1951 - | VIC | Journalist, Editor, Broadcaster
Mitchell's 3AW morning program dominated the ratings for almost two decades and helped shape the growing influence of talkback radio. A former reporter and executive at The Age and former editor of The Herald, Mitchell has worked for all three commercial television networks. His sharp ear for the mood of his audience and his history of fighting for the battler have won him the highest journalistic awards and an AO. Amongst his most outstanding successes were several campaigns to raise money to treat sick children and his exposure of faulty speed cameras, which forced the government to repay $26 million in invalid fines.
Another night in the newsroom at The Age. This being 1969, the air is filled with the chattering of typewriters and telex machines and barked orders as men with mutton chop sideburns and wide collars cast nervous glances at the clock. A haze of tobacco smoke hangs above the paper-strewn office. But through all this noise and chaos, there is time for optimism.
This will be a good year for news. Men are about to walk on the moon. A federal election will be held in October. Australian troops were mired in the Vietnam War. And The Age is in the process of moving from its ancient and cluttered Collins Street home to a spanking new newsroom in Spencer Street.
Two editors sit on the backbench, rewriting copy. This being 1969, they are still allowed to do so. Consultants, marketing focus groups, strategic overviews and cost-cutting works-in-progress are yet to be invented.
Graham Perkin, the editor of The Age, leans over to his deputy, Les Carlyon, and points toward a group of spotty, eager-to-please cadets hunkered down at the back of the room.
“That kid’s going to be alright,” he says.
Carlyon squints into the distance. “Which one?”
Perkin points vaguely again at the cadets. “Him”. Carlyon:
Perkin, (now testy): “You know, the kid from Caulfield High – the one with chubby fingers.”
Had Perkin been a horse trainer, he might have gone on to snare a record Melbourne Cup winners. His nose for journalistic talent was almost always sound and, in Neil Mitchell, he’d already seen the signs.
That need to correct an injustice? Tick.
An overwhelming desire to be first? Double tick.
A high degree of irritation at himself when he didn’t get things right the first time? Ditto.
And a driving ambition to be a success? Always. Kid had everything he needed to become an outstanding editor someday. Chubby fingers notwithstanding.
Well, Mitchell went on to become an editor. Perkin died in 1975 and by the early 1980s Carlyon had lured Mitchell across to the Herald and Weekly Times. There, the pair set out in a courageous attempt to defy a worldwide trend and save the company’s famous afternoon newspaper, The Herald.
Turned out no-one in the world would find an antidote for the illness afflicting afternoon papers. There wasn’t one. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
In the end both left a few years before the paper’s funeral. Rupert Murdoch had just bought The Herald and Weekly Times and the pair had flown to the Gold Coast to meet with their new master. Carlyon resigned on the plane home. Mitchell quit half an hour later in the Melbourne arrivals lounge.
This might have been the end of a decent career for the kid with chubby fingers. Mitchell had wanted to be a journalist since the age of 14 and couldn’t think of anything else he’d be good at. But it wasn’t long before he was back in a crusading role. This time radio beckoned.
As editor of The Herald, Mitchell had always spent five minutes each morning with 3AW’s morning talkback king Derryn Hinch discussing what was in the first edition of that day’s paper. A seven hour lunch between the pair resulted in Mitchell filling in for Hinch during his holidays. That led not long after to a permanent shift on the Drive program.
Within two years, Mitchell was occupying Hinch’s chair in mornings (everyone else had knocked it back, he says) and was number one in the ratings. And now Melbourne got the chance to see the man Perkin had predicted would be alright.
Mitchell and Melbourne morning radio seemed made for each other. Here was the perfect platform for a journalist known for his desire for a scoop, for his stubbornness and occasional grumpiness, and for a constant sense of outrage at injustices.
And if he was beaten on a story? A large hole in the wall at the Bank Street studios was left uncovered for years. Just a gentle reminder that Neil Mitchell didn’t enjoy being scooped.
The awards and the ratings that followed were the result of a constant flow of aggressive campaigning that began to reshape the politics and policies of Victoria – and at times the nation. John Howard, in his book Lazarus Rising, would credit Mitchell’s campaign on petrol excising with a change in federal policy on indexation. In the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre he helped establish the Allanah and Madeleine Foundation. Within days the Governor General and the Prime Minister were announced as patrons.
Mitchell had won nine Quill awards for excellence in Victorian journalism by 2013, the 2013 Walkley for radio news reporting, two awards for best talk presenter and two for best current affairs presenter at the commercial radio industry awards as well as being inducted into the radio hall of fame. But the award he treasured most was the 2011 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, named after the editor who hired him for his first job.
Mitchell’s relationship with his audience was profound. They would call to cry on his shoulder, argue with him and label him an idiot (and sometimes he’d agree), laugh with him and, more often than not, thank him. In return they also became his newsroom, his morning show regularly breaking news because of the tip-offs and calls from listeners.
Here was the heart of Mitchell’s influence. His army could be swung into action with one swift call to arms. After the first Bali bombings, Mitchell ensured the steps of the Victorian Parliament were carpeted in floral tributes, one of the most moving public spectacles Melbourne had seen. When news broke of the conjoined Bangladeshi twins, he twisted the arm of the State Government to save Trishna and Krishna, raising $250,000 along the way.
And raising money was never a problem.
Peter Costello once accused Mitchell of extortion. But despite his protests the Royal Children’s Hospital cancer ward still had a $10 million emergency fund created for it. And sometimes a campaign resulted in money being handed back. Convinced there were dodgy speed cameras on the Western Ring Road, Mitchell hounded the government until it surrendered – repaying $26 million to those wrongfully fined.
Through it all, they kept listening to the man with chubby fingers. Mitchell never wanted to stop talking to them. And the audience, in turn, found it hard not to talk back.
One morning in 2010, with his back giving out on him, Mitchell opened his show lying on his lounge room floor, his body filled with valium and pain. He lasted half an hour before an ambulance took him to hospital. He was angry. There was a point he wanted to make about the leaders’ debate the night before. Damn it, the country was in the middle of an election campaign.
And then there was the lovely old lady who was on air with Neil one morning. As they chatted a fire alarm could be heard in the background. Not to worry, said the caller. It wasn’t a drill. It was the real thing. But she needed to get her point across. She insisted on staying on air… until the nursing home staff came and took her away.
Garry Linnell is co-host of 2UE's Breakfast program and a former Director of News Media at Fairfax Media.
Mitchell in the 3AW Studio. Courtesy of News Corp.
Mitchell in the 3AW Studio. Creative Commons.
Neil Mitchell podcasts, on 3AW 693 website.