Diary

Gadfly
A Mark of respect

There’s too much death about, particularly the death of good people. The arseholes seem to live forever.

After a long illness and a brave fight, Mark Colvin has gone. He was a fixture on our landscape presenting ABC Radio’s PM for 20 years with a voice that reassured us the program was dependable.

He was a link to a fading journalistic tradition – that of learned, well-read and particular people, whose numbers are significantly sidelined in the shouty, disintegrating world of the mainstream.

At occasional lunches together in the sun at Walsh Bay it was clear that Gadfly was in the company of a humane spirit who ranged across history, politics, family, film, literature and the media.

There were also his razor-sharp nuggets on Twitter as @Colvinius, jabbing relentlessly at issues and events. And that play at Belvoir St Theatre, in which the journalist’s kidney took a starring role. He campaigned for Mary-Ellen Field, an Australian woman in London who had become a victim of the hackers at the Murdoch press. A noble cause that unexpectedly gave him a new body part and, for a while, a fresh lease of life.

Roelof pushes off

Friends and family gathered last Sunday at a stately Glebe mansion to say goodbye to Roelof Smilde (1930-2017).

He was many things: a Prince of the Push, former wharfie, taxi driver and tram conductor, but above all he turned gambling from a social evil into a principled philosophy for life.

He believed employment was a form of exploitation and enslavement and to be truly free he set about devising a “system” that guaranteed success as a punter at the races.

The “system” worked and he never needed a paid job again. He was also a chillingly clever and audacious exponent of the game of bridge.

He was constantly turning his attention to causes that he sometimes funded, including Horse Talk, a famous sheet of unadulterated scuttlebutt that was published by his friend Darcy Waters, who gave his address as Ward Six, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney.

Horse Talk was on the cutting edge of “free speech”, its pages brimming with exposés of corrupt politicians, Sydney business identities and bent judges.

The hanging of Ronald Ryan particularly upset Roelof, or “Ronald Reagan” as one of the guests insisted. Memorably, Roelof divided his expansive Glebe property and created a “commune of like-minded people” where some of the original inhabitants can still be found to this day.

Weighing options

Every time we ponder the executive package of Fairfax boss Greg (Maserati) Plywood, a new and enhanced figure pops into the frame.

Last week Gadfly said Plywood’s pay and equity benefit last year was $2.735 million. Some of Lord Moloch’s hacks on the same day wrote that the Fairfax CEO “received at least $4.4 million in cash in 2016” (before tax).

It turns out these figures are mere trifles. Even if you dig into the footnotes of the Fairfax Media annual report and riffle through pages of gobbledygook, you still can’t get to the truth.

Business journalist Michael West this week claimed that gang of four top execs at Fairfax “were secretly gifted $6.7 million in share options in a transaction which the company failed to disclose in its annual report. The sneaky pay deal involved half of a $13.4 million options package awarded by the board.”

The previous redundancy round was in April 2016, with 120 journalists shown the door, and two months later a lump of executive options vested and Fairfax “cash settled” them for Plywood and two other senior people.

In August last year the company also cash settled eight million share options for Plywood, worth $5.6 million. West claims that more than 15 million “rights to options” were not disclosed in the annual report.

On Tuesday Guardian Australia came to the party and said that Plywood was paid as much as $7.2 million in 2016 following being rewarded in cash last August for 16 million options.

A package of that size would make him the most expensive media executive in the country. Of course, the options are linked to achieving cost reductions for the company of 15 per cent.

When asked why the Fairfax board cash settled these options, a spokesman for chairman Nick Falloon explained: “It was in the best interests of shareholders.”

Paper trials

The papers still tumbled off the presses without proper journalists doing the scribbling. Do we really need journalists at all when intoxicated loons can sub up press releases?

I use the term “intoxicated loons” advisedly, because Gadfly had firsthand experience of this in the Whitlam era when as a member of the Canberra staff of The Australian Financial Review he and his colleagues were waylaid at a long lunch at the Narrabundah golf club while unbeknown to us the government was handing down a surprise mini-budget.

Imagine our shock when rolling back into the office at 6.45pm there was a red-faced editor on the other end of the phone demanding budget coverage.

Everything’s in hand, a smooth, if slightly slurred, chef de bureau assured him. We rushed to the “boxes” where government flacks stuff ministerial announcements, grabbed a whole pile about the budget details, did a quick edit, and sent them up the line to HQ.

Instead of being roundly abused the next morning, the editor rang with startling news: “Boys,” for boys it was, “that was the best budget coverage of any paper. Well done.”

Three’s a harm

More excruciating developments with the government’s media “reforms”, which are designed to see the end of the two-out-of-three control rule for newspapers, radio and television and the 75 per cent reach rule for TV.

These are the “Moloch amendments”, which if passed will deliver the ancient mogul and his family a stranglehold on the Australian media and set the political agenda for the country until hell freezes over, which is what special correspondent Maurice Newman predicts.

In effect, it will deliver Moloch & Co three out of three, where he can control newspapers, radio and TV in the one licence area. If you include Sky News, which few to none are watching, then he has four out of three.

Concentration of the media at one end is justified on the basis that digital technology has given consumers all the diversity they need. It’s fiddlesticks, of course, because online information is so atomised that it can never match the critical mass of the mainstream players.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the Moloch hacks were turning out credible stuff, but rarely is that the case.

Alpha Mal

Pint-sized senator Malcolm Roberts (PHON Qld) continues to fascinate. Last week he got us all thinking with his tweet that “Anti-Fascists are the Fascist”.

Right on.

We are told that as a tot Mal’s home was in India “staffed with servants”. While other lads were playing cowboys and Indians or dress-ups, Malcolm apparently built and played in a miniature coalmine in his backyard.

Yet that is not his weirdest aspect. He told an anti-abortion rally in Brisbane in February: “We are being told increasingly that we are subordinate to fungus and bugs and critters and plants and that is not right.”

He announced that he hadn’t thought that much about abortion because he had been “studying other things” but six months ago he was “given a pair of little feet of a 10-week-old baby… and I wear it every day on the lapel of a coat, regardless of where I am, whether speaking at parliament or at a meeting, I wear it every day on my coat”. With 77 first-preference votes, the world is his lobster.

There’s an assortment of other badges and mementos on Mal’s lapel, which leads Gadfly to think that the more buttons and pins on a man’s jacket the nuttier he must be.

Failed travel agent and now treasurer Scott Morrison is aping the American affectation and has taken to wearing an Australian flag pin on his coat – no doubt trying to prove that his values make him more Australian than those of us without flag pins.

Trumpette #21

USA Today drew up a list of lawsuits in which the Pussy Grabber and Commander-in-Chief has been involved.

In three decades, the tally is more than 4000 suits. “They range from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.”

The breakdown shows he was involved in 85 branding and trademark cases; 17 campaign cases; 1863 actions concerning his casinos, mostly chasing gamblers with bad debts; 208 contract disputes; 130 employment claims, the majority about underpayment at his resorts; 63 pieces of litigation about labour, personal injury and memberships related to his golf clubs; 190 cases involving the government and taxes; 14 defamation actions, seven each as a plaintiff and a defendant; 697 personal injury cases, of which he was a defendant in 696; 622 real estate actions, mostly brought by tenants and investors; plus 206 “other” cases.

According to the USA Today tally, he or his interests have been defendants about 1450 times and plaintiffs on roughly 1900 occasions, with bankruptcy and third-party actions 150 times.

Some of these actions are ongoing, including at least one for sexual harassment. He’d better be careful and avoid Bill Clinton’s mistake of lying under oath, which led to moves to impeach the former president.

Trump may be a disaster for the free world, but he’s a godsend to the legal profession.

 

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Gadfly: A Mark of respect". Subscribe here.

Richard Ackland
is the publisher of Justinian. He is The Saturday Paper’s diarist-at-large and legal affairs editor.