I first met The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell in 2006 at a birthday dinner for a friend. My friend’s wife was close to journalist Christine Jackman, Mitchell’s then wife.
I’d been warned before the dinner that Mitchell would be attending and that I would be seated next to the flat-topped newspaper supremo. It was believed that I, a man-journalist, would have the most to talk to him about and would therefore keep him amused throughout proceedings. If there was a short straw, someone had pulled it on my behalf.
Mitchell wore a kind of floral, Hawaiian-esque shirt to dinner that night. It was an odd choice, I thought, for an elegant meal at Quay, Sydney’s most acclaimed restaurant, but as a lowly paid writer and sub-editor on FHM it was hardly my place to cast judgement.
We shook hands. He said his name was Chris. I said mine was Guy. He asked how I knew the birthday boy. I told him, in the process explaining that I’d recently left Brisbane, where I’d worked at The Courier-Mail – the paper he’d edited before taking over at The Oz in 2002.
So there we were: two journalists, two Queenslanders, two men – drinking wine, telling tall tales, and enjoying the instant bond that men sometimes form at such events. And what tales he did tell. One of them, about former AFR and SMH editor-in-chief and later Channel Nine boss, John Alexander, is massively defamatory so I won’t repeat it, lest the one person who reads this (hi Mum!) happens to know him. Suffice it to say that John has a very nice art collection.
As the wine flowed and our faces turned rosier than the contents of our glasses, Mitchell began talking even more out of school, dissing The Courier-Mail and what his successor David Fagan had done with the rag. He began opening up about his personal life, bragging about his new wife and his capacity for procreation.
Conversation turned to careers. He asked if I wanted to get back into newspapers. I said sure, why not. He said he was looking at revitalising the Strewth column and would that be something I’d be interested in. I said sure, why not. (Actually, I probably said, “Please fuck yes oh god a column in a national paper that would be amazing I’m totally your man.”)
We parted company that night with Mitchell exhorting me to contact him the following week to set up a meeting.
I did just that, and a couple of weeks later found myself lunching with my prospective employer at Tabou, the once-celebrated, now-closed, French eatery on Crown Street in Surry Hills. It was a regular haunt for Mitchell, whose table at the very back of the restaurant afforded him an excellent view of the comings and goings.
God knows what we spoke about that day, but I must have put on a reasonable show because Mitchell expanded on his vision for the column and what he expected from me. He said he wanted it to be less stuffy and insider-y and expand into other fields like entertainment and sport. He said in the first few weeks in the role I’d have to fly around to all the bureaus and enlist their help in feeding me items for the column.
This was all pretty heady stuff for a guy who’d been a working journo for less than four years and was only starting to understand his strengths and weaknesses. But who was I to argue with Chris Mitchell, widely acknowledged as one of the finest editors in the country and, clearly, an excellent talent-spotter.
Lunch ended with Mitchell promising to follow things up with the paper’s managing editor who’d handle the employment contract and salary negotiations. Salary negotiations! I thought to myself. That’s what grown-ups do!
But, as you may have predicted, the net result of all this hope-raising and excitement-generating was two-fifths of not very much. I followed up with the managing editor a couple of times and was eventually told that there was a hiring freeze and they were very sorry but things would have to be put on hold for a while. This sounded very much like a gentle kiss-off, and I suspect that’s exactly what it was.
Mitchell I never heard from again. I tried to make contact a couple of times via email and phone, but without joy. And I have no problem with that – he’s a busy guy, running a paper and executing Rupert Murdoch’s various nefarious schemes. It would, however, have been nice for the dude to extend me the courtesy of explaining – mano a mano – why he was withdrawing the offer.
Seriously, Chris, would it have been that hard? Bro? Cuz?
Anyway, that was a long time ago now, and I’m not bitter or twisted. In fact, had I ended up working for him I may have morphed into one of those News Corp journobots, in lockstep with Murdochian pronouncements and unwilling to entertain a worldview other than that promoted by their octogenarian overlord.
Also, I would have never edited FHM. Think of all that boob I’d have missed.
(Since posting this a couple of my News friends have suggested that I remove my cranium from my rectal canal. I should make it clear that I was not for one minute suggesting that all News journos are hooked up to the hivemind. Most I’ve known are diligent, hard-working professionals who would sooner resign than be pressured into partisan hackery or corporate shilling. They are heroes, one and all.)