Behind The Headlines –with Rupert Murdoch’s Man About Town
By Chris Mitchell
Melbourne University Press 2016
ISBN: (Paperback) 9780522870701
RRP: $32.99 pb
Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald
For years from the mid-1990s onwards I wrote a regular column for Chris Mitchell when he ran Brisbane’s ‘Courier-Mail’ and then, from July 2002, when he was editor-in-chief of ‘The Australian’. This was the case until he retired from his extremely demanding editorial position in December 2015.
My experience is that Mitchell genuinely believes in freedom of speech and in the free play of ideas. Indeed, I can’t remember a single instance when he tried to prevent or influence me to stop or change my column, which ran every second Saturday in ‘The Weekend Australian’, even though what I wrote may have been diametrically opposed to his paper’s editorial stance or policy. This included my writing a series of articles defending protectionism, not just in relation to safeguarding our nation from pests introduced from overseas, but also for Australia keeping some forms of economic protection in the manner of tariffs.
But memory’s a funny thing. In his tell-all, highly revelatory and often hugely indiscrete memoir, ‘Making Headlines’, Mitchell writes: “Then opposition leader Tony Abbott mocked prime minister Gillard’s figure in front of fellow dinner guests, journalists Greg Sheridan and Ross Fitzgerald.” Mitchell continues: “Tony even stood up in the middle of dessert to ape Julia Gillard’s walk for us all in the middle of a discussion about Germaine Greer’s Q&A critique of the Gillard derriere.”
The truth is that, although my wife Lyndal Moor and I were definitely present at this dinner, I have no recall of this happening . But perhaps I’d briefly left the dinner table. However, Lyndal has no memory of this either.
However, I do clearly remember a late December dinner at Kirribilli House, hosted by Tony and Margie Abbott, at which the prime minister asked those present, including Anne and Gerard Henderson who had recently returned from England, for frank advice about what he needed to do to improve his government. Mitchell is correct in stating that, as is often the case, my response was direct and unambiguous. The long-term editor in chief puts it thus: “Ross answered first – with his customary blunt honesty: ‘Get rid of Peta Credlin.’”
I then explained that, as prime minister, Abbott needed a few friends who would speak to him freely, unmediated from Credlin’s interposition and interventions. As Mitchell and his wife Cathy, as well as Lyndal, agreed the lack of frank and fearless advice was a major factor in how and why a man who had been so in touch with the electorate in opposition could have become so out of touch so quickly.
However, my impression is that the Hendersons remember their comments that evening somewhat differently from those quoted in the book.
As well as canvassing his close contacts and dealings with past prime ministers, editors and media CEOs, there are a number of purely personal revelations in ‘Making Headlines’. For example, while I had known that Chris Mitchell had been brought up by his widowed mother who had left Germany in 1954, I had no idea that, in 1964, just after his eighth birthday, Chris had actually witnessed his father drown in the Hawkesbury river, north of Sydney.
Of all the prime ministers with whom he had dealings, Mitchell is particularly revealing about fellow Queenslander and erstwhile friend Kevin Rudd whom, to Mitchell’s later regret, he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to let ‘The Australian’ back for PM in the final election editorial of the 2007 campaign. Although Rudd is nominally still the godfather of his son Riley, Mitchell as with many others had a massive and terminal falling out with arguably Australia’s most narcissistic political leader.
Mitchell also writes in intimate detail about the flawed prime ministership of Tony Abbott who, to his credit, Mitchell still regards as a deeply decent person.
After he moved back to ‘The Australian’ in mid 2002 to become its editor-in-chief, Mitchell had decided to focus on indigenous affairs. This involved the first-rate investigative work of ex-‘Courier-Mail’ reporter Tony Koch, as well as that of leading Aboriginal spokesman and activist Noel Pearson and brilliant writer and researcher Nicolas Rothwell who uncovered and brought to unflinching public gaze endemic alcohol and other substance abuse and widespread sexual assaults on indigenous children, often at the hands of older Aborigines.
And the coverage was not universally focused on the negative. Our leading national newspaper also brought to public attention many stories of Aboriginal success, including reporting hundreds of illuminating tales of young indigenous people succeeding in school and tertiary education.
In doing so, ‘The Australian’ inquired: “Why should the brightest white kids get scholarships to private schools but not the brightest Aboriginal kids?” And while symbolic measures – including constitutional recognition of our first peoples – might have their place, the paper editorialised that it is surely far more important that black Australia wins a fairer economic deal from modern society. As Mitchell writes, “It was an unusual debate to be led by a capital city broadsheet on the centre right of politics.”
In a key chapter entitled “Rupert, My Boss”, Mitchell confides that on federal election night, 21 August 2010, he and his wife to be Cathy Rushton were invited to a party in Sydney’s trendy East Balmain. The guests were overwhelmingly Labor Left or Greens voters who regarded Abbott as a demon and who resented Cathy’s intimate relationship with a Murdoch editor.
On top of this, if they hadn’t known already, they became aware that Abbott and Chris were friends and that Cathy had liked him since their time at Sydney University. Things got worse when Cathy blurted out: “I don’t know why you all vote Green. Chris says the Greens want to introduce death taxes.” The frigid atmosphere became even chillier when Cathy expressed pleasure that, after having defeated John Howard in Bennelong in 2007, Maxine McKew looked likely to become, as proved to be the case, a one-term MP.
Moreover, almost all of the audience, largely comprised of what Mitchell describes as “a band of progressive, wealthy lawyers and media types”, were extremely hostile to Abbott and to anyone who worked for Rupert Murdoch who that night, while the party was in full swing, regularly rang Mitchell from New York to keep in touch with an election that the Opposition leader nearly won.
Unsurprisingly, things were never the same again with that group. This was despite the fact that a number of those present at the 2010 election night party had been friends with Cathy and her children for almost four decades.
This very much mirrors my own experience after I wrote a series of articles for ‘The Weekend Australian’ in which I expressed some considered support for Abbott and talked up his chances of being elected PM. As a result, a number of long-time friends, and academic colleagues, crossed me off their Christmas mailing list and have never been in contact with Lyndal or me again!
As Mitchell so aptly puts it in Chapter Six of his compelling and controversial expose of Australian politics and culture: “They are not a tolerant tribe, the modern Left. ”
Professor Fitzgerald, a reviewer with ‘The Weekend Australian’ and ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, most recently co-authored the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’. Professor Fitzgerald is currently researching and co-authoring, A Dozen Soviet Spies Down Under?
The Sydney Institute Review, June 2017.