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11 May 2006

Beaconsfield: mining for heroes' gold

Above ground and into the glare of television lights the self-proclaimed 'two stars' of the Beaconsfield mine tragedy, Todd Russell and Brant Webb, have a story to tell and a story to sell. We look at the behind-the-scenes dealing to 'win' an exclusive.

And vale Richard Carleton. Gerald Stone gives an insight into his long-term colleague and friend who died while covering Beaconsfield.

Transcript

This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

Gerald Tooth: This week: Beaconsfield, the media, and mining for heroes' gold.

Above ground and straight into the glare of television lights the self-proclaimed 'two-stars' of the Beaconsfield mine tragedy, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, are suddenly worth their weight in gold. A little later we'll check out the cheque books and the furious activity surrounding them.

You'll also hear from Gerald Stone as he talks about his friend and colleague the late Richard Carleton.

But first we take you to the other side of the largest media scrum in living memory and find out what went on behind the carefully staged press calls.

Mike Lester is from CPR Communications and Public Relations in Hobart. He was the man hired by Beaconsfield mine management to control the huge media throng that gathered at the goldmine expecting nothing less than a miracle.

Mike Lester, welcome to ABC Radio National's Media Report.

Mike Lester: Good morning.

Gerald Tooth: Did you feel like you were managing a miracle?

Mike Lester: I don't know if managing is quite the right word for it; it was a huge crowd, as you mentioned, of journalists, photographers, cameramen, technicians, satellite dishes, just an enormous number of media. I can't think of anything that really would equal it in my experience, except maybe Port Arthur.

Gerald Tooth: Did you have any idea how big this job would be when you took it on?

Mike Lester: No, I didn't. I was unsure when I first got the call whether it was going to be just cover the media for the day they rescue the guys, or if they found that they had all died, or whatever. So I was expecting a day or two maybe up there, and some work later on to manage any media that might have followed up out of that.

Gerald Tooth: When were you called in? It was after they were found, wasn't it?

Mike Lester: The guys were trapped at 9.35 on the Tuesday night, and I got a call on Wednesday morning, and was up at Beaconsfield about 1 o'clock, or 2 o'clock in the afternoon on the Wednesday.

Gerald Tooth: What did the Beaconsfield mine management want you to do for them?

Mike Lester: Well they're a fairly small operation in terms of manpower, and they realised straight away that there were going to be a lot of journalists, a lot of media interest in this. The mine's manager, Matthew Gill, didn't really have enough time if he was running a rescue operation, to spend all his time out briefing the media about how they were going to do things, and what was going on. So my job basically was to act as the liaison person between the media and the mines manager at that time. But it grew and grew; the longer it took, the more media arrived, and so it became a bigger job than that.

Gerald Tooth: How did you deal with the daily media demands and the 24-hour news cycle?

Mike Lester: Well first of all we decided early up that you couldn't do one-on-one interviews, it would just be too long and you wouldn't have any time to run a rescue operation. So the first thing we did was decide that there be just a couple of media updates a day, one of those to be just a media release, and the other one to be for Matthew to go out and meet all the journalists and give them a bit of a run-down in person. So that tried to manage his time by doing that. And the second approach was really more of a stakeholder communications type approach, where I or Matthew or one of the other staff members there, would brief key people like the Mayor, the Premier, the Minister, the Local Minister for Mines, as well as the Unions and the Minerals Council being the main ones.

Gerald Tooth: What sort of calls were you taking each day in number?

Mike Lester: Oh, I've given up counting them. It started loosely at around about 1230 in the morning when I snatched about an hour's sleep, and finished at around about 11 o'clock the next day, and as I was taking calls, new ones were adding on to the list on the message at the back, so there's something like - if I spoke for 10 minutes going through calls, I'd have another 10 messages waiting for me. It was just amazing.

Gerald Tooth: How did you go about managing the flow of information from underground, and how many sources of information were there for you?

Mike Lester: I sat in in the control room basically, so I sat through all the meetings and in between sometimes while information was coming up from underground. The way it's set up is that they have somebody manning the phone in the control room with all the people planning the rescue, and other guys underground reporting back on a regular basis. They also had a lot of the decision makers would go underground and then come back up again with new information to help devise their plans.

Gerald Tooth: There's been enormous overseas interest in this story; were you managing that as well?

Mike Lester: Not to the same degree. Most of the overseas stuff was fed out through all the organisations that were represented there largely. Towards the end we started using SMS text messages to let people know key information at key times, you know, it was hard to let everyone know simultaneously that there was going to be a press conference, for example, without physically going down and walking around everybody, and they were hiding in trees, and in buildings, and in hotel rooms all around the town, so it was very difficult to let everyone know at the same time without using an SMS service. So that worked very well for alerting people. And we sent the media release out through networks like AAP so that it was being distributed to all the networks and all the international ones as well. And of course all the Australian television stations that were there were sending their stuff through their networks out to the world as well. I think the only other international one that was there was CNN. They didn't have equipment there, but they did have somebody there to report on the stuff.

Gerald Tooth: Had you been approached by anyone trying to secure exclusive deals with the miners? Have you been involved in that process at all?

Mike Lester: I've been approached by a few people but I'm not directly involved in that. The family have been, as I understand it, trying to work through that process themselves, and I think there are reports they may have appointed a lawyer, I don't know whether that's true, but I think everyone's chasing them now so they desperately do need someone to represent them, yes.

Gerald Tooth: Now were there any tensions with the media? I mean Richard Carleton's last question was about continuing to send men into a dangerous situation for company profit. Now that question was unanswered by mine manager, Matthew Gill; had you told him to avoid answering questions about previous incidents and mine safety?

Mike Lester: I didn't tell him to do so, but what we decided that, as I said before, there was a very limited number of people who could actually focus on all the issues that are involved in this. The primary concern was always to get the guys out from underground, and if you started racing off on all the other questions, you'd never be able to spend enough time on doing the key job.

Gerald Tooth: There was other information that was withheld also, the fact that one of the miners had - the rescuers - had got close to the miners very early on in the piece. That was also withheld from the public; why was that?

Mike Lester: It wasn't withheld as such, it was decided not to use that information publicly at the time because the mine was actually under the control of the Coroner, and also under control of the mines inspectors who had that information, and it was more for legal reasons than anything else that it was decided not to go public with that information at that time.

Gerald Tooth: Mike Lester, thank you very much for joining us on The Media Report this morning.

Mike Lester: You're welcome.

Gerald Tooth: Mike Lester from CPR consultants in Hobart.

Glenn Dyer is crikey.com.au's television writer, and is a former Channel 9 reporter. He's been closely following the chequebook chase at Beaconsfield and yesterday reported that Eddie Mcguire was offering a staggering $6-million for an exclusive interview with Channel 9.

Glenn Dyer says overseas interest in the story could swell that figure even further.

Glenn Dyer: Sometimes the clever people who've been of sufficient interest overseas have held the rights, done a deal, for example Douglas Wood did, through his management last year for overseas rights. So that could be another $200,000, $300,000 could be another $20,000, depending on the level of interest. In this case it's more, because there's not only say international newspaper or TV rights, there's the new media right; there's the internet, there's streaming video, there's things like mobile phone rights, you've heard of the phrase 'slicing and dicing the rights', well this could very well be the first bit of chequebook journalism in Australia that reaches into the new media, simply because it's a big story.

Gerald Tooth: Yet when it comes to the domestic audience, the Douglas Wood story for example, didn't generate great ratings for Channel 10.

Glenn Dyer: No.

Gerald Tooth: What do you think will happen here though?

Glenn Dyer: Well the longer it goes on, the less interested I think people will become.

Gerald Tooth: In terms of the domestic television market though, the competition between Seven and Nine is particularly fierce this year; in the ratings battle there's no clear winner from week to week. If say Seven or Nine bought this story, how do you think that could play out in terms of kick starting their ratings?

Glenn Dyer: This sort of big story, I think the thinking is, deliver us traction, get attention, get people back watching us again. That's what it's all about, that's why there's millions of dollars at stake, or allegedly at stake, it's not so much in the money they want to pay them, it's in the advertising revenue that could theoretically flow from Nine staging such a coup that people flock back to watch it. Eddie Mcguire understands this. I think PBL at Park Street understand this. Whether they can do it is another thing, because in the ratings battle Seven is clearly ahead of the News.

Gerald Tooth: Given what you're saying about the importance of securing this story, is that why we're seeing the major personalities in Beaconsfield and people like Eddie Mcguire at the pub, shouting the bar, or David Koch jumping into the ambulance with one of the miners, and both of those incidents have set off waves of nerves amongst both the channels, haven't they?

Glenn Dyer: Yes, it has. Again, what we've seen here is something very interesting. David Koch and Melissa Doyle, (Kochie and Mel from Sunrise) have emerged in the past four or five months as being two dominant figures in the Australian media, the two dominant personalities. It's quite odd that they have taken over from Eddie Mcguire before Eddie Mcguire became CEO of Nine. You'd be hard pushed to find anybody else as big as 'Eddie Everywhere' as they call him. He has good talent in TV terms, he can walk, talk, he can think, he can produce, he's aggressive, he's innovative, he's on his feet all the time, he doesn't take No for an answer. His TV executive stream at the moment, there's some confusion I think at Nine and in Eddie's mind, who he really is. Is he 'Eddie Everywhere' the journalist? Or is he 'Eddie Everywhere' the Managing Director. But I think he understands that he had to be in Beaconsfield to try and close the deal for Nine because they have no-one else that could do it. Richard Carleton couldn't have done it, it's not his style. There's no-one from the Today Show could do it. That's why, when David Koch was invited into the back of the ambulance, it was chilling for Nine, they knew they had to react as quickly as possible, and it's to Eddie's credit that he saw the situation, and said 'That's it, I'm going.'

Gerald Tooth: Do you think that this is what it's going to come down to though? Personalities, whether it's going to be Kochy or whether it's going to be -

Glenn Dyer: It's TV, commercial TV.

Gerald Tooth: Well do you think when it comes to the families making a decision about who they're going to jump with, that that's what it's going to be on, on which personality they like the most?

Glenn Dyer: Well Seven and Nine are spinning the story that one wife likes Kochy and another wife likes Tracy Grimshaw. It's hard to work out where the facts start and where the spin concludes. But what I think is important is that these people come into their homes every morning, especially the Today Show, the Sunrise personalities, and especially the people at 6.30 because they are national programs. The 6pm News are all local. Naomi Robson, Tracy Grimshaw, Ray Martin last year for the previous two years, they are national figures. Carl Stefanovik, Jessica Rowe, at the moment, these are national figures. People invite them in by turning on the television set every morning. It's so important if you're a TV network manager to have your best-placed personalities in situations like this to try and clinch the deal. And that's how it will be done. There'll be money involved, but it will be how they get on with the people. Because quite often, for example, this is another dilemma for Eddie Mcguire, and Seven's case Kochy and Mel will do the interview, that's a given. No-one else has got the clout. Who does Nine get? Does Eddie say, 'I'll do it?' There'd be a lot of people whose noses would be out of joint at Nine. Ray Martin? Or does Eddie stand back and play the media manager and say, 'No, let Ray do it' because Ray has been quite often the voice of Nine speaking to Australia. It's important we have someone like him, a good journalist doing it. It's a very interesting ethical dilemma for Eddie because if it's Eddie the manager doing the interview, where does the commercial side of the transaction start and finish, and where does the journalistic side of the transaction start?

Gerald Tooth: How complicated is it going to be to pull together a deal, given that there's not just two families involved, there's three families involved. We're hearing that the miners are saying that any deal must include Larry Knight's family. How complicated is it going to be to pull that together?

Glenn Dyer: I think the whole thing rises or falls, sinks or swims if you like, on how they treat the family of Larry Knight. If they're perceived to be have been treated as third class citizens or second class citizens, don't get the same amount of money that the two survivors do, it doesn't go anywhere. And I think also there's something else to be remembered here: the miners who went underground, the managers, the supervisors, the people flown in from around the country, it's a fabulous story, the specialist explosives expert flown in from Jervis Bay, from Nowra, they all deserve something because they put their lives on the line, because they could have triggered a rock fall that not only killed the two survivors but killed themselves. Don't they deserve something? It's not just the story of the miners, theirs is an amazing story, but in reality, they survived five days, they were found after five days and they were fed sustenance, they were given an Ipod, they had all the trappings of modern civilisation there. They were in a terribly cramped position, they were in a difficult position, but brave people went underground, brave people risked their lives day in, day out, 24 hours a day to tunnel towards them to get them out, and I think the whole transaction will be seen to have been a dud if those rescuers are not included somehow in the deal.

Gerald Tooth: All right, well talking about who does benefit from this and who deserves to benefit, as opposed to who will benefit, what sort of fees will the agent that ties down this deal, get?

Glenn Dyer: About 30%.

Gerald Tooth: 20% or 30%, so a million dollar deal, they're going to walk away with $200,000 to $300,000?

Glenn Dyer: Yes, it's pretty incredible, isn't it?

Gerald Tooth: It is. That's as we expect the mine may close down and these people will not have an income in that town any longer, they're giving away a fair bit of their future income, aren't they?

Glenn Dyer: Yes, they are. And the thing that I find interesting is that no-one has actually suggested yet any amount of money that the TV networks, how about we actually do a deal with both networks? That we give them each a bit of exclusivity, that we put some money into the pot for the two miners, for Larry Knight's widow and children and immediate family, and the rest goes into a fund for the town. If I was Nine or Seven, that's what I'd be trying to do.

Gerald Tooth: Glenn Dyer of crickey.com.au

As the AWU calls for an inquiry into the Beaconsfield accident, in the United States this week public hearings have begun into the Sago Mine disaster.

In January this year, twelve men died in the West Virginia mine, after there were initial reports that they had been saved, starting a debate about the reporting of such disasters and coverage of the mining industry as a whole.

Ellen Smith is the editor of the US trade publication Mine Safety and Health News. She says the media is rarely interested in mining until lives are lost in accidents that could be prevented.

Ellen Smith: Since Sago, at least here in the United States, we've seen an increase in the press interest in the mining industry. But before Sago, there was hardly any coverage at all, and in fact it was quite difficult to even get the general press interested in mine accidents or even fatalities in the industry.

Gerald Tooth: What do you think has been the result of that greater interest? Do you think that media interest is actually helping to improve mining industry safety standards?

Ellen Smith: Yes. I think it is helping to improve mining industry safety, and the reason is because so many more people are focused on this and starting to ask questions why. Why wasn't this done? Why wasn't that done? In the United States, why are fines so low for mine operators who continually break the law. The fines can be extremely low, $US220 for instance, roof control violations, something where a guy could die. So because of this increased scrutiny, the government agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is actually coming down harder, more recently on my operators in safety inspections and also in the fines that they levy against them. And I do think it's because of the new media scrutiny on the agency, and on the mining industry in general.

Gerald Tooth: The media coverage of the Sago tragedy was notorious, in that the miners were said to be alive at one stage, when in fact that was not the case, and they were all killed. What do you think were the reasons behind that misreporting?

Ellen Smith: Well there was a miscommunication down in the mine. We now have the transcript from the miner witness interviews and the interviews of the rescuers. So we know that there was an initial miscommunication. But what happened in the case of Sago, it was the very first time that the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not control the press relations during a mine disaster, and what has typically happened in the past is that a press person from the government agency will be in the command and control rescue centre, they will get the information and they will go brief the families as to what is happening. Then they will go and brief the press, and when they're done answering questions of the press, they go back to command and control to find out any new information and they will generally re-brief everyone in an hour, and if there's nothing to brief them on, then they'll simply go back and say 'We have no new update'. What happened at Sago was they left the press relations and the family briefings to the mine operator, and what's important, at least in the United States is the mine operator has the primary responsibility for co-ordinating search and rescue. So here are the operators trying to co-ordinate search and rescue, and trying to deal with the families and tell them what's going on, and try to deal with the press, and it was just a disaster.

Gerald Tooth: Here in Australia, there are calls for a public inquiry into what happened at Beaconsfield. How important has that process of public inquiry been in finding out what really happened in Sago? I understand you're just at the end of the first week of hearings there.

Ellen Smith: This set of hearings was very different than the last time we had a public inquiry. The last time we had public hearings, legal subpoenas were issued to witnesses, they had to appear, and the inquiry lasted approximately six weeks. In Sago, they said that they would do it for two days, they would ask questions for two days, they actually extended it to a third day, they did not legally subpoena any witnesses, it was all voluntary. So you did not have the kind of in-depth inquiry for this mine accident that we have seen in the past.

Gerald Tooth: We're also seeing a scramble here amongst the media outlets, to buy the stories of the surviving miners at Beaconsfield. Have you had similar situations in the US?

Ellen Smith: Yes we did. And as a matter of fact last night I was with Amber Helms, the daughter of Kerry Helms who was killed at Sago. She was in Buffalo, New York, speaking before a group of people, and she was very, very critical of the way the media handled themselves in trying to report on the grief of the family members, and she said that she was appalled and that she felt that it was very, very important for the press to give families their space in these times of tragedy. Our newsletter spoke with the families last month for the first time. We believe in giving people their space when there's been a death or a serious accident, and we just don't try to talk to them right away, we believe that they need to emotionally sort things out before they're able to talk to anyone about it.

Gerald Tooth: Ellen Smith, the editor of trade publication, Mine Safety and Health News, in the United States.

Richard Carleton died at Beaconsfield this week after firing a trademark tough question at mine manager, Matthew Gill.

Carleton had a formidable reputation as a journalist who didn't take a backward step and was not interested in the polite route along the journey to truth.

He broke into television in 1967 on the This Day Tonight program on the ABC.

Gerald Stone is the former Executive Producer at 60 Minutes, who's now an author and Deputy Chairman of SBS.

At This Day Tonight it was Stone who sent Carleton on his first overseas assignment.

Gerald Stone: God favours the lucky ones, and luck favours the few. Richard happened to be the only one who had a working passport at the time when Wilfred Burchett, the left-wing journalist, was trying to get back into Australia. At that time the conservative government was refusing to allow him to return, and he ended up in Noumea. And I sent Richard over there because he was the only one to have a passport at that time, and he scored an exclusive interview, or at least got the first interview to air with Wilfred Burchett, so he proved himself quite a character.

Gerald Tooth: So right from the start, he had a lucky break and made the most of it?

Gerald Stone: Yes, as so many do. He who dares, wins. And I think part of it was because This Day Tonight was really the only program into that type of journalism, though there were of course, newspapers, but the newspaper journalists, as soon as they got to Noumea, all went off to have a few drinks; Richard just never stopped working, and that's a trait that he carried with him all the time. His first role was to complete his assignment, and that he did in very high style.

Gerald Tooth: That program This Day Tonight, was credited with inventing television current affairs journalism in Australia. What part did Richard Carleton play in that creative process?

Gerald Stone: What Richard did was show the first signs of the aggression that he he's so famous for through the rest of his life. He would ask the questions that nobody else was prepared to ask. Let's put that in perspective: of course they would ask generally the same questions, but he had a way of just - I was his producer and one day when I accused him of being like a sledgehammer, just hammer, hammer, hammer, he never gave his interviewees a break. But that was the sign of somebody who was driven by his own sense of logic to ask the questions that really needed to be asked.

Gerald Tooth: So it was very much part of his personality to ask those aggressive questions, the most famous of which was being 'the blood on your hands' question to Bob Hawke. That was him, it wasn't a producer-driven thing, it wasn't someone behind the scenes like you, saying to him, 'Go hard on that politician'?

Gerald Stone: No, no. I might say 'Go hard on that politician', you didn't need to do that with Richard, I mean just the opposite. Sometimes you take your audience's breath away if you just hammer, hammer, hammer, you know, there has to be a little bit of peace and quiet just to let people settle in. But that was certainly his question, and it was vintage Carleton. He didn't ask 'How does it feel to have blood on your hands?' or as some reporters still do today, say, 'Mr Hawke, some people feel that you might have blood on your hands; how do you answer that?' he went in directly and he said, 'Mr Hawke, are you embarrassed about the blood that's on your hands tonight?' So he was not asking whether there was blood on the hands, he said there was blood, the only question was 'Are you embarrassed about it?'

Gerald Tooth: Did that make for good television, or as you say, did it alienate audiences?

Gerald Stone: Well Richard always did polarise his audiences; there were some who loved him, and the questions they asked; there were others who said, 'Oh that young man is too fresh'. But that still made it good television because a lot of people watch to hate somebody as well as to love somebody. That was certainly a factor, and as I understand it, all through his commercial career, where they do these cue ratings to see how the public responds to these people, Richard was always controversial, but there was nobody who could ignore him.

Gerald Tooth: You were instrumental in bringing him across to 60 Minutes. What were the negotiations that happened there, and was he very amenable to coming across?

Gerald Stone: No, he wasn't amenable, because at this stage he was a very highly respected political commentator for the ABC. So I had to persuade him. He wasn't sure, you know, it's a big swap in the media: is money and some of the dangers of commercial television really going to be worth it for me? I finally persuaded him he has to take a gamble because in my mind, he wasn't just a commentator, what he was always able to do was paint wonderful word pictures of a certain situation, remembering that he had an ABC radio background. So he could take something like the downfall of President Marcos and make a wonderful word picture of what happened on the night of that downfall and so on. So I saw him as a great storyteller, and 60 Minutes is all about telling stories.

Gerald Tooth: Gerald Stone, long-time friend and colleague of Richard Carleton.

And that's the program for this week. Thanks to the production team of Andrew Davies and Jim Ussher.

Guests

Gerald Stone
Author, former 60 Minutes executive producer

Ellen Smith
Owner/editor: Mine Safety and Health News,United States.

Mike Lester
Consultant: CPR Communications and Public Relations

Glenn Dyer
Television writer: Crickey.com.au