Corners. This is this what’s-her-name’s program…
Sally Neighbour: In the culture created by Jeff Kennett there’s no place for those who carp and criticise.
Four Corners Archive, Kennett at 3AW: It’ll be the normal slime you’d expect from the ABC.
Sally Neighbour: Public scrutiny of the business of government is discouraged and criticism condemned.
Archive, Four Corners, Kennett at 3AW: It’s a typical one-sided ABC show. It’s all about the negatives.
You can read about this and much more on Kennett’s very cosy relationship with Murdoch’s Herald Sun in Stephen Mayne’s whistleblower document about his time as a Kennett staffer. It’s recommended reading for a glimpse into the truth behind the big media’s pretence of serving the public interest.
I urge former journalists with stories to tell the people about the truth behind big media’s lies to come forward. Those still working can’t afford to speak out.
It is imperative that there be accountability of the big media to the people through meaningful self-regulation and a mechanism to prevent even further domination of Australia’s media by Rupert Murdoch. Conroy’s proposals are weak, but at least they put the people, and the public interest, and ethical journalists, back in the picture. Having seen the ludicrous Murdoch hysteria about his weak proposals, he must wish he’d gone for something stronger!
Please, Senators on the committee and our elected representatives asked to vote for the reforms, have courage.
And please, members of the Press Gallery, start asking Abbott why he supports more media domination by Murdoch and can’t stand the thought of citizens being protected just a little bit from big media’s arrogant, unaccountable abuse of power, so powerfully illustrated in the present debate.
And Fairfax, get a bloody spine and stop being so afraid of Murdoch. You have nothing to fear from these reforms and everything to gain. If you speak up for them you might restore some pride and earn some trust and respect from many former loyal readers who’ve given up on you.
Read more: Pollies citizens need to pass media reforms