Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

To Mitchell and back

A sad, yet grateful, nation bids farewell to the greatest newspaper editor that ever lived. Yes, the Burst Kransky, Chris Mitchell, is putting down his green eye-shade at The Catholic Boys Daily to embark on a fresh career scribbling columns about the media.

This genius with a photographic memory, intimate with the corridors of power, expert on most policy issues, agenda-setter and fearless campaigner will no longer be dictating what’s good for the nation. Can we ever be the same again?

Never mind the outpourings from his chorus of hired hacks, Gadfly’s personal favourite came from retired Moloch executive Ken Cowley, who told The Australian Financial Review last year: “The Australian is now pathetic. It should have been growing stronger.” For his troubles, the paper turned on poor Ken and gave him a terrible payback. Classy stuff.

Of course, the old boy is right. It’s difficult to believe what you’re reading in The Oz, whether it’s part of some loony agenda or something approximating what’s going on. If the paper had not been so ideologically batty under Kransky’s leadership it may have appealed to a much wider audience and would not be losing $30 million a year.

Instead, it’s read largely by retired majors in Wahroonga, ancient climate-deniers, New Guard conservatives, boots-on-the-ground advocates and David Flint.

1 . Paywall creepers

All of which makes the paper’s current campaign against Guardian Australia a tad amusing.

In-house Oz typist and PR man Darren “Lurch” Davidson is on about the local Guardian news website losing money after starting here two-and-a-half years ago.

The Australian started more than 50 years ago and red ink is still pouring down the drain.

Lurch says it’s been a huge mistake for the Guardian to have ignored “the value of a paywall”. He may not have noticed that Moloch’s biggest-selling paper in Britain, The Sun, is ditching its paywall, and that when The Times started to charge for its content it lost 90 per cent of its online readers in six months.

July’s figures from Nielsen have Guardian Australia with two million unique readers a month, well ahead of The Smellograph and The Hun. The Australian is nowhere in the top 10 news sites.

Gadfly would say that, wouldn’t he, since he also files for Guardian Australia.

Just for the record, and to correct Lurch’s falsities, there is no deadline on the Graeme Wood loan, the local digital operation is bang on business plan, revenues increased 64 per cent last year, and unlike Moloch & Co, it pays its full tariff of taxes in Australia.

What gets me are the low-level creeps doing their best to undermine journalistic opportunities for those not employed at News Corp.

2 . Worse than bankers

It has not escaped Gadfly’s attention that NSW defamation judge Lucy McCallum has given The Catholic Boys Daily a passing poke in the eye with a burnt stick.

In a damages judgement handed down last week, she awarded Dr Brendan French, head of customer relations in Commonwealth Bank’s retail division, close to the maximum possible – $300,000.

It was a case described as a “distressing illustration of the devastating harm that can be caused by the mischievous use of the internet as a medium for defamatory publications”.

Dr French had been grievously defamed by a young, self-styled consumer advocate, Michael Fraser, who claims to be “keeping big business honest”.

McCallum’s judgement lets the defendant have it with both barrels. He subjected the plaintiff to a “hellish two years of bullying and harassment”. He has “bombarded Dr French with hundreds of emails, texts and voice messages, many containing thinly veiled threats evidently motivated by homophobia and other senseless vitriol”.

“Adding insult to injury”, Fraser’s solicitor, Stewart Levitt, fed a hack at The Oz some bumf about the proceedings, which was dutifully published, apparently without further inquiry. It read: “This really is a microcosm of what’s alleged against banks in relation to their customers: they’re using their wealth and position to litigate a matter against a young man who is an enthusiastic consumer advocate who has no assets whatsoever.”

This was the same enthusiastic consumer advocate whom the judge said was running “a senseless vendetta founded in madness”.

3 . Sculpture wars

When it comes to gigantic sculptures, it’s best to call on Andrew Rogers, whose father Kalman set up the Roger David bags of fruit shops for middle-class aspirants.

Andrew has arranged massive structures, according to the divining of a mysterious sequence of numbers, across Israel, Sri Lanka and India.

In Utah, he’s assembled blocks as high as a four-storey building, crowned in a chunk plated in 23-carat gold.

The Financial Times reports that 420 tonnes of basalt has been hauled to Ibiza so that Rogers could create 13 columns in a Stonehenge-like formation for the island retreat of Cirque du Soleil zillionaire Guy Laliberté.

Andrew is globally applauded for his work and its boldness. Yet on the Mornington Peninsula the local blue bloods in check shirts are decidedly sniffy about his contribution to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the “first land sales” at Flinders.

The work, a 3.5-metre high conical creation, in patinated silicon, bronze and stainless steel, is called I Am and stands on the roundabout at the intersection of Cook and Wood streets.

Some in the gin-and-tonic set have judged it out of character with the gentility to which the village aspires, complaining about a lack of open process.

At Rogers’ side as the row rumbled was the redoubtable ex-Age and Collingwood FC supremo Ranald Macdonald and his wife, Patricia.

Ranald’s public service in persuading the notoriously fickle local shire council of the merits of I Am cannot be underestimated.

He assured a public meeting, which was split 50-50 over the sculpture, that highway authority VicRoads (yearly spend $1.6 billion) did not have enough money to run a competition for a sculpture to mark the 150th birthday.

So there it stands among the kitsch gift shops, awaiting a council review next August.

4 . Brisbane Baroque not for bogans

On another cultural note, I have in my hand the 2016 program of Leo Schofield’s Brisbane Baroque – the outfit that upped stumps from Hobart and fled north after what Leo called the “dregs, bogans and third-generation morons” of Van Diemen’s Land failed to come up with the requisite financial support.

What Brisvegans get for their money is pretty damn special: a gala celebration of J. S. Bach; the music of the Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi; knockout mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux; a choir and orchestra composed entirely of women; and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.

There’s also a slice of ancient Rome’s megalomania, sadism, incest and matricide courtesy of G. F. Handel’s opera Agrippina. Just the thing for Queenslanders.

But wait, there’s more: Henry Purcell, free talks and organists.

You can see that Schofield, the old marketing man, has poured his heart and soul into the sumptuous brochure. You can feel and hear the music busting out of its glossy pages.

5 . Helicopter frontbenching

Citizens must have noticed the endearing way PM Turnbull clasps his eye glasses in his hand, as though they were a security blanket.

He walks through corridors, into conferences, and other meet and greets carrying his eye furniture in his paw, not in his pocket or on his nose.

It’s the equivalent to Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli wearing his watch on the outside of his cuff.

As one reader of The Wall Street Journal pointed out, Agnelli spent so much time looking good that he neglected to find out “why his company produced such unreliable garbage for so long”.

And what about the sudden moderation of Bookshelves Brandis and Poodles Pyne under the new regime. Gone are the daily snarls from these former Abbott enforcers as the two darling old wets go about their business spreading gaiety and innovation.

The other noteworthy political development is the number of times that Bronwyn Bishop has been photographed recently disporting her body on the government frontbench.

There she is, looking incredibly pleased with herself on the front row. This follows the startling news she was lobbying Pyne for a Turnbull ministry.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2015 as "Gadfly: To Mitchell and back".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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