Excerpt from the speech given by Nicholas Whitlam at Tattersall's Club, Sydney at the launch of his memoir “Still Standing”
As we were finalising the manuscript, my publisher Lothian, kind hosts to us all today, received three letters – one after the other- from lawyers for three individuals at the centre of those events. The letters from Anne Keating and her good friend Rob Dempsey, a former NRMA consultant, were relatively straightforward. Their lawyers – separate firms; no-one has ever suggested Keating and Dempsey acted in concert - said they believed I was writing what they called an autobiography and that if it contained material defamatory of their client…etc.
None of Keating, her lawyers, Dempsey or his separate lawyers had seen a copy of the manuscript. I do not know the detail of their concerns.
With SMH journalist Anne Lampe, however, her lawyers were explicit. They said that she was concerned that she might be portrayed as -
“[having behaved] unfairly and unprofessionally in that, in reporting matters relating to the affairs of the NRMA which may have reflected adversely on [me], she had used her position as a journalist to act as a mouthpiece for board members who were opposed to [me], and had conducted a “witch hunt” against [me].”
So now you know. She too had not seen the manuscript; nor had her lawyers.
… which brings me, for the moment, to the NRMA…
It is no secret that the three NRMA chapters have been re-drafted, and that this was at the request of my publisher, Lothian.
- You will not read here the truth about Anne Keating, Rob Dempsey or Eric Dodd – the triumvirate that effectively ran the NRMA Group from mid-1998 to February 2000.
- You will not read much about their relationship with prominent racing identity John Singleton.
- Nor do I set out much of the cowardly and agenda-driven journalism of Fairfax journalists Anne Lampe, Kate Askew and Pamela Williams and their links to Keating et al.
You'll get the picture, but it's for someone else to document the details of the activities of those who found common purpose in bringing me down.
Let me, though, for those of you who have forgotten, indulge myself by recalling some of the nastier and sillier aspects of the harassment and denigration that formed an essential part of the process. Perhaps you don't remember these items in CBD columns in the SMH :
- The one with the innuendo about the unidentified and attractive young Asian woman with whom I was seen lunching: it was my daughter;
- The sighting of me at the Hong Kong Sevens, allegedly wasting the NRMA's time and money, when I was not there at all: I was at home, in Sydney , in the bosom of my family.
I'm a fairly recognizable figure. I'm not that easy to mistake. I remember the times they actually did report a valid sighting -
- The time they had so much fun about my getting on the wrong bus: it was the right bus – I have never got on the wrong bus, not as a child, not as an adult; the bus was full; and, although it was raining, I didn't get wet, as the column authoritatively asserted; just like the other passengers who were put off the bus I sheltered in the bus shelter that has stood on the corner of Park and Elizabeth Streets since before even Lampe was born;
- And the time they spotted me with a device they identified as a Walkman – I was reported to be bopping along the street with it affixed to my ear; the device is usually identified as, and commonly known as, a mobile phone!
I could not lunch anywhere without the venue and my luncheon companion being identified - pejoratively, of course - and, if unidentified, particularly so.
Any public sighting of me was denigrated. Perhaps the most incredible was when the SMH reported my leaving the NRMA Head Office under heavy guard at lunch time; allegedly my guard looked like a “Taliban fighters”. This was on a day I spent every minute from before nine in the morning until after six in the evening at meetings in that building – never leaving it for a minute - in which many, many witnesses were present. A correction from Fairfax ? An apology? No chance.
Vilification and demonization were the last stages of the process. And with that vilification, for whatever reasons, ASIC chose to believe the lies that had been put about.
[Treasurer Costello showed an unhealthy interest in the case; whenever he was asked a Dorothy Dix about ASIC and its funding, he gratuitously introduced my case. Look it up in Hansard . Of course he's made no comment since my exoneration. His silence is as deafening as that of the Fairfax press.]
ASIC's $3 million taxpayer-funded adventure resulted in nothing but injury and insult to me and my family. There is no doubt that some will see it as money well spent.
And I don't document the incredibly dishonest work of former SMH journalist John Lyons, now a leader in tabloid television. He's the bloke who won a Walkley Award partly for the purported “interview” with me that he created for Channel Nine's Sundayprogram that ran nationwide on 11 March 2001.
There were five days between the actual interview and the “interview”, as broadcast by our leading commercial network.
In fact Lyons created a bogus interview . He –
- Substituted questions -
- Yes, in two instances, the answers Channel Nine broadcast to the questions they broadcast were in fact answers to questions that had not been asked in the interview at all; they were new questions, substitutions ;
- all Lyons and Channel Nine had were the answers to the questions Lyons actually asked - so they made do with them, the answers, not the questions ; and further, Lyons
- Swapped answers to a question that was actually asked –
Thus, the answer broadcast to question A was not the answer I gave to question A, but that I gave to question B!
No matter. It made a “good” story.
In their comments for awarding the Walkely to Lyons , the judges said:
“His interviews are structured and flow well with clear and precise questioning, all making for excellent television. His work, particularly on the NRMA, had significant and lasting impact.”
What Channel Nine broadcast was a concoction, a fabrication. Everyone associated with creating it should be ashamed of his or herself, and out of a job.
You may ask: what has become of the grub who created this garbage? This man who perverted his profession? (Apart from the Walkley, of course?) Well, Lyons has been promoted; he's apparently the sort of person Channel Nine wants in leadership positions: he's now in charge of Channel Nine's Sunday program! Dishonesty has its reward.
What is it that comes over otherwise sane journalists when their colleagues are caught out? Lampe used to telephone the NRMA press office and ask about “the enemy”; it was a reference to me. In not-so-private conversations she spread scurrilous rumours about me. In the columns of the Fairfax newspapers she and her mates repeated untruths - when they knew them to be untrue.
Yet with the benefit of Gzell's comprehensively faulty judgement, three brave Fairfax journalists joined the bandwagon during the second half of 2002.
Always keen to ingratiate himself with the sheilas, David Marr sullied a distinguished career by jumping to the defence of Lampe and Askew; first of the mark, in his Media Watch program on the ABC, the SMH journalist “on leave” repeated much of the coven's half truths or untruths, ran a couple of new lies, and found fault in the NRMA, under my leadership, attacking Lampe and her pals - rather than the other way around.
Next we heard from the obsequious, saturnine and otherwise forgettable Richard Guilliatt; in his bucket job for Fairfax 's Good Weekend he found –
- no room for any supportive comments at all from my wife; she now regrets giving him a sandwich in the intimacy of our kitchen;
- nor could Guilliatt find anything kind about me to quote from Ken Allen, Australian Consul-General in New York , to whom he spoke by telephone in New York for half an hour;
- ditto from the hour he spoke to Alex Sanchez.
Guilliatt re-ran all of Lampe and Askew's bile, and
- quoted and highlighted the most incendiary and defamatory comments to date – but the quotes were attributed to no-one!
Then, presumably caught short for a column at Christmas 2002, unctuous Richard Ackland had a go at me for attacking Justice Gzell. I hadn't said anything about Gzell. Nothing at all. He got the wrong man. Fairfax was prepared to correct his error. I wanted Ackland to admit his mistake. An honourable person would have don that, and apologized. He has stayed silent. No apology; no correction. That's par for the course. Apparently, like Lampe and Askew, he now refers to me as the Beetroot or Big Beetroot. I'm told it's a reference to my skin colour.
Lampe and Askew used to refer to me as Mount Fuji : it was a misuse of a nickname my wife had used affectionately at times; in Judy's case it was a reference to my white hair. Lampe and Askew, presumably in an attempt to imply some instability on my part, referred to regular explosions from “ Mount Fuji ”. With Mount Fuji dormant for the last three centuries, their plagiarism of Judy's appellation just showed their ignorance.
So they don't like me and they don't like how I look. Imagine the outcry from their freemasonry if I made comment about these journalists' personal appearance or lifestyle: their complexions, their dress sense, their sexual preferences, their hair – lack of it, regrowth, whatever. All this would be out of bounds. It's abundantly clear that what's good for the gander is not good these gooses.
This case study in bandwagon journalism is for someone else to write up. I should be happy to provide my files to someone who will abide by the AJA's code of ethics. Or even to a Fairfax journalist who is prepared to subscribe to the SMH's own code; among other things, it espouses:
“…no wish to mislead; no interest to gratify by unsparing abuse…”
I kid you not.
In a litany of platitudes, the SMH code of ethics addresses -
- Complaints and Corrections;
And much else.
Does anyone seriously believe that, in recent years, the SMH has tried to be honest and impartial, fair and so on? Have you ever tried to get a correction or an apology?
It's all hokum. Bunk.
Because, the truth is – as Fairfax says about itself – Fairfax is notable for the quality of its journalism.
It has on its books some of Australia 's best journalists and, sadly, some of the worst. Judging by the column inches it assigned to the story, you'd think Fairfax might have assigned their A team to the NRMA saga. Instead we got has-beens and laggards. It wasn't just the team's sloth which showed them up. No; it was the agenda-driven stuff: where the journalist becomes a “player”.
And the truth is: no fair-minded observer could conclude that Lampe, Askew and Williams were other than players throughout my time at the NRMA.
Their efforts were the very cowardly or agenda-driven journalism Fairfax spokesman Bruce Wolpe so rightly condemns.
The inmates ran the asylum.
And their editors were just as stupid. The SMH and the AFR both took an ideological position against any form of demutualization. But Fairfax could never mount an argument; they never ran a piece from the several academics who I know could make a credible case. Fairfax simply played the man.
And made fools of themselves in some breathtakingly ignorant editorials: my favourite was the one which railed against the impending “corporatization” of the NRMA! (Now, I've always thought that if you are given to expressing an opinion you should have some knowledge or understanding of your subject. I'm sure most everyone in this room – when they think about it - knows that the act of corporatization must involve turning something that is not a company into a company. In fact it's pretty simple in concept; you see it when a sole trader, a partnership, or more likely a statutory entity is turned into a company. It's been a hallmark of public policy for the best part of twenty years.)
So the Herald railed against the impending corporatization of the NRMA.
The NRMA had been a company since 1925! It still is a company. Unchanged. A mutual company limited by guarantee. As has become too often the case, Fairfax was out of its depth: ignorant, rabid, populist, pretentious and wrong.
I well remember running in to Fred Hilmer one day and complaining about Lampe and Askew. (Williams had yet to enter the scene; she only did so after her husband was fired as editor of the SMH). Hilmer said I should speak to Alan Revell, who had just been appointed Editor of the SMH. Without hesitation, and surely with every right, I said: “No. You speak to him; you're the chief executive!” [I think I've deleted an expletive.]
My wife fronted Hilmer a few months later, and he told her: “It sells newspapers.”
Not that Hilmer has been any good at selling newspapers.
I'm sure he tidied up some of the management practices at Fairfax . Any competent manager could have done that. All great newspaper groups – Le Monde, The Guardian, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Neue Zeue Zeitung , there is in fact a long list of great papers elsewhere in the world – all of them promote quality journalism. They supervise the quality, insist upon accuracy and decency; their editors and CEOs fall on their swords if they fail in their supervision, and they fire those who let the side down.
Everyone interested in newspapers recalls the incredible comment by Hilmer when he was appointed CEO of Fairfax; you know: the one about his not reading newspapers . To the considerable disadvantage of Fairfax shareholders, Hilmer's own preferences in this regard have been picked up by more and more former and potential readers – as the circulation of Fairfax 's newspapers constipates or declines.
Hilmer is going: the sooner the better.
Let's hope that whoever is appointed CEO of Fairfax has an interest in quality journalism and common decency. Let's hope that whoever is appointed to succeed Hilmer administers the journalistic standards that Fairfax says it espouses, and abandons the cowardly or agenda-driven journalism which has too often characterized its efforts in recent years.
© Nicholas Whitlam