In celebration of Chris Mitchell

If you are a columnist, the wacky editor in chief of The Australian is the gift that keeps on giving.  

4th of December 2010

Free speech lost in the not-so-fine print 

It’s a thankless business, defending truth, freedom of speech and a high six-figure pay package. But sometimes heroes have to make a stand.

Chris Mitchell gets it. A week back the crusading editor of The Australian newspaper realised the tippy-top best thing he could do was to sue Canberra academic Julie Posetti

Sometimes you have to crush someone like a bug. It’s the Australian way.

Ex-employees can be such a disappointment. We won’t mention the Melbourne Storm. Former Herald-Sun editor Bruce Guthrie ‘s biography shows he had completely the wrong idea about News Ltd. Ditto for former News general manager John Menadue, who told ABC Radio’s Deborah Cameron that while the ABC’s election coverage was merely incompetent, he thought The Australian  was pernicious.

It’s nothing to the horror Mitchell felt when Posetti reported on Twitter that veteran Australian  journalist Asa Wahlquist told a media conference that writing on the environment for Mitchell was excruciating, debilitating and absolute torture, and that in the lead-up to the election her editor was increasingly telling her what to write. How implausible.

The Oz  has run some wacky editorials in the past: “It’s absurd, however, that some media types use defamation laws in response to public scrutiny or ego-deflating debate about them. These laws treat reputation as an unquestionable right. They let the state stop the exchange of ideas. And they feed bloated lawyers.”

That was in 2002 before Chris arrived at the Oz  and set them right. Even he could get confused, once suggesting that big companies should not be allowed to sue for libel, and that “letting courts determine what is written in newspapers or said on television would swing the needle wildly away from free speech”.

But really, faced with Posetti’s Tweets to a few thousand people, what alternative did Our Chris have but to announce to his newspaper’s 200,000 or so readers that he was going to sue her? Excellent!

And it’s particularly clever sticks to press on, now that a tape has shown that Wahlquist, who left the Oz  two months ago, did say these things and more.

To make his case, Mitchell will need to show that Posetti should have known that you can’t believe anything a senior Australian  journalist says.

The Prince is happy to accept his lawyer’s assurances that Mitchell doesn’t talk to staff, that he hasn’t talked to Wahlquist for eight years, even that he never gives directions of any sort on any subject. It’s thought that he communicates to staff through the medium of dance. Nothing wrong with that!

Is News funding the case against Posetti? News declined to comment. But Mitchell’s letter of demand to Posetti was written by News Ltd’s regular libel lawyer, Robert Todd of Blake Dawson, who when not defending News writes policy briefs for the Right To Know organisation.

Saturday 06th of October 2007

Rupert’s ranch goes to pot

Running a global principality is a job for the constant gardener. You have to keep cross-pollinating to keep the plant healthy. That’s what Rupert Murdoch was doing back in May when he called 60 of his top news executives from around the world to California to discuss this new internet thingy.

News Ltd chief John Hartigan, The Australian‘s Chris Mitchell, Col Allan from the New York Post and the editor of The Times, Robert Thomson (now tipped to be the next editor of the Wall Street Journal), all joined the throng at Monterey Plaza Hotel.

But it was only top performers like Our Harto who scored an invite to the Murdoch ranch in nearby Carmel. The ranch is a favourite for the Murdochs – BSkyB chief James Murdoch spoke fondly to one interviewer of lazy afternoons with brother Lachlan drinking tequila and shooting Magnums at empty cans on the hillside. As you do.

It turns out online strategy wasn’t the only thing being pollinated. Some 10 weeks later, staff on the ranch were horrified to discover that some enterprising outsider had sneaked on to the ranch to do a little gardening. They called Carmel police, who found 3400 marijuana plants on a creek bank on the ranch.

The Prince doesn’t know much about the marijuana growing cycle, but it looks like Mr Private Enterprise, as we’ll call the intruder, must have been busy sowing his cash crop around the time News Corp’s finest were being shown around the ranch.

It’s a biggish spread, but how did the world’s top newshounds, like the Sun‘s Rebekah Brooks, manage to miss this story on the boss’s doorstep? They’ll be lashing themselves about the embarrassing slip. But let’s face it, they’re a sheltered lot at News . . . they probably wouldn’t even know what a pot plant looks like.

You can imagine News editors around the world pulling out the holiday snaps: Here’s the ranchhouse, here’s me with Our Rupe. Here’s some of the scenery from the tour – beautiful vista there, the sea in the distance, and across here don’t the mountains look terrific, stretching up behind that nice creek with the funny bloke doing something to those plants with the strange-looking leaves . . .

Saturday 17th of November 2007

Certain reptiles appear to have extremely thin skins

When it comes to public tantrums, there are no shortcuts. It’s down on the floor, kicking and screaming. Seven Network’s David Leckie just hears the word “Chaser” and he’s off. Sadly these days media rage is less common. Consider the mixed reactions to Media Watch.

The Australian Financial Review tries to take an interest, but in the three months to last Tuesday the paper mentioned the ABC program only three times. That was better than the Herald Sun, which wrote about MW just once. The Daily Telegraph had six mentions, The Sydney Morning Herald nine and that red rag The Age mustered 13 references.

And The Australian? By the Prince’s doddery count, in 53 publishing days Our Oz ran 46 stories. Along with a few routine mentions it had four editorials, a major feature, and an unending string of personal attacks on the show’s host, Monica Attard, and its producer Tim Palmer, with accusations of hypocrisy and ethical failures in their previous work.

The Australian‘s editor, Chris Mitchell, doesn’t like Media Watch much – nor the ABC. That’s a shame, because of the eight ABC board members, Janet Albrechtsen works for Mitchell as a columnist, Ron Brunton used to work for Mitchell as a columnist at the Courier Mail, and Keith Windschuttle arguably owes much of his status to the support he received from the Oz under Mitchell.

The Prince is all sympathy for Mitchell – it’s hard to get good help. Yet this past week the Oz coverage has been muted in the aftermath of MW’s revelations of reporter Caroline Overington’s colourful emails to Wentworth candidates. Mitchell told crikey.com.au that Rupert Murdoch didn’t know what he was talking about when he offered mild criticism of Overington – he didn’t think Murdoch “knew all the background”.

 Saturday 17th of February 2007

Rudd, the godfather

With the Rudd versus Howard jousting over the US alliance and Iraq capturing the headlines, the machinations of the Opposition Leader’s fascinating relationship with the Murdoch empire went barely noticed.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover just how close Kevin Rudd is to the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, and his wife Christine Jackman, who wrote a glowing interview with Rudd last weekend, noting that she and her family had known him since before he entered politics.

It was only last Tuesday that readers of The Australian learned in a gossip item that relations were a little closer. That was several hours before the Bulletin magazine went on sale and its report on the Rudd family finances also revealed that Rudd was the godfather of the Mitchells’ young son.

The Australian‘s timing was inspired. Rudd must have known it was only a matter of time before his relationship with Mitchell would be revealed, and it would have been child’s play for any student of Italian Renaissance politics to sneak out the news in The Australian ahead of the Bully.

Rudd needs to insulate himself from any conflict over his wife’s employment business – as Bill Hayden would put it, Blind Freddy and his investment trust could see that – and doubtless Mitchell will be making similar moves to ensure editorial independence.

It’s believed that Mitchell is considering placing The Australian newspaper into a blind trust, after consulting opposition editors, in the event his friend wins the election.

The Prince was left to contemplate the godfatherly chats and bedtime stories Rudd will be sharing with Mitchell Jnr. Perhaps he’ll touch on some of those subjects dearest to The Australian’s editorial writers . . . the US alliance, banning orders, water reform, conservation, those dastardly cultural elites, labour laws, troops in Iraq . . . And, yes, Virginia, there is global warming.

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