Thursday, May 28, 2009

SA Rann Government & Adelaide Reporters

Is this what it is like to be a journo in Adelaide?

I give recognition to Anonymous for this story.

• 7/11/2008 - Interview Mike Rann- An implacable hatred
Posted by Anonymous
An implacable hatred TOM RICHARDSON 7/11/2008 11:13:00 AM.

An implacable hatred You won’t read about this in the Advertiser.

A couple of weeks back, nightly TV news bulletins ran a line about Mike Rann storming out of a press conference after a heated disagreement with a reporter.

The Tiser’s Michael Owen, unhappy with Rann’s response to questions about Labor’s leadership crisis, had talked over the Premier, demanding he answer “in a professional way”. That clearly got under Rann’s skin; he retorted that he hoped “one day you will act in a professional way”, before walking off.

As he passed Owen, the reporter hit back: “The feeling’s mutual, Premier.” “I know,” said Rann. “You’re about as biased as it comes.” Rann later returned to the podium, perhaps realising that terminating a press conference in such a way is a bad look. For Owen, though, the trouble had just started.

Now, I’m not denying that Rann strongly felt he’d been wronged. He was livid and shaken about the exchange. It was certainly not treatment to which he is accustomed. So he took action to try and ensure it was not treatment he would have to deal with again. According the various sources (not Owen), the Premier called Michael Miller, Advertiser Newspapers’ managing director, who in turn called the paper’s editor, Melvin Mansell. Mansell summoned Owen and, after hearing his version, effectively cut him off at the knees. At all future media conferences, the Tiser’s political reporter must sit at the back of the room, and is banned from asking any questions. Not bad for a paper Rann recently dubbed “a Liberal newsletter”.

The fact that the spat was reported on every network that evening further inflamed the situation. Channel Ten played the entire exchange, rolling subtitles over Owen’s interjections.

Miller and Mansell determined that Owen must sign a grovelling letter of apology to Rann, something he was apparently none too keen to do. Of course, he had a choice – he could either sign the letter, or he could be fired. As a symbol of the Tiser’s willingness to back its reporters, it was not a good look. The fact is, Owen’s abrasive relationship with the government and his unwillingness to toe their line has yielded him plenty of good yarns over the past year or two, including a genuine revelation about the new Marjorie-Jackson Nelson Hospital.

The Tiser can’t expect to foster a news culture in its young newsroom if it bends to government pressure, openly cowing a senior reporter to keep the government on-side. As I say, Rann was genuinely vexed by the exchange, so it could be argued he took drastic action to address what he saw as a drastic problem. Well, that could be argued, if not for the fact that this isn’t the first time the government has campaigned to nobble a political journalist.

Kevin Naughton will certainly never forget the time he crossed the Rann Government. The former journalist, who now works as a spin doctor for the Liberal Opposition, was hosting afternoon drive-time on ABC radio in 2002. Government buildings in the CBD were in lock-down after the shooting of Margaret Tobin, amid a massive manhunt for her killer. The station was getting calls from frazzled public servants, wanting to know what was going on. As it happened, Naughton’s next guest was the Premier.

His producer informed Rann that he would be asked for an update on the situation, to which he replied that he wasn’t across it, and didn’t want any questions on the subject. This was relayed to Naughton, who insisted that the Premier should offer some reassurance. Finally, 30 seconds before the interview was due to take place, Naughton’s producer informed him that Rann had pulled the pin on the interview altogether. Incensed, the presenter relayed the entire exchange to his listeners.

This was back in the early days of the Rann administration, so there was no telling how the Premier’s office would respond. What they did was lean on the program director for an on-air apology (which they got), and then refuse to appear again with Naughton...ever.

The only other time Naughton spoke to the Premier was during the 2006 election campaign, when he was writing for the Sunday Mail. Even then, Rann had demanded the interview be conducted by someone else; the paper’s editor, Phil Gardner, informed him that he decided who wrote what at his paper, not the Premier’s office.

Then there was the almost two-year boycott of ABC891 morning duo Matthew Abraham and David Bevan.

Of course, not all the government’s efforts have been so successful. When I was at The Australian’s Adelaide bureau, Rann’s office met several times with senior executives in News Ltd to try and have the bureau’s then-political reporter, Michelle Wiese-Bockmann, removed from her post. Ministers and staffers alike took exception to her abrasive style, and believed she was out to get them with her reporting agenda.

But the principle of the media as a fourth estate suggests that it’s not up to politicians to dictate who reports the news, or how they do it. Whatever the rationale, if the newspaper had adhered to a government’s request to remove a particular reporter, for whatever reason, the credibility of that paper would never survive.

The Tiser has not removed Michael Owen, but it has effectively prevented him from doing his job. And it has sent out a message to all its reporters about whose side it is on when the chips are down.

Mansell and Miller answer to News Ltd CEO John Hartigan. Miller is a marketing man by profession, but Hartigan came up through the ranks as a reporter. Last year, he gave a laudable Andrew Olle Lecture about the state of modern journalism, its character and its soul. He lovingly quoted British journalist Nicholas Tomalin’s list of qualities every reporter should possess. Among them was “an implacable hatred of administrators, lawyers and politicians”.

I’d like to think Hartigan would disapprove of the treatment Owen is receiving, but who knows? We live in strange times. But if anyone in the media is comfortable with the principle of a State Government getting to decide who reports the news, and how, in the lead-up to an election, then, as they used to say during the Cold War: “Why don’t ya just go and live in Russia?”

Michael Owen now works for the Australian here in Adelaide.


Anonymous said...

What's the big deal here, everyone in the industry knows Owen is a professional Liberal stooge?
This action was long overdue.

adelcomp said...

Not my story. But, surely there is a pattern here, irrespective of Michael Owen.

Anonymous said...

Oh really? A stooge. I met Michael Owen and I gained the strong impression that he is fearless about pursuing a story. However in no way did he present as a stooge of anyone. Instead i feel it is time the media stopped grovelling to the current government. When I open up the paper in the morning I do not want to read copy that has already been Bottralised into baby-food mash.
I like the guys on 891 because they were prepared to stick to their guns. And never would i perceive them as liberal stooges either.
Journalist in Adelaide, please do your job and stop being Bottralistic clones.
I want to read the truth. I want honest analysis that is not taineted by Bottralism

Anonymous said...

LOL Michael Owen, a Liberal Stooge?
In your dreams June3 at 7.21pm
Michael would be on the floor LHAO if he thought anything he did would ever develop into stooge mentality.
Whereas Mick Rann does prefer to surround himself with sheep. Prefers wool in the ears too, so they can just follow the hand signals and the whip wielded by Ms Jillian B.
Keep pushing the boundaries Michael Owen, that's what you are paid to do. That way I will keep reading you.
I do not need a gagged, garroted grovelling press in SA, but sadly that is what I get most of the time.