Australian politics, society & culture

The United States of Chris Mitchell

The Power of Rupert Murdoch and the Australian’s Editor-in-Chief

Chris Mitchell and Christine Jackman at the launch of Jackman's 'Inside Kevin 07', Walsh Bay, June 2008. Seated behind them (left to right) are the Australian's Dennis Shanahan, Paul Whittaker, Glenn Milne, and Nick Cater. © Alan Pryke/Newspix

Sally Neighbour

Long read8500 words
 

Arrogant bastard. Cowboy. Total ratbag. Best editor I’ve ever worked for. An insecure genius. A very complex person.

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Talk to any journalist, commentator, politician or public figure in Australia, and it seems they all have a view of Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of the Australian newspaper, now widely regarded as the most influential news outlet in the country – one that polarises readers and infuriates targets with its relentless crusading journalism.

Visionary. Zealot. Grenade thrower. The last of the great newspaper men. Arch Machiavellian brute – this from Mitchell himself, delivered tongue-in-cheek, and for the purpose of denying it.

If there is one thing his detractors and admirers largely agree on, though, it is that Mitchell has styled himself as the most powerful media executive in the land and transformed Rupert Murdoch’s flagship into a journal whose political impact far outweighs its modest circulation of 130,000 on a weekday.

“The biggest story in politics at the moment is the relationship between News Limited and the government,” a veteran Canberra-watcher says. According to a News Limited insider, “Mitchell has inculcated a view [at the newspaper] that they are there not only to critique and oversee the government, [but also that] it is their role to dictate policy shifts, that they are the true Opposition.” An angry cabinet minister fumed recently, “The Oz doesn’t report the policy issues. It just reports that big business is shitting on the government, and Abbott is shitting on the government, it reports politics in any way that shits on the government, day after day.” Whether it’s climate change, asylum seekers, industrial relations, the schools building program or the National Broadband Network: “It’s just ‘let’s shit on the government’, every single fucking day.”

Chris Mitchell once told a colleague, “You have to understand – this is a dictatorship and I am the dictator.”

So who is the strongman at the helm of Australia’s national broadsheet? And have he and his paper overreached the proper role of the fourth estate in holding governments to account?

*

It’s Tuesday morning and a brisk news day at 2 Holt Street, Surry Hills. Senior editorial staff have assembled for the morning news conference where section editors run through the story list for the next day’s ‘book’, as the daily paper is known in journalese. “Dead Digger”, the twenty-seventh Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan; Julia Gillard visiting Indigenous communities in Alice Springs; the Reserve Bank board meeting on interest rates; Treasurer Wayne Swan to address the National Press Club on the carbon tax. There’s a “cow package”, on the gruesome slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia. An Australian kelpie has won the San Diego dog surfing competition, and a butcher’s son from Melbourne is being called the new Frank Sinatra.

Deputy Editor Michelle Gunn smiles contentedly: “We’ve got a small but perfectly formed book.”

As he has done each day for the past nine years, Chris Mitchell presides over the gathering, a conspicuous figure with his overgrown buzz cut and bulky frame in trademark shirt, tie and knitted jumper, exuding stern authority. A reporter who once mistakenly referred to someone else as editor-in-chief found Mitchell’s business card on her desk the next day with a note: “There is only one editor-in-chief in this building and it is me.”

“There is no doubt on the Australian who runs the place,” says Gunn. “Chris is a very strong editor-in-chief and a very strong leader. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

According to Mitchell, it simply comes down to longevity. “I’ve been a working journo since I was 17. I’ve never had a day when I wasn’t a working journo. I think one reason I’m able to work such long hours, decade in and decade out, is that I started so young. I’ve spent 20 years as an editor, which gives me a fairly big advantage over my rivals.”

It’s 11 am and Mitchell has read eight morning newspapers and listened to three hours of ABC Radio news and current affairs. (Despite the Australian’s regular lambasting of the national broadcaster, he admits to being a fan.) He is across the minutiae of every story. One minute he’s quoting details from the 1993 Oslo peace accords or the world economic crash of 1981; the next, he’s comparing today’s story on a champion surfer’s drug problem with that of ‘Occy’ (Mark Occhilupo) when he won the surfing World Title in 1999, or recalling the tears shed by Bob Hawke on the plight of Indigenous Australians. “Now here we are 21 years later and nothing much has happened,” Mitchell remarks. He refers to “Julia”, “Tony” and “Kevin”; he seems to be on first-name terms with everyone. He assigns reporters, briefs the leader-writers, even frames the question the Canberra bureau will ask Wayne Swan.

“It is Chris’s newspaper,” agrees editor Clive Mathieson, who took the role in April when Paul Whittaker moved to the Daily Telegraph. “Chris quite clearly sets the direction of the paper. There’s very little ambiguity in what he expects. A suggestion from Chris is not really a suggestion, a suggestion from Chris is really an instruction.”

The view that it’s “Chris’s paper” is echoed by John Hartigan, chief executive of News Limited. “With good editors, the newspaper is almost a mirror on their own personality. It reflects their own values. You can form a very strong picture of them simply by reading the newspaper.” Talk to Mitchell’s colleagues and it’s clear he inspires an intense tribal loyalty among many of them.

“It’s a remarkable newsroom to work in under him because there’s so much energy about it,” says Gunn. “It’s having stories that the nation talks about – that’s how you measure your success, the number of stories you break and the influence those stories have. And that’s the mark of his success. It’s intoxicating.”

His critics enjoy saying the Australian is like a cult and Mitchell surrounds himself with yes-men. It’s truer to say he surrounds himself with talented, dedicated journalists who either share or are willing to reflect his vision for the paper and work their guts out for it, while the others leave, are ignored, frozen out or languish on the back pages.

“If he likes you there’s no nicer place to be than at the Australian,” says one. “If he doesn’t like you it can be a very lonely place.”

*

A very complex person. That much is for sure. One colleague calls him “the United States of Mitchell”, alluding to the American sitcom about a lovable, psychotic housewife with multiple personalities and a dysfunctional family. His looks – the alarming hair, the physical bulk – are deceiving. “You look at him and think he’s a thug, but he’s not. He’s actually super well-read and he’s eloquent,” says a former staffer. A good friend, the author and columnist Ross Fitzgerald, says Mitchell “is deeply interested in the interplay of ideas and the life of the mind”.

He likes opera, Russian novels and re-runs of A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve. He says his favourite books as a teenager were The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. He listens to Mozart, the Cowboy Junkies, The Clash and hip-hop. He surfs at Manly on weekends. He’s a revhead, whose car collection has included a Mercedes V8 and a 1961 E-type Roadster. Former Murdoch editor Bruce Guthrie recalls Mitchell in a souped-up BMW weaving in and out of traffic “at phenomenal speed” on his way to Surry Hills. “He loves speed. I think he loves a bit of danger. He lives life at a kind of high throttle.”

Like his paper, Mitchell is a deeply polarising individual, loved and hated in about equal measure. He is funny, warm, charming and disarmingly candid. He is rude, overbearing, vindictive and is said to often reduce staff to tears. Some reporters complain of constant interference: “An editor will come and say ‘Chris wants this’ and it’s understood that, no matter how crazy or unreasonable it is, it has to be done,” says one. Others, such as investigative reporter Hedley Thomas (winner of five Walkley Awards), insist they’ve never been told what to write, and bristle at the suggestion. “It is really fucking offensive, this notion that we are robots and automatons of Chris, and we just salute and say ‘OK, that’s the target, let’s go and kill it.’ That is an outrageous suggestion,” says Thomas, an admirer of Mitchell’s fearless aggression.

“Chris is definitely a very strong, campaigning, activist editor and that is one of his great strengths. He is a natural contrarian, an antagonist [and] a stirrer. And he encourages his journalists to be sceptical, to question the status quo and the orthodoxy to make sure they’re not being spun.”

Mitchell relishes a fight. Journalist Elisabeth Wynhausen, who was sacked by him in 2009, wrote in her book The Short Goodbye: “He was a tireless strategist whose best and worst instincts were filtered through the same tendency to turn almost any subject into an excuse for an argument with a bunch of imagined enemies. He treated the paper like the spoils of war, routinely using its pages to campaign against people who had ever dared to take him on.”

Yet even his harshest critics refer to his “genius”.

“The reason Mitchell can set so much of the tone of the political debate is because his instincts as a journalist over the past ten years have been so strong on issues that matter,” says David Marr, Fairfax writer, author and former host of Media Watch, which has sparred with the Australian for years. “And when he gets his teeth stuck into something, he doesn’t let go. That’s a remarkable talent.”

Mitchell’s hallmark, says Marr, is that: “Everything about the Oz is so personal; the targets are personal, the passions are personal, sometimes viciously personal. Part of the genius of the operation is to personalise everything so you have targets.”

*

To understand Chris Mitchell and his newspaper, there are two things you need to know.

First, he’s a Queenslander. Perhaps more than anything, this informs his – and the paper’s – distinctive take on Australian life. While some discern a chip on the shoulder, others divine a profound connect with ‘real’, mainstream Australian values – the values at “the heart of the nation”, as the Australian’s masthead sloganeers, which is code for everywhere except the latte-sipping, left-leaning, Fairfax-reading, ABC-watching, tree-hugging inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

“A lot of my views of life are coloured by not being from Sydney or Melbourne. I think the paper tries hard not to be a latte paper for Sydney or Melbourne,” Mitchell says. The paper’s circulation is highest in Queensland, with daily sales there in the high 30,000s.

His Queensland roots also explain Mitchell’s friendship with Kevin Rudd, described by a mutual acquaintance as “one of the most diabolically fascinating relationships in politics”, which, in turn, illuminates the Australian’s fraught relationship with the Gillard government. More on that later.

The second thing you need to know about Mitchell is his family history. His mother was a German bank worker from Hamburg; her father was conscripted into Hitler’s army, and the family fled Europe after the war. She ended up in the Bonegilla migrant camp, near Albury Wodonga, where she met Mitchell’s father, a trainee Catholic priest who abandoned his vocation when they fell in love. Bob Mitchell drowned during a family holiday at Wisemans Ferry four days before Christmas 1964, a tragedy witnessed by eight-year-old Chris and his little sister. After that they moved to Brisbane to live with an aunt.

“He was quite devastated when his father died,” says a childhood friend, John Buckby. “Maybe there’s still a little gap in him because of that. You never really get it fulfilled.”

Not one to readily share personal reminiscences, Mitchell has little to say about this time, beyond: “Mum was a foreigner so I think I took on the role of the man of the house at a pretty early age.” It’s left to those around him to make sense of it.

Fitzgerald offers this: “One key to Chris’s attitude to the world politically and economically is that his mum, Christa, left Bremen in 1954, acutely aware of the totalitarian nature of communist regimes, and his mother is a very important person in his life.” At the risk of over-simplifying, a former workmate suggests his mother’s experience fed “a political hard-right ‘escaping the Iron Curtain’-type worldview that’s deeply embedded in his psyche”.

Fitzgerald believes that “another key is the absent father”, suggesting this imbued in the young Mitchell “the desire to prove himself”.

After attending a local Catholic primary, Mitchell was sent to the Marist Brothers at Ashgrove in Brisbane and then the Franciscan friars of Padua College. Buckby recalls his friend being sick with anxiety before exams. “He used to be so dedicated with what he was doing at school, he’d be ill … just with nerves [because] he wanted to do the right thing for his family and get the right results to go forward and achieve.” Mitchell’s intense focus made him an excellent archer, while Buckby preferred rugby. “While I was packing down in the front row, he was shooting arrows into targets.” At the same time, Mitchell was assuming the role of breadwinner. He painted houses, mowed lawns, washed cars and, at 14, got a job chopping chickens at KFC.

He almost ended up on a different career path after having his front teeth knocked out when he jumped in to defend his mate Buckby in a schoolyard fight; the dentist who fixed his teeth persuaded him to apply for a scholarship to dental school, which he got. It was his mum who suggested journalism instead.

So, at 17, Mitchell joined the now-defunct afternoon tabloid the Brisbane Telegraph as a cadet. He was there six years before moving to the Townsville Bulletin, where he worked as night editor and completed a BA at James Cook University. He would later begin a master’s degree, majoring in history, which he didn’t complete.

“He is just a voracious consumer of information, he’s like a sponge, he just soaks it up,” says journalist Deborah Cassrels, who was Mitchell’s partner for 20 years until 2004, and with whom he has two children. “And he seems to have a pretty photographic memory. I think that’s how he does it, really. He arms himself with information, which is the most valuable asset you can have in that job. The information he’s able to store and retain is formidable. That obsessiveness to every day be on top of the information and to follow up the slightest little thing. It’s like an armour.”

Someone who’s known him for decades says of Mitchell: “He likes to be in control. That’s probably what drives him, I think, that need to be in control.”

A conspicuous feature of Mitchell’s career is that he has worked in an editing role for all but the first six of his 38 years as a journalist. Overwhelmingly, his role and experience have been not in reporting but in shaping and fashioning – controlling – the news. One staffer recalls him saying, “News is whatever the editor says it is.” Even as a junior sub he was very hands-on. “You would live in terror he would get hold of your copy because things would happen to it,” the same reporter recounts. The term “bastardisation of copy” has also been used.

By the time he started at the Australian in 1984, after stints at the Daily Telegraph and the Australian Financial Review, Mitchell was a master of newspaper production. A colleague from those days, Laura Tingle, says: “It’s a very production-driven newspaper, the Oz. From the first days when Rupert would ship it out on planes, production came first, the nuances of writing second. So anyone in production always had a good hold on the place.” Mitchell’s hold tightened when, at the age of 35, he was promoted to the post of editor under editor-in-chief Paul Kelly in 1992.

But it was on his return to Queensland in the mid ’90s that Mitchell made his mark. Murdoch’s son and heir apparent Lachlan had been dispatched to Brisbane as general manager of Queensland Newspapers to learn the newspaper trade, and needed an energetic new editor to drag the Courier Mail out of the doldrums.

Reporter Tony Koch, another five-time Walkley winner, was there when Mitchell got the job. “We had had the Fitzgerald Inquiry [into police corruption] and Fitzgerald had got stuck into the media including the Courier Mail [because] the media hadn’t been doing their watchdog role, and this was the reason the government had been allowed to slip into corrupt practices, because the media was insipid. Anyway, Mitchell took that to heart,” Koch recalls.

Mitchell threw resources at investigative journalism and hard-hitting reporting of Indigenous affairs. “He certainly operated without fear or favour, he wasn’t physically or intellectually intimidated by anybody,” says Koch. “He really turned the spotlight on the violence and grog and lack of medical care. His stuff on Indigenous issues was really pioneering.” Hedley Thomas recalls Mitchell running hard on a story about a sex-abuse scandal at Brisbane Grammar, where his son was a student. “Chris must have been under enormous pressure at the time to back off on the story, to soft-pedal it and accept the school’s line.” Instead, says Thomas, “the story got bigger and bigger. He just didn’t back off.”

Mitchell made a point of hiring women, though some thought he personified the paper’s “boofy, cowboy, blokey culture”. He was high-handed and cavalier. A senior writer who questioned what he was doing recalls Mitchell didn’t talk to him for three years afterwards.

Usually his news sense was spot on but he inclined toward wild hunches. Koch remembers a colleague complaining, “I got another shit sandwich from Mitchell. I just wish he’d give me one with some bread on it.” The most infamous ‘shit sandwich’ was the Courier Mail’s 1996 ‘exclusive’ about the historian Manning Clark. A journalist who was there recounts how the story came about.

“[An editor] came to me one day and said Chris would like me to do a piece on Manning Clark, and he told me why and I was horrified … He told me there was evidence that Manning Clark had close communist connections and had been awarded a Lenin medal or something.” The journalist regarded it as nonsense and refused to do it but the eight-page special duly appeared under someone else’s by-line, reporting that Clark had been awarded “the Soviet Union’s highest honour, the Order of Lenin”, making him “a member of the Communist world’s elite” and a presumed “agent of influence”. The first edition called him a spy.

The story was wrong, as revealed by David Marr in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Press Council, which found its publication unjustified. “It was the silliest scoop of the last 50 years,” says Marr. “It was a story so stupid, so baseless, so exaggerated, so bizarre, that only a man of Mitchell’s energy and genius could have survived it.”

Mitchell’s survival and ever upward trajectory at News Limited is owed in no small part to the patronage and support of his proprietor.

“Rupert loves him,” says a former Murdoch confidant, who names Mitchell and Melbourne Herald Sun boss Peter Blunden as the two editors the big man most values in Australia. Hartigan says Murdoch regards the Australian as one of the best newspapers in the world and Mitchell as “one of the most outstanding contemporary editors”. Lachlan Murdoch calls him “brilliant”.

Former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie, who was famously sacked by Murdoch in 2008 and who successfully sued for unfair dismissal, calls Mitchell “a Murdoch man through and through”. As for what makes a Murdoch man, Murdoch himself told Esquire magazine in 2008: “There may be more brilliant people wandering outside sometimes, [but] you have to favor the people that are prepared and ready to give themselves to you.” Guthrie, in his book Man Bites Murdoch, writes:

 

Within the News empire, talent is one thing but absolute dedication to Murdoch’s worldview and various causes is another. And it’s far more important than talent … [Murdoch] cares little about university degrees, excuses workplace indiscretions and will even forgive egregious journalistic errors. Deep down he knows that the culprits will be even more indebted to him: they are his forever.

 

Guthrie likens News to the mafia. “It’s a family, it’s Mafioso, you’re a made guy. You’ve proven yourself by giving yourself to Rupert and signing on for the whole deal, and then you’re made, you’re part of the family.”

Mitchell and Murdoch share a view of themselves as outsiders whose job it is to poke the establishment in the eye. Guthrie says Mitchell “second guesses Rupert Murdoch more than anyone I know in that organisation. You could see him, on almost anything, running through his mind ‘what would Rupert think?’ That’s why he’s survived so long. And clearly he’s got Rupert’s backing, which trumps everything. Everything.”

*

Chris Mitchell learned early on in Queensland that with the role of editor comes power and political sway. A reporter whose desk was near his office at the Courier recalls a stream of politicians traipsing in and out. “He’s an editor who likes to be involved and mix it with the power players,” says Tony Koch. One parliamentarian who knows him calls Mitchell “a frustrated politician”. Another close associate says it’s not about party politics for Mitchell: “It’s about power.”

Among the politicians who beat a path to his door at the Courier was an aspiring soon-to-be Labor MP, Kevin Rudd. At the time he was known around the traps as ‘Doctor Death’ for his cutbacks to the public service while running the cabinet office under Premier Wayne Goss. In 1996 Rudd had stood for the Queensland seat of Griffith, but lost. He was keen to boost his profile and courted media contacts assiduously. Mitchell got him writing for the Courier.

The two men had a lot in common. Both Queenslanders and sons of Catholics, they had attended the same Marist Brothers school, and both had lost their fathers at an early age, Rudd senior having perished after a car accident when Kevin was 11 years old. Mitchell has said this was one thing that caused them to bond. They were both highly intelligent, well-read, egotistical, driven, controlling, opinionated and bloody-minded. Some say narcissistic. “They both thought they were the smartest people in the world,” a mutual acquaintance says. They shared family lunches and dinners and visits to Rudd’s beach house near Noosa. They cultivated each other in a friendship that was both personal and deeply political.

“Kevin’s a very controlling character,” says Mitchell. “I’m aware throughout my relationship with him there have been times when I’ve used him and there’ve been times he’s used me, but that’s the nature of the relationship between media and politics.”

By the time Mitchell took over as editor-in-chief at the Australian in 2002, Rudd’s star was also ascendant. He had won Griffith on his second tilt four years before and been appointed foreign affairs spokesman in Kim Beazley’s shadow cabinet. John Howard was in his seventh year as prime minister.

On ideology and economics, the Howard government and News Limited were broadly aligned. The Australian’s politics are avowedly Centre-Right: pro markets, mining, industry and business; anti big government, high taxation, central planning and regulation. Howard noted in 2006 that the paper had been “broadly supportive, generously so” of his economic and industrial relations reforms. The Australian had endorsed Howard at three consecutive elections in 1998, 2001 and 2004. This is not to say his government always got an easy run. Howard and his ministers complained bitterly, including to Rupert Murdoch, about the Australian’s coverage of a range of stories including the Australian Wheat Board’s kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, which the paper pursued vigorously in tandem with Rudd.

Mitchell’s friendship with Rudd was cemented in 2006, when Mitchell married his second wife, Queensland journalist Christine Jackman. Jackman was also close to Rudd, whom she had known as a reporter at the Courier Mail and later in the Canberra press gallery. Kevin and Thérèse Rein were guests at the couple’s wedding and Rudd accepted Jackman’s invitation to be godfather to the first of their two sons.

Later that year the Australian’s polling, which showed Rudd and Julia Gillard were the most popular team for Labor, helped Rudd topple Kim Beazley and take over as leader of the Opposition. The national broadsheet threw its editorial weight behind the aspiring future PM.

“The Oz was incredibly important to Rudd,” says a former close colleague. “It was the single most important paper in building Kevin Rudd’s perceived influence.” Did that make Mitchell a king-maker? “He would have felt like that in 2006, and rightly so.”

Everyone has a theory about why Mitchell and Rudd fell out. Each thought he could do the other’s job. Both thought they could run the country better. Rudd refused to give News Limited privileged access so Mitchell was mad. Mitchell refused to go easy on the government so Rudd was mad. All of these are true. What’s most true is that the same qualities that had drawn them together soon had them locked in a death-roll.

The first cracks in the relationship appeared in the lead-up to the 2007 election, when the Australian slammed Labor’s plans to dismantle the Howard government’s WorkChoices IR reforms, the paper’s political supremo, Paul Kelly, opining: “With this policy, Rudd forfeits any chance of being a serious rival to John Howard on economic policy.”

Despite this, Mitchell persuaded Murdoch to endorse Rudd for PM in 2007. “He [Murdoch] was in my office and I spoke to him about it [and] said it was time for a change of government. It seemed to me the man who had the agenda for the next three years was Kevin Rudd.” With the Australian’s endorsement, in November 2007 Rudd sailed into power. But if he expected an easy ride, he would be sorely disappointed.

As Mitchell tells it: “I think he was stung that I didn’t fall in behind him because we were mates. But I said to him at the beginning, I’m just going to cover it how I see it. I have to.”

Mitchell’s supporters back the assertion that he won’t let a friendship get in the way of a story. One cites the example of former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who was deservedly castigated by the Australian over the botched terrorism investigation of Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef in 2007. “Keelty thought they were mates, but he [Mitchell] absolutely fucked him. There’s nobody he wouldn’t do it to. That’s a measure of his integrity.” He means it as a compliment.

The honeymoon between Rudd and Mitchell ended seven months into Rudd’s prime ministership with a front-page exposé in the Australian headlined ‘Captain Chaos: Inside Rudd’s Office’.

“It was the first counterweight to everyone being in love with Kevin,” says Mitchell. “And Kevin took it very hard because he was pretty keen that people not twig to this narrative that he was a pretty gruelling task master.” A source close to the story says Rudd did his best to stop it. “Rudd put huge pressure on Chris with phone calls day and night. Chris didn’t buckle. He was rock solid.” Later Rudd snubbed Mitchell at a function, while the PM’s staff took to referring to “the fucking pricks at the Oz”. Mitchell says Rudd started “a barrage of complaints to the company”.

This was like a red rag to Mitchell. “If we’re under siege, I’ll take a more strident line. My nature is that I’ll just dig in at those times.” He adds: “Prime ministers are wily bastards. They’ll do anything they can to shut down newspaper editors.”

As the global financial crisis deepened, the Australian kept up a scathing critique of the government’s efforts. Rudd’s interventionism was inimical to News Limited’s ‘markets rule’ philosophy, and the paper ran hard on the government’s unlimited guarantee of bank deposits and its $42 billion economic stimulus package, which spawned the Pink Batts home-insulation fiasco and the troubled schools building program. Rudd complained bitterly to others in the press gallery, “Why are they doing this to me? These are people I know – why would they do this to me?”

In a sign of how hard Rudd tried to win over News Limited, in August 2008 and again in March 2009 the PM took his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner to Holt Street to brief Mitchell and his colleagues on the government’s program.

“He was basically saying, I’m really doing some brilliant stuff here and you should be acknowledging it,” says one of those present, who recalls Rudd’s ministers seeming “a bit bemused and puzzled” about why they were there. Later, over lunch at Kirribilli House, Rudd chewed out the Australian’s editor Paul Whittaker over the paper’s criticism of his bank guarantee, telling him, “your story was wrong – W-R-O-N-G – and you should have bloody well apologised,” according to a witness.

In the midst all of this came the Australian’s controversial scoop on a private phone call between Rudd and US President George Bush. It took place one evening in October 2008. Rudd had been at a Business Council of Australia dinner in Sydney. Afterwards, Mitchell and the editor of the Weekend Australian, Nick Cater, called in for drinks at Kirribilli House. Mitchell says it was a “kiss and make up night” to try to smooth over the rift.

Cater had gone home and Mitchell was there alone with Rudd and one of his staff when Bush rang to discuss the GFC. Rudd took the call in his study with the phone on loudspeaker, while Mitchell waited in the room next door, apparently within earshot. Two weeks later the Australian reported that Rudd had been “stunned” when Bush asked him, “What’s the G-20?” (referring to the group of 20 industrialised and emerging economies). The story of Bush’s supposed gaffe provoked a political and diplomatic storm. Mitchell says to this day that Rudd “had no issues with the story”. However, Rudd has insisted repeatedly that Bush “made no such remarks”. The day after the phone call Bush was due to attend a G-20 ministerial meeting at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. “He knew perfectly well what the G-20 was,” says a senior Australian government source.

The crises besetting the Rudd government coincided with a personal crisis for Mitchell, the bitter break-up of his two-year marriage to Christine Jackman. By some accounts the marriage split exacerbated the rift between the two men because Rudd was still close to Jackman, who had written a book, Inside Kevin 07, about the 2007 election.

“Kevin’s version is when his marriage split up it became daggers drawn. He said it became quite poisonous,” recounts a colleague of Rudd’s.

Mitchell denies their personal issues affected the Australian’s coverage. “My coverage of Kevin was never driven by personal friendship or personal animus. I genuinely believed we covered the Rudd government on its merits.”

Paul Kelly agrees. “As far as I know our coverage of the Rudd government was driven by policy. It seems to me the paper backed Kevin strongly where we felt he was right and criticised him when we felt he was wrong. It is hardly surprising our coverage ended up critical since we were following one of the most astonishing political declines in our history that saw caucus pull the plug [on Rudd].”

On all these issues, Rudd would say only this: “I’ve always had a pretty good working relationship with Chris Mitchell, as I have with most editors in this country. Obviously there are ups and downs in any relationship. Sometimes you agree, sometimes you disagree, sometimes you disagree fundamentally. But that’s life in politics and the media in Australia and it’s not likely to change in the future either.”

After another year of relentlessly chronicling the government’s failings, chiefly the Pink Batts and Building the Education Revolution (BER) programs, Mitchell surprised everyone by naming Rudd the paper’s Australian of the Year in 2010 for his handling of the GFC. Rudd was so angry he refused to pose for a photo and told a friend he assumed the catch was “then we have the licence to kick the shit out of you for the rest of the year.” “It was the height of bloody hypocrisy,” says a Rudd supporter, “to have Kevin lauded in the Australian for his management of the GFC and then to say systematically that the BER, the whole purpose of which was to keep people in jobs, was a program that was shot to pieces. You can’t have both.”

Some commentators speculated that News Corporation was trying to cosy up to the government ahead of decisions on new anti-siphoning rules and the Australia Network tender, which would affect the part Murdoch-owned Foxtel and Sky TV. Mitchell denies this. “I think there’s a misunderstanding of the amount of editorial independence here, which is a great deal. The truth is the editors call it as they see it. I have no interest in what is happening with Foxtel or the Australia Network.”

In any event, by autumn 2010 Rudd was in serious trouble on the other big issue of the day, climate change. The Copenhagen summit had flopped and the government’s emissions trading scheme had been blocked in the Senate. Rudd needed all the friends he could get – including Chris Mitchell.

“He rang me and asked me if I would come and have a chat,” Mitchell recounts. “We spoke for a few hours [about] the economy, the government, what was going well and what wasn’t, how to get the relationship with the paper back on track.” While Rudd would not comment on this, a former government staffer confirms there were “a series of attempts to make peace” because a hostile Mitchell was “definitely bad for Rudd”.

But the truce came too late for Rudd. His ETS backdown that April sent his popularity into a spin, and the government’s ham-fisted handling of the mining super profits tax sealed his fate. He might have survived had his arrogance not so alienated him from caucus. Even the editor-in-chief of the Australian couldn’t save him now – although Mitchell says he tried.

One night in mid May 2010 Mitchell was invited again for drinks at Kirribilli House, accompanied by the Australian’s political editor, Dennis Shanahan. Mitchell says he wanted to warn Rudd that the outcry over the mining tax could bring him down.

“I said, ‘Look, I think you should know that from what we are hearing you are in personal danger … We are picking up a lot of rumbling – you personally have to get this off the agenda as soon as possible.’”

Mitchell’s account is a startling reflection on the hubris of one – or maybe both – of these men. “I felt he [Rudd] didn’t really understand what was happening around him and that he was in grave danger. He was so aloof from the party, he didn’t have anyone to run numbers for him … The problem in running a very centralised and aloof kind of office is it’s very hard for people to knock on your door and tell you it’s going off the rails.”

I was intrigued that Mitchell told me this story (and made a point of saying he had checked with Rudd first), because it seems to illustrate more than anything that he relishes being at the centre of power. This echoes the view of a minister who knows him, who says Mitchell has ‘delusions of grandeur’ about his role in politics. Mitchell told me: “I wanted you to understand we had a reasonable relationship before he lost his job. I didn’t want it to seem the Australian is crowing about Kevin losing his job.”

The rest is history. Five weeks later Rudd was gone, replaced by Julia Gillard.

Mitchell is still defensive about his, and the Australian’s, role in Rudd’s downfall. “We didn’t kill Rudd. What killed Rudd was the backflip on the ETS, it destroyed his coven-ant with the electorate.” Still, he argues, “the government should have stuck with him. I thought they were crazy not to stick with him.”

Mitchell and Rudd are back on regular speaking terms, although they are no longer personal friends. The rapprochement must be unnerving news for Julia Gillard, whom Rudd is reported to be busy undermining. Mitchell believes if the polls don’t improve she may be rolled. “My view is that having been in opposition a long time and [only] four years in government, a lot of people would be resistant to going to an election they know they are going to lose.”

However, Rudd must know better by now than to expect any favours.

“I wish Kevin well, I hope he’s happy in life,” says Mitchell, “but, knowing him as well as I do, I think Kevin will never die.” Mitchell likens Rudd to the character played by Peter Sellers in the film The Party, a bumbling Indian actor who refuses to stop blowing on his bugle even after being shot dozens of times: “That’s Kevin, the one who never dies.” As for whether Rudd might stage a comeback: “I don’t think so. He probably does, but I would have thought it would be hard for that soufflé to rise twice.”

Rudd would not be drawn on Mitchell’s musings, although he did say he is a Peter Sellers fan but prefers his role as Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. “Look, they’re all pretty colourful comments,” he told me, “but if I started at this stage in life responding to personal criticisms, right or wrong, from Chris Mitchell or anybody else, I’d be doing very little else in life, so I won’t.”

*

On the wall in Mitchell’s office is a framed copy of page one of the first issue of the Australian, published by Rupert Murdoch on 15 July 1964, “price: sixpence”. It features the paper’s mission statement, quaintly headed “Good Day”:

 

Here is Australia’s first truly national newspaper. It is produced today because you want it; because the nation needs it. In these pages you will find the impartial information and the independent thinking that are essential to the further advance of our country […] We shall not hesitate to speak fearlessly. We shall criticize. We will not be influenced when there is public need for us to be outspoken.

 

Mitchell and his staff take this credo seriously. They refer to it often and cite it in their defence when criticised.

Mitchell has certainly delivered on the “new approach to national journalism”, also promised in this article of faith. While competitors such as Fairfax have flagged, the Australian has thrown resources into investigative journalism, quality writing and coverage of once-neglected issues, such as Indigenous affairs, water and education. At its best the paper is courageous, groundbreaking and incisive, as in its reporting of the Haneef case, the ‘children overboard’ affair in 2001 and the plight of Indigenous Australians. But Mitchell’s Australian is mired in contradictions.

It aspires to be a great newspaper – and often is – but makes itself smaller with petty attacks on its rivals. It demands good governance, but hectors governments into meek submission. It champions transparency and freedom of speech, but shouts down or smothers its critics. It calls itself “the heart of the nation”, but sometimes seems to have no heart. (In the only case of interference I have experienced while writing for the paper, I was told, after a feature I had written on asylum seekers was spiked, “we are not interested in the humanitarian aspects of people smuggling”.) And it derides other newspapers for “political pamphleteering” and “deceptive manipulation of public discourse”, bringing to mind, as one commentator noted, the words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’.

“It’s the extent to which its news agenda is driven by its obsessions and campaigns that makes it such an odd newspaper and difficult to read,” says Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes, “because you’re constantly having to pick your way through stories that are hard, good journalism and stories that are agenda-driven nonsense.”

Mitchell and his paper are despised by some in Canberra. A senior source in the government accuses Mitchell of “a rolling reign of terror” and says: “He represents the worst aspects of the News Limited culture.”

The issue on which the Australian’s coverage has provoked the most furious dissension is global warming. Climate change campaigner and 1996 Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty privately described the paper’s reporting last year as “the most dishonest coverage” he had seen. The government’s outgoing climate change adviser, Professor Ross Garnaut, last month named the Australian while making a complaint about “the crudest and most distorted discussion of a major public policy issue” he could remember.

Mitchell asserts – and the editorials support this – that the Australian accepts the science that global warming is real and human-induced, and the paper endorsed the government’s carbon tax package released last month. Doherty says its coverage has improved but rails at the prominence still given to climate change sceptics. “They’ve printed the opinion of every scientific has-been and never-been who’s found a warm place under the fossil fuel industry’s umbrella.” He says the sceptics are “dogmatic and scientifically isolated [and] can’t possibly be across the complexity of what’s happening.”

There are those within News Limited who are deeply uncomfortable with the paper’s position. The manager of environment and climate change at News Limited, Dr Tony Wilkins, told colleagues last September he had cancelled his subscription to the Australian because of its coverage. Dr Wilkins described a front-page story in February last year about a Bondi surfer who said he hadn’t seen any change in sea levels as “the worst case of journalism I ever saw anywhere”.

Mitchell says his priority is ensuring all voices in the debate are heard. “I think where I get into trouble is that I publish opinions I don’t agree with [and] a lot of people on the strong advocacy side object to other views.” His environment reporter Graham Lloyd, who owns a property in the hippie haven of Nimbin and a rainforest conservation plot in the Amazon, agrees, saying: “The people who passionately subscribe to climate change are intolerant of any broader discussion about it.”

But there were two voices Mitchell was determined to silence when they piped up on the issue last year: that of his former, Walkley Award–winning rural reporter Asa Wahlquist and journalism lecturer Julie Posetti.

Wahlquist, who had recently left the Australian after 13 years following a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, was speaking at an academic conference in December when she described the job of writing on climate change for the Australian as “absolutely excruciating” and “torture”. Posetti tweeted Wahlquist’s comments but incorrectly reported Wahlquist as saying “in the lead-up to the election the Ed in Chief was increasingly telling me what to write.”

Mitchell fired off a furious email to Wahlquist: “Asa, I have NEVER spoken to you about climate change in my life and have never stood over you about ANY of your stories. Indeed, I have not spoken to you in at least eight years. And I have never stood over people writing stories in 19 years as an editor. If I do not have an apology in writing from you today you will see me in court. I promise, Chris.”

Wahlquist was stunned. “I was pretty frightened. I’ve stopped working because I’m ill. I’m unemployed, and I didn’t have the assets for a Supreme Court case.” Mitchell is still threatening to sue Posetti for defamation. “It was offensive, it was damaging to the paper,” he says. “I don’t believe she has a right to repeat a falsehood. This woman is a journalism lecturer. She’s meant to be preparing young minds to work for people like me.”

Posetti says this: “What kind of editor, invested in freedom of expression, threatens to sue for defamation over a fair report of a public proceeding and then mounts his case against an individual via screaming headlines in his own newspaper? I’ve never met Chris Mitchell but his campaign against me reinforced, in a personal way, my judgement of the Australian under his editorship as a derailed newspaper, prone to bullying.”

The incident strengthened the perception that Mitchell is thin-skinned. But Deborah Cassrels laughs at the suggestion. “No, it’s not that. He can’t help himself. He just likes to prove he’s right. He wants to stick the finger up and say, ‘There! You’re wrong and I’m right.’”

Mitchell’s aversion to criticism stops many people from speaking out. Of the 70 people I spoke to for this profile, two-thirds would talk only off the record. “You can’t be quoted in relation to Chris Mitchell. He’s so vindictive,” said one. “If you come out and bag him, you know he’ll use the newspaper to attack you,” said another. It’s disturbing that a man committed to freedom of speech and information can have such a stifling effect on public debate.

Some of his staff believe Mitchell’s unbridled aggression is damaging the brand. “We are no longer about reporting news. That doesn’t sell, because people can get their news from so many different places,” an insider remarks. “We are now in the business that conflict sells. I think that’s the business model that’s emerging.”

Others, such as Hedley Thomas, see this as a strength. “I think what Chris has worked out is that one of the keys to a successful newspaper is ongoing tension, and if there’s ongoing conflict – even conflict that embroils us and that we respond to – that’s good, it makes us more relevant. I think it’s actually a strategy, [being] part of an ongoing friction, tension and conflict.”

Don’t expect this to change, says Thomas. “The thing is you can’t kill Chris. I think the more you throw at him, the more he’ll say ‘OK, bring it on.’”

Bruce Guthrie says you’ve got to hand it to him. “Good newspapers know what they stand for. Chris Mitchell knows what the Australian stands for, his readers know what the Australian stands for, its opponents know what the Australian stands for. And in simple newspaper terms that’s a good place to be. Is it good for Australian society and political discourse? Possibly not, even probably not. But as an editor I sit back and admire what he has done, and that is to deliver day after day for his readership. That’s exactly what Rupert wants and that’s why he’s still got the job.”

Sally Neighbour

Sally Neighbour is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, best known for her work as a reporter with Four Corners, recognised by three Walkley Awards. She is the author of The Mother of Mohammed and In the Shadow of Swords.
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