Excellent moral fervor: Chris Mitchell crushes me like a bug

“Then today we find in Pravda on the Yarra, the most one-dimensionally left-wing paper in our nation’s history, a pious rant about the influence of Rupert Murdoch.

The editor in chief of the Australian, Chris Mitchell, is a man who feels moral injustice keenly. And he’s not afraid to say so. Oh yes. “Absolute hypocrites,” he calls the staff of the Melbourne Age, though really that sounds a little . . . inadequate. You feel that with a little more time he could work himself up to something rather more grand. It’s never wise to skip elevenses.

Like this February 19 2014 editorial, which starts quite brightly:

Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood needs to act now to salvage the reputation of The Australian Financial Review before it is completely shredded by the deranged output of senior reporter Neil Chenoweth

Moral indignation is a delicate flower and I’m fortunate enough to know something of this hidden side of Mitchell. We had a little email correspondence about it a year ago, which really was all about how much money The Australian loses. This week my colleagues James Chessell and Anne Hyland quoted News Corp Australia execs as saying The Australian lost $36 million in the F2013 year. I had suggested something very similar last year, and Mitchell was able to tell me that I was completely mistaken.  

In the past I have written one or two lines about Mitchell that in hindsight seem to border on criticism. I think my favorite was to suggest that he never spoke to his journalists to tell them how to write a story–he preferred giving his instructions through the medium of dance. Or the News Corp editor’s conference he attended with Col Allan, Rebekah Brooks and Robert Thomson at Rupert Murdoch‘s California ranch without noticing that someone had planted marijuana on the property. Only about 3400 plants or so.

In June last year I had written rather critically about the decision to split News Corp in two just after News here bought Alan Kohler’s Business Spectator group:

It’s estimated that The Times, the New York Post and The Australian lose more than $200 million a year. … The Australian alone would lose more than $100 million over three years. That’s not sustainable.

That was absurd, Mitchell was quoted as saying in an article in his paper the following Monday. He linked this with the notion that I was critical of Alan Kohler.

“I had an exchange with Neil two years ago about the possibility of him jumping to the Oz,” [Mitchell] said. “I am not sure how that sits with his bitterness against Kohler for doing the same.”

It was very droll. Deliciously crazy. I had emailed Mitchell in 2008 to ask about his private broking arrangements, for a column item. At the time I was deeply into a secret project to write what became Murdoch’s Pirates and the idea that I wanted a job with News when I had about 14,000 News emails I was trying not to let them know I had, was just so out-of-the-box zany. Something way out of a parallel universe. If he didn’t see the utter impossibility that I would ask for a job at News Corp– well I didn’t know what to say. I had a warm feeling that whatever Chris was working up to–well maybe he should ease back a little. Later he would explain to me more closely what he meant:

And of course Neil my point about you in Monday’s story was most definitely NOT that you were driven by a failed attempt to get a job. It was that you were a hypocrite for criticising Kohler for accepting a job at The Oz when you had trailed your coat tails for a job yourself.

The moral indignation raises its head. His concern was for a colleague’s good name, not for himself, and surely that’s all to his credit. Of course the other way of looking at it was that Mitchell runs the Australian but he is rarely quoted in it. He’d made an exception in order to slag my professional reputation.

My personal view is that the Australian runs campaigns against individuals. It goes on and on against them. And on and on and on. To my mind they often seem to be targeting academics, and these academics more often than not seem to be women. The nature of their position is that they seem (to me at least) to have relatively few avenues to respond or defend themselves. It looks to me a little like shooting fish in a barrel. Almost like bullying.

Journalists like myself get very precious when they themselves are criticised. It doesn’t bring out our best. And I had certainly written the odd few stories about Mitchell, I hoped in a helpful way.

But if people who have the means to speak back to the Australian are silent, where does that leave those who have no speaking position? I have never spoken to Mitchell. The only contact has been through email, which made it simple to verify that Mitchell had no basis to his claim.

 It came down to strategy and tactics. When you email someone, there are different angles of attack. I bounced Mitchell:

Dear Mr Mitchell,
You were quoted on page 26 of The Australian today, in reference to me, as stating, “I had an exchange with Neil two years ago about the possibility of him jumping to the Oz. I am not sure how that sits with his bitterness against Kohler for doing the same.”
You’ll be aware that this is not true. In fact, it is a lie.
A newspaper of record would correct this in the next day’s publication.
Yours Faithfully,
Neil Chenoweth

The convenient part about bouncing someone is that when used judiciously it can produce a speedy response which can be completely devoid of any rational thought. In cricket terms it’s like bowling to a leg side trap. The choice of the bouncee is critical here because it doesn’t work for everyone. It only works with natural smiters. You wouldn’t bounce Bambi, or Mother Theresa, but I didn’t think either of them worked for News Corp Australia. Chris Mitchell replied quite quickly and I sensed he wasn’t pleased with me:

That is NOT my memory of what you asked me and I told my people including Brett Clegg at the time. You had called about something to do with share trading via Macquarie and I told you I used JB Were. You then raised the question would I ever consider hiring you. I remember it like yesterday, as did Clive when I reminded him. You are having trouble with truth sport. Not me. Chris

Chris Mitchell was candy. He personally had defamed me in his paper. He had done it, he now said quite clearly, because he believed (it turned out horribly mistakenly) he could “remember it like yesterday”, which was why he had never tried to check the actual emails, either when he made the comments in the paper, nor even when I called him on it. Once you looked at the actual emails his whole account became bizarre, no matter how many times he tried to say black was white. It was an elaborate fantasy that he had constructed and put forward as fact–and he had been kind enough to repeat it all for me, and explain why he didn’t need to check his facts or even to ask for a comment from me.

I wrote:

Memory can be an unreliable guide but I believe that I can assist you.

And I generally had a little fun. He offered me a “clarification” and the email exchange went back and forth a little. Where do you call a halt to such stuff? In the course of this he spoke a little about the Australian‘s fortunes. I had said the Australian would lose $100 million in three years because a News executive with direct access to the accounts had told me it was losing $35 million a year. Mitchell was quoted in the Australian article saying, “We would not have lost that in the 30 years since I joined the paper.” In fact he “highlighted The Australian‘s contribution to the overall profit of News Limited”. Mitchell offered a little more in his emails to me:

Your other comments about the paper are way off the mark … Before the GFC we were make [sic] a bit over $10 million a year, and we are not well treated by
the state satellites on recharges. As Clegg knows many of them charge us at full commercial rate plus 15 per cent. Any way I hope one day we can have a civil cup of tea and I will explain the true bottom line picture at the Oz, cheers Chris

This seemed a little gloomier than a comment the Australian‘s official spokesman emailed me in February 2011, well after the GFC, that suggestions of big losses were preposterous, because the paper was still “a positive contributor to News Ltd’s profitability”. This now seemed to put the matter at rest.

Let me just say that I was shocked —shocked– when that dreadful canard raised its ugly head again this week in the AFR.   

[S]everal informed sources tell the Financial Review that newspaper revenues have tanked. Losses at The Australian last financial year are understood to have hit $36 million. Yet following redundancies among reporting and sales staff, and a flatter management structure, News sources claim it started the new financial year hitting its EBITDA and revenue targets

Personally I could feel a Spasm coming on, and I’m not one who feels the crushing weight of moral indignation as strongly as some. I imagine Chris Mitchell manfully bore up, waved away the smelling salts, and turned his mind to the dreadful Pravda on the Yarra.

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