August 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Sam I am

By David Salter
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“OK, Salter. Now, tell me again why the hell I’m doing this.”

Sam Chisholm, perfectly presented in black trousers, crisp white shirt and azure silk tie, had finally descended from the first floor of his splendid St Ives home. It was 9.15 am; I’d arrived with the crew at the agreed time of 8.30. Chisholm’s wife, Sue, who worked in the publicity department at TCN when I was there some thirty years earlier, had welcomed us with a freshly baked batch of blueberry muffins.

I’d expected a friendly “It’s been a long time, mate” greeting from Chisholm. Instead, I got a cursory handshake.

“Remember, it’s not ‘live’, Sam. We’re on tape. You can stop us at any time and do it again if you’re not happy, and …”

“Don’t fuckin’ tell me how to suck eggs, David. I’ve been in this business for a lifetime!”

People who’ve made millions running television networks are reluctant interviewees: they’re all too aware of the dangers. Most know that the easiest way to scupper a show is to not take part. Historical documentaries are particularly vulnerable to this form of sabotage because the narrative rarely holds together without key eyewitness accounts.

Chisholm, easily the best known (and perhaps most notorious) TV executive in Australia, knows the rules of the game. In 1995 he worked in London for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and was central in the race to secure the broadcast rights for professional Rugby Union. Peter FitzSimons subsequently wrote an engaging book that detailed how this extraordinary US$555-million deal was done. A decade later, I was making a program for the ABC based on that book. After a five-week shoot in Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa, all that remained was to record interviews with the local heavy hitters: sports agent Ian Frykberg, former Wallaby captain Simon Poidevin, and Chisholm himself.

“I really don’t want to do this. There’s nothing to add. It’s all in Fitz’s book anyway.”

“Well, Sam, Gone With the Wind was a decent book, too, but it made a much better film. This is television. We need to hear the story first-hand.”

He gave a pained, how-did-I-get-myself-into-this shake of the head.

Chisholm had moved back to Sydney and was temporarily filling his old chair as managing director of the Packer-owned Nine Network. Despite an earlier undertaking, by email, to record the interview – and despite the fact that I’d worked for him at Nine in the ’70s – Sam had started playing hard to get. Poidevin and Frykberg were also finding reasons not to talk. The fix was clearly in. I had fielded the inevitable, ever-so-apologetic call from Chisholm’s PA, who used the excuse of a full diary to soften the blow that the interview was “just not going to happen”.

The documentary would be untenable without the recollections of these three main players. What was the problem? I rang FitzSimons, who’d kept a good relationship with Chisholm. He promised to make a few calls, and had the answer within 24 hours.

“You’re the problem, mate. Sam’s worried you’re going to stitch him up – do a Media Watch on him.”

This was pure paranoia, but somehow we eventually managed to broker one of those bizarre compromises peculiar to television: Chisholm would do the interview, but only if FitzSimons asked the questions, and only if Frykberg and Poidevin were interviewed at the same time.

“Look, I understand this is a pretty sensitive topic for you at the moment …”

“Too right it is!”

Chisholm had his thumbs hooked into his belt, legs spread wide, chin thrust forward. He’d slowed a bit since a double-lung transplant, but could still summon that raw Jimmy Cagney aggression from Nine’s “We’re the One!” glory days of the ’80s.

He avoided eye contact, and gazed out through the double French doors to the garden.

“Sam, I can see the problem. You were working for Murdoch at the time of this Rugby deal. You beat Kerry Packer to get the rights, but now you’re working for Packer again.”

“Darn right. That puts me in a very difficult position. Nothing in it for me to do this interview!”

“But Sam, that was ten years ago. It’s just not an issue in the program. We only want to get the record straight. First-person, in your own words …”

He let me twist through my mumbled protestations until the tension was broken by the chime of the doorbell. Ian Frykberg, in a faintly dishevelled state that betrayed his journalistic origins, entered the room. Chisholm spotted his opportunity: he would enlist Frykberg to outnumber me.

“Ian, mate. I was just telling David that there’s no reason for me to do this. None at all. Why should I be doing this?”

We’d arrived at the crunch point of the morning. Would Frykberg show solidarity with a fellow middle-aged hack, or would his need to preserve a good business relationship with Chisholm win out?

“Well, Sam, it’s just history now. These blokes only want to get the history right.”

“Well, I still don’t fuckin’ like it!”

Frykberg, bless his mismatched cotton socks, had saved me. Staying mute was now most probably my best option, but I knew that if we didn’t roll the cameras soon Chisholm still might walk. With Poidevin yet to appear, I needed some sort of diversion to defuse the combative mood. Frykberg shuffled off to have a chat with Sue in the kitchen, and I was left with Chisholm. Surely the miracle of thoracic surgery would be safe conversational territory?

“Well, Sam, I’ve got to say you’re looking really well. It must have been tough coming back …”

“Yeah, can’t complain.”

I bored my old boss with war stories of filming lung-cancer operations for This Day Tonight in the ’60s.

“Medical stories were very big back then. ‘Your Life in Their Hands’, all that sort of stuff …”

“They still are!”

He snapped back at me as if he were lecturing some junior program-executive on how to win ratings.

Thankfully, Poidevin arrived. He’d been close to Chisholm since they fought as allies in the Rugby war of ’95, and there was a flicker in Chisholm’s eye as he anticipated my next fear: would he conscript Poidevin to the cause? I watched with dread as Chisholm scurried across the huge dining room to plant himself directly in front of the former Wallaby forward.

“So tell me, mate – bugger all this stuff – tell me what’s happening in the market.”

Sweet relief. Our documentary had been relegated on Chisholm’s list of priorities: making money came first. The two chatted about share prices for a few minutes before I brought everyone to order and sat them in their appointed places.

The tape rolled. It was happening. FitzSimons did a terrific job asking my questions (and adding a few of his own). It was a complicated narrative spanning four months of non-stop, intense negotiations on three continents.

Chisholm began slowly, choosing his words with such deliberation that he sometimes seemed in danger of losing the thread. He relied on the repeated use of “you know” to give himself thinking time. But after an hour he loosened up, even telling the occasional self-mocking anecdote. Finally, we ran out of questions. It was in the can.

“OK fellas. See ya.”

Chisholm didn’t hang around for the traditional post-interview chat with the crew. Instead, he took Poidevin and FitzSimons on a tour of his vast house. While we coiled cables, repositioned furniture and packed away the lights, he explained the modern art on his walls. Then he gave us a cheery wave from the foyer, and set off for Nine in a chauffeured car. I could breathe again. The crew set about demolishing what remained of the muffins.

A few weeks later the Sydney media began humming with rumours that Chisholm was entranced with the idea of being appointed as the next chairman of the ABC. Stranger things have happened. He’d do it, too, if only for the pleasure of letting every last one of Aunty’s employees know they couldn’t tell him how to fuckin’ suck eggs.

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