Neil Mitchell turns off the mic and talks passion, power and public interest.

A matter of opinion

10:42:AM 13/06/2012
Hari Raj

Neil Mitchell
Neil Mitchell
It is 11am on Monday, an hour until the end of Neil Mitchell’s morning radio show, and producer Justin Smith has discovered that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is in town. There is a bit of back and forth about what Abbott would have to do to get on the program; Mitchell briefly considers the year’s biggest political headlines, then makes an executive decision.

“Say ‘Only if you’re resigning’,” he suggests, beard creasing into a smile.

The 3AW studio, in Fairfax’s shiny new Collins Street headquarters, is done up in timber and grey and red; the on-air light turns the walls a cheery shade of blood. Behind a sheet of glass, Mitchell manages his production booth with the weary grace of a conductor, one hand instinctively aloft. For one who has carved a career with his voice, he has become a master of non-verbal communication; on occasion, volumes are conveyed with some dignified gurning.

The studio, which Mitchell inhabits for about four hours a day, five days a week, is surprisingly spartan. The only accoutrements are a Macquarie dictionary, a 2006 Melway and the day’s newspapers, fanned out like the tail of a monochromatic peacock. Staff juggle multiple jobs with ease, and filter the day’s issues appropriately; “Neil wants to talk about what a sham and disgrace the Logies are” is heard at one stage.

For the past 22 years, bleary-eyed Melburnians on their way to work have used Mitchell’s voice as an alternative to coffee – but Mitchell himself is up much earlier, responding to some other calling. He turned 60 last year, gets to work at 5am and tries to leave by 3pm, but mostly fails. “He’s improved, though,” says Smith, who has been producing and filling in for Mitchell for a decade. “He used to be hopeless.”

That work ethic has its rewards. Let no one say that he is prickly, but with eight wins in the 12 years since the Melbourne Press Club introduced the award for best radio current-affairs report – along with one best columnist gong – a picture of Mitchell with his various Quills might well be mistaken for an echidna.

And at the awards night in March, Mitchell took out the Graham Perkin award for Australian Journalist of the Year, a prize that has special meaning for him.

“It’s extraordinary,” Mitchell says. “I’ve never thought too much about personal awards, but this is a very special one because I worked with him, and because it’s about real journalism. You can get the Walkley just by being at the right place at the right time and doing a good job, whereas the Perkin is a recognition of a year of consistency.”

It was Perkin, then editor of The Age, who plucked 17-year-old Mitchell from high school and thrust him into the newsroom. Mitchell had known that he wanted to be a journalist for a long time, and had written to various papers and “a lot of famous journalists, whom I have never forgiven for not having the decency to reply”. He interviewed at The Age and The Herald, and they both ended up offering him a job.

“I don’t expect people to accept or believe what I say just because I’ve got a microphone. I’ve got to convince them.”

“The Age got in touch first, which is the only reason I took it,” Mitchell says. “I think they sent me a telegram. I grew up under Graham Perkin for six years, so I had enormous fear and respect for him.”

Mike Smith, who would go on to edit The Age, started there on the same day as Mitchell – in fact, on January 27, 1969, the two travelled up to the editorial floor in the same lift.

“We’ve been good friends ever since,” he says. “But even if we weren’t I’d still have the view that he’s one of the best journalists that Melbourne has had in our lifetimes, in print and radio. He’s done it for a long time, he has a really good sense of audience and he’s a very professional operator.”

Smith says that Mitchell first made his mark at The Age’s old industrial round, which was based out of a satellite office at Trades Hall. Cadets would start early and finish late, then “go out playing cards or drinking or trying to get more stories”. Mitchell, according to Smith, played as hard as he worked.

“The only way to get a decent story up in industrial was to hang around the pubs, particularly the John Curtin Hotel. That’s where all the union officials went in the evening, and that’s where Bob Hawke used to hold court,” Smith says. “It was a big round, and Neil did it as well as anyone ever did it.”

Mitchell was studying while he worked, a part-time arts degree at Melbourne University, which he never completed: “It had various journalistic subjects, all of which I did, and then it started to get deep into various arts and economics subjects and I thought, ‘Well blow this’.”

He had done some showbusiness and general reporting before the industrial round; he was chief of staff by 24 and then had stints as editor of various sections, including the sports desk.

It was in this role that Mitchell made Corrie Perkin – Graham’s daughter and The Weekly Review’s books editor – the first female football writer in Australia.

“He took a punt on me. It was a strange time; there were no women reporters yet half the audience for the AFL was women,” says Perkin. “Neil is one of the finest journalists I’ve ever worked with. He’s above influence of any kind; he has enormous integrity.”

Mitchell can’t recall there being any complaints within The Age, except for “somebody probably grizzling because they were a bloke and they wanted the job”.

“I got flak from some of the football clubs, who thought it was absurd … some were outraged; they thought she was coming in to perv on people,” he says. “But most of the clubs gave us great help, and Corrie did a very good job. She’s a superb reporter.”

The Herald had a similarly high view of Mitchell, making him deputy editor in 1984. After six months in the position, Mitchell was appointed editor, but resigned when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper.

“I had no issues with Murdoch,” he explains. “But in those days he would run an international merry-go-round of editors, he would ring on Thursday and say ‘You’re starting in New York on Monday’. I had family coming and I didn’t want to do that.”

Mitchell instead took “a bit of a break”, which, typically, involved working six days a week. During this period he wrote for Time magazine and worked weekends at AW; here he would occasionally fill in for Derryn Hinch on Drive.

The two had grown close during Mitchell’s time at the Herald, and Mitchell took his slot two years after Hinch moved to television. There was a move to the Mornings program in 1990, and there he has been ever since.

The two elder gods of radio have offices close to each other at Media House; but, according to a recent report, they haven’t spoken for years. “Hinch says he was misquoted,” Mitchell clarifies via email. “We are civil to each other and I visited him at his home when he was on home detention.”

The Graham Perkin award has been given out since 1976, but no radio journalist had won it until Neil Mitchell. He remains as passionate about the medium as ever, and insists that it has navigated the murky waters of the digital age better than any of its competitors.

“You can’t get the immediacy anywhere else, the raw emotion, and sometimes it gets to me,” he says. “The reason talk radio has thrived is because it does things no one else can do – it relates to people. It’s in their lives, it’s convenient, and when the world is time-poor, we’re handy. You’re sitting in traffic but you’re still catching up with the news.”

How, then, does he explain the implosion of Melbourne Talk Radio? “Oh, it was wrong. I’m not worried about explaining what happened to MTR, it was just wrong. It didn’t understand Melbourne.”

There, implicitly, is the recipe for Mitchell’s dominance of the airwaves: he understands this city, and he understands the people in it. This is a point Mitchell returns to again and again – that he makes “a very deliberate attempt to be standing on the street with people”, that he wants them to be able to “approach me on the street and be comfortable that I’m going to talk to them”.

“The only reason you’ve got any power with politicians or bureaucrats is because they see you as representing a public opinion. The moment that they think you’ve lost that judgment, or that the public isn’t with you, they’ll just abandon you.”

“In some other areas of radio, interstate in particular, the commentators put themselves on a pedestal and they expect everyone to look up while they talk down to them,” he says. Is this what he sees as the difference between himself and, say, Alan Jones?

“Yeah, Alan Jones takes himself pretty seriously,” Mitchell says. “I mean I do at times, depending on the issue, but I don’t expect people to accept or believe what I say just because I’ve got a microphone. I’ve got to convince them. I think he is a bit different to that. I’m not criticising him; I think it’s just a different matter of style. He’s more like the schoolteacher he was; I’m like the naughty kid at the back of class.”

This hyperlocal focus has been undoubtedly effective – a radio-ratings survey conducted by Fairfax in May had his share up to 18.4 per cent – but Mitchell says the formula is simple.

“Are people touched by it? If so, how?” he says. “Is there interaction with the audience, does it mean something in their lives, or are they just words?”

Still, does he ever feel the need to widen the scope of his program’s coverage, or is it enough to give the common man or woman a voice?

“I think you need to be parochial in radio. I think it’s the nature of the medium,” Mitchell says. He does, however, acknowledge “a bit of a gap” in the show’s make-up following the departure of academic Dr David Wright-Neville, and says he is looking for the right sort of person to analyse foreign affairs.

“Clearly what’s happening in a distant part of the world can be of importance and interest to the audience in Melbourne if you’re able to explain why … and we have done a lot of that,” he says.

“I want (people) to think if they turn on the radio, they will get what they need to know about what’s happening anywhere in the world – but that doesn’t mean esoteric little wars which might be terribly tragic for the people involved but which have very little relevance to Australia even in terms of compassion.”

It’s an issue of import because of Mitchell’s undeniable influence. Journalists at The Age and the ABC monitor his program for the moments when outrage crystallises into a story. And the public doesn’t just provide Mitchell with leads, they look to him to signpost a stance on a particular issue.

The Friday before this interview, a man by the name of Herb calls the show. He’s just paid $1.50 a litre for petrol at a Safeway service station, then seen it at $1.40 down the road. Mitchell says he will look into it, and provides some balm. “Be grumpy,” he instructs Herb. “At least you’ve got that off your chest.”

Mitchell, however, feels that the “power thing is overrated”, and does not believe that his backing is enough to turn an issue into a story.

He thinks for a moment, exhales, and ploughs on. “I feel responsibility about it, but I don’t dwell on it. The only influence you have comes from your audience; if I pick what I think is an important issue to campaign on, and they don’t agree, you don’t have any power because they won’t react to it.

“The only reason you’ve got any power with politicians or bureaucrats is because they see you as representing a public opinion. The moment that they think you’ve lost that judgment, or that the public isn’t with you, they’ll just abandon you,” he says.

“Julia Gillard very, very, very rarely talks to me now. She’s clearly made a decision that the aggravation of our interviews is not worth the influence she’s gained from talking to the audience. So she would probably say that I haven’t got any power. And that’s fine, I have no problem with her saying that.”

Mitchell is referring to the two interviews he conducted with the Prime Minister last year, about the flood levy and the carbon price. Noting the similarities between the two gave Mitchell much ammunition; it is safe to say Gillard found the process rather taxing.

“Well,” Mitchell says, sighing. “Look. How many interviews has she done with Fran Kelly and how many has she done with me this year? I did a proper meeting with her trying to sort it out, didn’t get too far … ”

Gillard attended the Christmas edition of a lunch club that Mitchell says he attends but does not host. Every five to seven weeks, some of Australia’s most high-powered individuals meet to “eat a little bit and drink a little bit and chat about what’s happened, poke a lot of fun at each other”. He explains that it originally started as a way of discussing and helping awareness groups such as Step Back Think.

“People tend to see those lunches as being sinister. But it’s more just a gossip thing. It’s very informal,” Mitchell says. “It’s eclectic; you’ve got senior Liberals, senior Labor people; Eddie (McGuire) goes; several senior businessmen, Sir Rod Eddington; Bill Shorten.”

Not sinister, perhaps, but can he see what they look like in the context of this discussion about power and influence? Mitchell says he can, but explains that meeting and keeping in touch with these people is vital for a career in radio, which is “like a big hopper – you’ve got to fill it up every day and at the end of the day it’s empty again”.

“If Lindsay Fox is driving down St Kilda Road and he notices that the lawns are not cut properly – which is the sort of thing he would notice – and rings and tells me about it, I don’t put his name to it but I’ve got something there that could be of interest. If he rings me and wants to get in my ear about licensing for the trucking industry, I’d treat it differently because I know he’s coming from a vested point of view,” he says.

“I suppose from the outside it does look like a little power group. But it’s a bit hard to be influencing political power when you’ve got Peter Costello on one side and Steve Bracks on the other. Who are you going to go ahead and support?”

Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle says that even though Mitchell may have built up a personal or professional rapport with someone, and will give them a chance to explain themselves, any attempt at obfuscation or misdirection will merit a swift response.

“He’s pretty uncompromising in his standards,” Doyle says. “If there is any hypocrisy in what you do, he’s like a rattlesnake. He will strike more quickly than you can imagine.”

Doyle is speaking from experience here – he makes regular appearances on Mitchell’s show, but was also interrogated on air about his overseas trips. So how does Mitchell feel when he collects a scalp?

“Usually there’s a sense of satisfaction, if I’m really going after somebody. I mean, I don’t get any satisfaction out of people losing their jobs,” Mitchell says, prefacing his response with a small chuckle. He sobers when discussing former Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland, who resigned partly due to the debate Mitchell created over the accuracy of crime statistics.

“People say that I wanted Simon Overland to go. That’s not true. I was as surprised as anybody when he stepped down. I wanted him to recognise what I thought had been some significant failings and errors in his administration. I didn’t get any satisfaction from that at all. I’d certainly never advocate his resignation,” Mitchell says.

“I still don’t believe that he politically manipulated things, but I think he did some very unwise things. Not for political reasons, just poor judgment. And I think he needed to recognise that and he never did. Or maybe he does now, but he never admitted it publicly.”

The next part of Mitchell’s answer is very much in keeping with his stated stance of going to war against bureaucracy for the little guy; he says scalps matter when he gets something resolved for someone who has been fighting injustice, and lists the speed-camera fines victory as a classic example.

“We fought that alone,” Mitchell says. “The Age ran an editorial saying that we were idiots, the Premier said we were wrong … and we knew that we weren’t. In the end we got $26 million repaid to people who deserved it, and that was very satisfying.”

There have been other victories and other causes, the most recent being a joint broadcast with Joy FM about the pressures surrounding young gay people. “I’ve been surprised by the positive reaction on Twitter, because it’s such a sour medium,” Mitchell says. “But legalising same-sex marriage would save lives – says to kids to hang on, it’s OK, there’s hope out there.”

“I meet friends of my children in social situations and they’re amazed to find out that I’m not the talkback radio stereotype; I’m not a screaming fascist.”

According to Doyle, this was a typical example of Mitchell’s ability to confound expectations. “Mitchell is an intellectually complex fellow,” he says. “You don’t want to take for granted the position he will adopt on any social issue or question.”

Corrie Perkin also has a rather unusual take on one of Melbourne’s most recognisable media personalities – she says he is quite shy. For the first time, Mitchell doesn’t have an immediate response, but he agrees.

“I don’t particularly enjoy big social occasions, particularly when people make a big fuss of me. I get embarrassed when people want to be all over me, telling me I’m terrific,” he says. “Mind you, they also tell me I’m an idiot.”

This an aspect of journalism he considers protection: that you can ask questions of other people and not have to answer them yourself – and Mitchell points out that talking to most people on the phone helps as well. He says that while he doesn’t have a radio persona, he has refined his on-air approach over time.

“I meet friends of my children in social situations and they’re amazed to find out that I’m not the talkback radio stereotype; I’m not a screaming fascist,” he says.

The long hours have been a constant, however, and Mitchell wishes he could have been at home more, particularly when his two children were younger.

“My daughter was born when I was the editor of the Herald, and I reckon I missed the first 18 months of her life,” he says. “They can’t complain; I’ve given them a healthy financial background. They don’t seem to resent it. It gets frustrating, but you know – I couldn’t do anything else now.”

Mitchell’s wife, to whom he has been married for almost 30 years, listens in on occasion, but is prone to saying that she hears enough of him at home.

To relax, Mitchell cooks and eats, and enjoys a bit of sport, though he shakes his head wryly at the recent performances of his beloved Demons. He keeps an eye out for certain bylines, including Les Carlyon, Laurie Oakes, and the now-solo shows of Andrew Rule and John Silvester.

He also enjoys travelling, but his job finds him no matter how far away he is – he recalls doing a live cross from a paddock in Tasmania when the news broke about the killing of Osama bin Laden. “Bloody iPhone,” he says. “My wife said to turn off the phone for 24 hours, but I couldn’t.”

There are no plans to quit, either, what with a new contract having been signed last year.

“Radio careers often end in tears, so you don’t often get to give advice on the way out,” he says. “If I’m enjoying it I’ll keep going. I love the job; I hate the hours. Getting up at 4am is a pain. I can’t get used to it.”

Mitchell is patient, perhaps recalling the boy who wrote to famous journalists and never got a reply, but also canny. More than one other interviewee describes him as private – so if there is an impression that his work is his life, there is a chance that it is one Mitchell has carefully cultivated.

Still, by the time of this interview Mitchell is undoubtedly weary; he is slumped in a chair, hands behind his head. Around his neck, prominent in red, is a lanyard bearing the repeated image of a certain colonel affiliated with a certain brand of fried poultry. It’s not a sly jab at the resemblance – it was picked up at a 20/20 cricket match some years ago – but it provides this story with a nicely ridiculous political bookend.

“Julia Gillard – in one of the few times that I’ve seen her – said, ‘Is that you’?” says Mitchell, grinning at the laughter this elicits. “She really did.”

On Air

Neil Mitchell does Mornings on 3AW weekdays, 8.30am-noon.

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