analysis

Peter Costello’s alleged airport attack puts Nine’s hypocrisy on full display

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
In today's politician's forum Education Minister Jason Clare and Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley address the controversy surrounding Peter Costello in addition to the condemning of the Green's party.

Is there a more tone-deaf reaction to a bullying scandal tainting your media company and driving your share price to a 52-week low than shoulder-charging a young journalist to the ground and smirking about it?

This was the question ricocheting around Australia’s corporate and political corridors on Friday as the shockwaves spread from Nine Chairman Peter Costello’s caught-on-film airport fracas with reporter Liam Mendes.

The Nine board on Friday met to discuss the future of Mr Costello as some of the embattled media company’s biggest names and senior politicians offered censure.

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Shocking video appears to show Mr Costello pushing Mendes over as the reporter peppers him with questions about the sexual harassment and bullying scandals dogging Nine, which have led to the departure of TV news boss Darren Wick and cast a cloud over the future of CEO Mike Sneesby.

Nine’s battered share price, which has been falling for the past month amid complaints by several high profile female staffers that their concerns of a toxic culture were ignored by management, on Friday hit $1.40.

Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers led the criticism of the outburst and Sydney’s prominent morning radio tag-team Ben Fordham and Ray Hadley said on Nine-owned 2GB that Mr Costello had questions to answer.

Amid calls for him to step down, Mr Costello denied making any physical contact with the reporter and claimed that Mendes fell after walking backwards into an advertising placard.

The incident was on Friday inserted into the agenda of a scheduled meeting of the Nine board.

Mr Chalmers said it was a matter for Mendes about whether a complaint should be made to police.

“I think it’s really important that we treat journalists with respect, that journalists are safe in their workplace,” Mr Chalmers said in Brisbane.

“And if anyone should know that, it should be the chairman of a major media organisation.”

On his radio show, Mr Hadley said Mr Costello’s behaviour was “not really good”.

“I know what would happen to me if I dropped my shoulder into someone who was trying to interrogate me somewhere. You wouldn’t hear the end of it,” Mr Hadley said.

“From a company’s point of view, it’s not really good when the chairman is accused, let alone acted in the way that he allegedly acted.”

Earlier, Ben Fordham said, “Boss, you’ve had a shocker”.

Nine chairman Peter Costello has pushed a journalist to the ground at Canberra Airport.
Nine chairman Peter Costello has pushed a journalist to the ground at Canberra Airport. Credit: The Australian/supplied

Former treasurer Wayne Swan, who succeeded Mr Costello as treasurer when Labor won office from John Howard in 2007, said his former political rival behaved inappropriately.

“In public life, you face the blowtorch from time to time and you’ve just to keep your cool,” Mr Swan said.

“But you know when you’re a senior minister, when you’re the head of a large public company, especially a company which practices quality journalism you’ve got to be very careful about how you behave.”

Education Minister Jason Clare said on Sunrise that CCTV footage of the incident should be looked at to get to the bottom of what happened.

“No one should be pushing other people around,” Mr Clare said.

“The journalist there says …it did happen, I see Mr Costello said that it didn’t happen. There’s CCTV footage I’m sure that the airport has as well, it’s a matter for the airport about whether they release that or provide that to the police.”

A spokesperson for Canberra Airport said that the CCTV footage would not be released publicly at the direction of the Australian Federal Police.

News Corp and Nine have been approached for comment.

Whatever comes of this latest Nine scandal, there’s no doubt there is a cultural issue.

The man who built Nine, Kerry Packer, was so infamous for his foul treatment of journalists that my mate as a young reporter who was sent out to cover the theft of some gold bullion from the safe inside his glittering magazine empire HQ was warned to stand back from him when asking questions.

“He’ll swear at you and make you feel small. But don’t worry, he does it to everyone,” said the chief of staff.

Which was exactly what happened.

It’s fair to say most members of the public have zero sympathy for journalists who cop abuse for doing their jobs. From the outside, the physical act of news-gathering can be just plain ugly.

But I’d argue the hypocrisy of a media boss who lashes out when someone asks them the kind of hard questions that deliver their profits is far more offensive than any press pack.

Which is something the journalist union agrees with.

“As the chair of a major media company that employs hundreds of journalists, Mr Costello should know that a journalist asking him questions is just doing his job, and like any other work in this country deserves to be treated with respect and to be safe,” said Michelle Rae, Acting Director of MEAA Media:

“Whatever the circumstances of the incident, it is concerning that not only did Mr Costello behave aggressively towards the journalist from The Australian, but he showed no concern for his wellbeing after he fell to the ground.

“It is extremely disappointing that as the chair of a media organisation, Mr Costello should appear to have such low regard for the work of journalists, whoever they are employed by.”

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