A book review published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 87, July 2016, pp. 9-10
On 16 August 1974, a parliamentary committee issued a report on the prices of soap powders, otherwise known as laundry detergents. This might not seem all that important, but it was definitely a newsworthy story. The report was critical of the major companies, and it was an issue that affected everyone. Major newspapers covered the story, and television news usually followed cues from the papers.
In Channel 9, in Sydney, Derek Maitland prepared an item for the evening news. Maitland had only worked at the station for half a year, but at the age of 31 he already had long experience as a journalist, having worked for over a decade including jobs in several parts of the world, for example in the Middle East and in Vietnam as a war correspondent. He was relatively new to the culture of Channel 9. What happened on 16 August was a turning point in his life.
Maitland's story was conventional news coverage. The major manufacturers declined to appear, but such refusals were commonplace. Footage of a supermarket and of soap powders was used. The segment was all ready to go. But it never ran.
A key factor was that the soap companies were major advertisers on television stations, and station managers did not want to jeopardise the income flow from the companies. Channel 9 pulled its story. Indeed, nearly the entire commercial broadcasting industry either ignored or suppressed the story. It seemed like collusion.
Maitland ended up losing his job and leaving Australia for a quarter of a century. After he returned, he was Whistleblowers Australia's media officer for some years, during which time there was a flurry of media releases and press conferences, giving WBA great visibility, before Derek moved on to other activities. Now he has written a book, The Fatal Line, about the events in 1974.
To contemporary ears, this may sound like a non-issue. Don't commercial media always cater to advertisers? And why should canning of a soap-powder story cause such angst?
For Derek, the issue cut to the core of journalistic integrity. It was also important for the television stations, because he blew the whistle on the suppression and this led to a six-months-long inquiry by the Broadcasting Control Board that exposed the stations' betrayal of their fourth-estate role to serve the public interest.
The Fatal Line is a combination of autobiography and a detailed, almost forensic examination of the suppression scandal. Derek intersperses his recollections of the events with extended extracts from the inquiry, at which various journalists and executives - including media magnate Kerry Packer - were put on the stand and grilled about how decisions were made.
One of the most revealing aspects of the book is its description of journalistic practices of the day. News production was far more primitive due to limited technological capacities. It is necessary to understand journalistic practices because at the inquiry, nearly everyone lied, in one way or another. One lie was that Derek's story was canned because it was unbalanced due to the companies not appearing. He points out that it was standard practice to run stories even though major players refused to appear, and quotes parts of the inquiry transcript to show how this was brought out.
It was apparent that most producers and managers were doing whatever they could to lay blame on others. Derek points out discrepancies in their testimony. It is hard to say which was worse: the stations' suppression of the story or their dissimulation about the reasons. Derek and highly respected news director John Pemberton lost their jobs but not their self-respect.
To read and fully understand The Fatal Line requires considerable concentration. There are many figures involved plus numerous details about who said what to whom and exactly when. The detail can be overwhelming, but it is highly revealing. Consider this passage concerning what Derek refers to as "probably the shoddiest betrayal of all in the entire soap saga." Two days after his story was suppressed, he phoned Jim North, the secretary of the Australian Journalists' Association.
Now, speaking with him on the telephone that Sunday, I told him what had happened at Channel Nine, what Chisholm is alleged to have said, what Foell had told me, what Pemberton had said and done, and what I understood to have happened at Channel Ten, without mentioning Willesee of course. I knew something of North's reputation, I had witnessed how nastily and arbitrarily he could treat the very people he was elected to office time and time again to represent. I expected, at the very least, that he would have advice for Pemberton and me on how to handle the situation we were in until something could be done about it, a union-sponsored meeting with management perhaps, on the following day. We were, after all, dealing with an alleged commercially inspired blackout of important news, something that struck at the core of journalism's code of ethics.
But what North said in reply floored me completely. He said: "Don't be stupid. The networks need money. Go back to work." (p. 56)
Derek has self-published his book, which is a long-standing and honourable practice followed by quite a few famous authors. Nevertheless, it could have benefited from assistance in layout. I would prefer paragraphs to be indented, for extracts from the inquiry to be distinguished by a different font or some other device, and a list of dramatis personae to be provided. Some photos would assist visualisation of the many players involved.
The text, though, is very well written, as might be expected of a journalist and author of several books. If you stick with it, and figure out the relationships between the key figures, the story becomes ever more engrossing, and the difficulties of challenging powerful opponents ever more apparent.
The Fatal Line is a useful addition to writings on media suppression. It shows how profoundly these long-ago events affected Derek, and more generally how valuable it can be to tell stories of corruption and resistance. No doubt there could be a thousand books written about censorship in the Australian media, but nearly all remain unwritten. The Fatal Line should be an encouragement to others to tell their own stories.
Derek Maitland, The Fatal Line (Derek Maitland, 2016). Contact Derek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Martin is editor of The Whistle.
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