2007 Senate occasional lecture series

By Stephen Mayne
December 6, 2015

Here is a transcript of a public lecture given in Parliament House on July 20, 2007.

Crikey, How the Internet is Changing Politics!

I must say it's nice to actually be able to get into the building. It's quite ironic that in the early days of Crikey we were in political terms a vehicle for the Costello forces and we were basically running their line very aggressively and getting stuck into the PM at every opportunity and pushing the Costello faction. Then things turned around and we started calling the Treasurer nicknames like ‘dollar sweetie' and talking about his glass jaw, and next thing you know we've been banned by the Treasurer from the Budget lockup. So I always find it ironic that the great rationale for allowing concentration of media ownership in Australia is that the internet opens up the field to everyone, so you can access the BBC, Fox News and any blog you like, therefore we can allow all our major media companies to merge. Yet when it comes to the major set piece of the year in political terms in Australia, the Budget, the number one independent internet business is not allowed to attend. I think that the Government's hypocrisy on that is quite stunning. As Australia's most unsuccessful candidate, who has lost 33 times now in total, including 26 corporate elections, Melbourne City Council, Jeff Kennett's old seat, Melbourne Press Club, the RACV—you name it, I've run for it and I've lost—I've never actually run in a federal election, so I'm tempted to run in Higgins on a ‘Let us into the Budget lockup' platform.

I thought I would give some personal background before talking more broadly about the internet. I was just a regular mainstream journalist, focussing mainly on business. I've worked for the Herald Sun, the Age, the Financial Review, the Daily Telegraph, as a gossip columnist, chief of staff, business editor, business reporter, also 18 months as a spin doctor for Jeff Kennett, right at the beginning of the Kennett revolution during the most dramatic period we've seen from any government in Australia in terms of reforms that a government tried to push through. I've done the whistle-blower thing, leaking stories to Today Tonight anonymously about Jeff Kennett's dodgy share dealings and when that didn't quite have the effect that I hoped, which was to knock Jeff off, I then tried the full blown whistle-blower thing on Four Corners. So I appeared on Four Corners and made all these allegations about Jeff Kennett, and that didn't work, so I left Victoria and went up to Sydney.

Then I tried the candidate thing, as I figured that because the media had been, in my view, so soft on Jeff, the only way to get the issues out there was to actually run as a candidate in Jeff Kennett's seat. Unfortunately I was ruled ineligible and as I couldn't get a job back with the mainstream media because I'd bagged them all for being too soft on Jeff, I had no alternative at that point but to turn to the internet. I published a website called Jeffed.com during the 1999 state election, which I think to this day is still quite unique in the world, in that it did have an impact on the election result. Kennett was the hot favourite; he had launched his own website, Jeff.com.au, which was designed by Sausage Software, one of the tech boom companies, and he was the cool hip guy embracing a medium that he couldn't control. So I came out and launched Jeffed.com as the shadow site to that. Now anyone could have done that and it might not have had any effect, but the difference that I had was that I was a former insider and I had a whole pile of information that was unique and quite sensitive.

I had found that the restriction of the mainstream was that, when I did a tell-all interview on Four Corners, their lawyers took out about 70 per cent of what I was hoping to put into the public arena. I found other media outlets too were a bit nervous about running some of the more aggressive things that I was saying about Jeff Kennett. I think it's worth just briefly mentioning a couple of them: hounding the DPP from public office; $400 000 defamation settlement with Kerry Packer at a time when Kerry Packer had made $100 million out of the Casino; first government since William of Orange to sack judges; worlds biggest casino; worlds biggest toll road; got rid of 100 000 workers; reduced the public sector from 260 000 to 160 000; closed 10 per cent of schools; sold $40 billion worth of assets. It was a dramatic revolution, but for mine there were also some ethical issues. The big thing that I had up my sleeve was that I'd basically been Jeff's de facto stock broker in the office and I'd been a party to him doing some utterly inappropriate share trading, which was ringing up stock brokers and securing large allocations of shares in hot floats and then placing them in his wife's name and not disclosing it to parliament. It was pretty amazing stuff that he was doing.

So I had the material and the key thing about this that I want to stress today is that you've got to have the content. It doesn't matter if you're on the web, if you've got nothing meaningful to say, they won't read it, it won't have an impact. It's the old ‘build it and they will come', ‘reveal it and they will come'. It doesn't matter what the medium is, whether it's the internet, whether it's a great biography on John Howard, whether its an exclusive on a TV show, it all comes down to the content, and in the case of Kennett, I had the content. What happened was, I needed to get a platform to get some attention, so I announced I was running against Jeff, and this got some publicity, because I knew I was going to start ripping into the media and as soon as I started doing that I would get banned by some sections of the media and there was no point having a blog or website if no-one knew about it.

The key person in Victoria who made Jeffed an item was Jon Faine of the ABC. I put 20 000 words up on the web detailing every possible last grievance that I had about Jeff, and on the first day it had 800 page views; on the second day it had 1500 page views; and then Jon Faine rang me at 7.30 one morning and said: ‘I've just read it, that is amazing, I'm going to plug it and I've got 250 000 listeners tomorrow'. So the next morning at 7.30 am he said: ‘You must read Jeffed.com, it has some amazing revelations about Jeff Kennett.' We had 8000 page views that day and basically we did 115 000 page views over the two week period. This was literally launched two weeks out and had 115 000 page views and at the end of the campaign we were getting more traffic than the ALP site and the Republic site, given the referendum was coming up. So that was a lot of traffic in a short time and it did, I think, change the outcome of the election.

The reason for that was not voters going to the website, reading the material and changing their vote. The key thing was that it influenced the media and for mine the old media is still all-powerful in Australian politics. With a media insider out there saying ‘Jeff's doing all these things, the media's soft, these are the stories they've missed' they were under great pressure to give Jeff a tougher time, and Jeff had a really bad last week of the election and he lost in the greatest shock that we've seen in 50 years in Australian elections. I was shocked myself because I was resigned to moving back to Sydney and leaving Victoria, so I had to decide what on earth I would do next. I couldn't get a job back with the mainstream, so I said alright, we'd better launch something else. You can't have a website called Jeffed when there's no Jeff, so we decided to launch Crikey in February of 2000.

Once again, in the case of Crikey, it is the content that matters. I had the marketing help of the guy who helped bring down Jeff, and our slogan for the first few years of Crikey was ‘Bringing down governments since September 1999', which was a bit full of itself of course, but people had written that we had had an impact and so we traded on that. But if Crikey had had rubbish content it would have sunk like a stone. What happened was a guy called Christian Kerr, who was a former staffer to Senator Hill and the South Australian Premier John Olsen, started writing an anonymous column for Crikey under the name Hillary Bray. We had great unique content because Christian had insights that the rest of the media didn't have. He effectively was a whistle-blower writing anonymously under a fake name on a website that I was prepared to run, and take the risks on defamation and the opprobrium of the media and all that sort of stuff.

I had it for five years and in that time I accumulated an amazing enemy list. I've upset a lot a people. I'm a bit worried that Glen Milne might be in the audience today and would push me off the stage if he was here.

It was not that it was the distribution mechanism of the internet, it was the content and we basically had very good content. Everyone says it's the internet which is the key, but it wasn't actually that with Crikey; it was the distribution model, it was the email. Email is absolutely the key and what Crikey has today is I think Australia's biggest and most powerful email list. We've got 46 000 people who are on that email list, who receive an email from Crikey each day. For instance we've got 375 of them who have parliament house email addresses (aph.gov.au.). There are about 4000 people who work in Parliament, and for our little independent e-zine to be hitting 375 of them every day is incredible. If you want to hit the house on the hill, you've got to get something into Crikey.

Crikey has become the place to go if you want to reach Australia's most powerful email audience. Some other statistics: 460 people at abc.net.au get Crikey, so the journalists, the people who make the news also receive the daily Crikey and that's also very important; it goes into business; it goes into the law; 87 people from Freehill's, and 158 people from Macquarie Bank get it. So it's a very well connected and powerful audience, and Crikey's basically become an aggregator. The demand-supply equation has changed with the internet. There is now far more information than people actually need or know what to look for and we receive hundreds of emails a day and we filter what's coming in. So we decide this is of value or this is not of value and we put the links in there and we point people to things out there that are going to be of interest.

So how did Crikey get to this point? Well, we had to break some big stories. The biggest was the downfall of Natasha Stott Despoja. In that case we had received a lot of material from Democrat staffers, particularly Meg Lees supporters, who were airing their grievances about Natasha through us. We were the only media outlet that took any interest in it. We were publishing a lot of trivial stuff, probably far too much about the Democrats and Natasha, but when the real fight exploded between Meg and Natasha, all the correspondence between Natasha and the head office and the national committees and these sort of things had come to us, and we were able to publish it in full. That's one of the most important things about the internet; it allows you to publish vast amounts of material, and we see that with the classic example of Dr Haneef this week. It wasn't the act of giving the transcript of interview to the Australian, which the Australian then summarised in a story that was 1000 words, it was the publication of the full 142 000 words. That in my mind is a major way that the internet has transformed politics. Every Hansard being available from every committee, and every doorstop that politicians do, holds them to account far more than summarising what they said and when.

When I left Jeff Kennett's office, I spent two days printing out every press release that he'd ever put out because when I went back to the Herald Sun I would need to know what he had said when, to hold him to account. Now you don't need that, because there are back copies of press releases and speeches and doorstops and everything you could possibly want out there on the web. In the old days it was very difficult to get your mind around what was happening—you had to go to a particular office to search the figures, but now it's all up on the web. On February 1st each year there's an absolute deluge of material, and you can search it and you can compile it and you can hold politicians to account. You can ask the companies who is donating what. I went to the Macquarie Bank annual meeting yesterday and they read out a list of the donations they had given that had been disclosed on the internet. Ten years ago when I was going to the Macquarie Bank AGMs, you couldn't have done that because you wouldn't have had the material.

There were other stories which were important for Crikey in terms of building a brand. The Cheryl and Gareth affair was probably our most notorious. Laurie Oakes came out and said: ‘Cheryl's got a big secret' and we came out and said: ‘This is what it is.' It was pretty controversial at the time but Laurie then came out that night on the news and said: ‘And here's the email evidence', and so he got us out of jail so to speak, but that was big. Another one that's not really remarked upon much, was in 2002 when there was a major factional fight in the ALP, when Crean tried to change the voting powers with the unions from 60/40 to 50/50 and there was a major power struggle in Victoria. A whole bunch of the senior political players learned about this on Crikey, and we published 35 000 words in a matter of about eight weeks under bylines like ‘Delia Delegate', ‘Betty Branch Member', ‘Roger the Representative'. It was all the factional heavies, the politicians themselves and their string-pullers, writing under fake names, basically pitching an argument to try to affect the vote at a forthcoming state conference. One of Steve Brack's advisors said to me later: ‘That has got to be the first time in the world that a major political power struggle has taken place on a third party website', and I think that's what actually happened. They were pitching to the 500 delegates that were voting, 35 000 words poured out, the public's knowledge of the factional manoeuvrings of the ALP in Victoria tripled as a result of that process, which was never mentioned in the mainstream press, and an amazing amount of information was placed out there.

At that point we set up this division in Crikey called ‘The Las Vegas Division', which was: we'll host your fight; come along and we'll give you the protection of no by line. That was a key point about Crikey. We took risks, we published material that others wouldn't publish and we allowed powerful people to write under nom de plumes and to put information out there which was different from what the mainstream media did.

I should say that, speaking for the Department of the Senate, one of my favourite old senators (or one of my least favourite) is of course Senator Nick Bolkus who I gave $25 000 in settling a defamation action. Another of my favourites is Noel Crichton-Browne (NCB), a notorious senator. I don't think I'm telling too many secrets to say this, because people have worked it out and I've mentioned it obliquely in the past, but NCB was basically sitting over there in Western Australia, he'd been thrown out of the Liberal Party, he was still a factional power-broker and he rings me up one day in 2000 or 2001 and says: ‘Can I start writing for you?' I said: ‘Alright, send the page through and I'll have a look at it.' So this absolute deluge came down over the next three years and NCB basically lined up every one of his enemies he ever had and one by one executed them on Crikey, and it was frantic. It was amazingly detailed, it was amazingly vitriolic. I'd have to take about 20 adjectives from each piece because someone would be an absolutely disgraceful and horrific and you'd just have to tone it down. But this was an example of a political power-player who lost his power, which he'd exercised ruthlessly through the formal channels, and then basically embraced the internet because he knew it had the audience; he knew that Crikey had politicians who were reading it, all the people he wanted to hurt were reading it, and he was affecting votes over in Western Australia. He was demolishing people and I had a lot of people saying that I had been captured by NCB. So what I used to do was to ring up Christian, our political guru, and I'd say: ‘I'm feeling a bit bad, I'm captured by NCB.' So Christian would launch an attack on NCB and then Noel would ring me up and go: ‘What the hell's your bloke doing ripping into me for, I've given you all these great stories.' Then I'd say: ‘Noel, I can't control him. He doesn't know it's you.'

The whole approach of Crikey was to let everyone have a spray, let everyone have a say, and people would arrive at the scene of debate. So if a NCB wants to put a piece up, that's fine as long as it's not outrageously defamatory (and with NCB you knew it was forensically researched in terms of the facts) and if someone wanted to come and have a flail back at NCB, that's fine. All comers are welcome at Crikey. We had a lot of that and we hosted a number of powerful influential political people writing under fake names to get material out there. It highlighted in a way that one of the downsides of the internet is that it really does make the whole dirt-sheet thing a lot easier and it's a mechanism that you can't control. Traditionally, distributing dirt-sheets into letter boxes or by the mail happened a bit, but now it's so much easier to go and do a blog and put an anonymous posting up there ripping into someone.

It is very difficult to control, as John Howard discovered this week with YouTube, when he put his message up there and was deluged with 50 to 100 negative comments and negative postings from people. I think it was a salutary lesson for him, as someone whose government is the most available to the media in the world. There is no other government anywhere which spends so much of its time talking on the radio, talking on the television, engaging with the media. I think John Howard's embrace of YouTube this week was an absolute disaster because Labor came up with such a brilliant response, and he just looked so stilted, and then he got very little traffic and it was hard to find his thing on YouTube. He couldn't command a prominent position on YouTube, and he got absolutely bollocked by all the people who posted on it. I think the lesson for John Howard is just don't bother with YouTube, its not your audience, they're not going to vote for you, and you just look silly on there. Try something different.

I'm going to give a few other points about the internet. There's internet 1.0 and there's internet 2.0 and anything that's 1.0 was basically putting stuff out there that previously wasn't on line and that's where the Hansards and the political donations and all those sort of things going on line, every politician having a website came into play, but it wasn't very interactive. The whole web 2.0 phenomenon now is all about the interaction, it's all about allowing the community to have a say. It's all about allowing posts up there and it's about meeting and associating with people, forming friendship groups through which you can swap information and exchange ideas.

What it has led to is in a way a bit like the music industry. That has become so fragmented, that the idea of mainstream music isn't really around now anymore. Now everyone has all their niches and they like their particular music, and it's the same with the web and all these social groups that it creates. People go and find other people who have similar views to theirs. So the internet now allows people to reaffirm their own pre-conceptions about politics, their own prejudices, their own views, by finding other like-minded people on particular blogs or particular papers around the world or whatever, and it does disempower the mainstream media to a degree.

There's a fundamental difference in the Australian and the United States political systems which makes the internet far less important in Australia than it is in the US, and that is compulsory voting. In the US, particularly with the primaries, you actually don't have very many people who are voting and participating in it. So people who set up blogs that are designed to influence primaries in the US are attracting people who will be voting in the primaries, they are attracting partisans, they are attracting political junkies and they will exchange information and they can generate genuine material that will change votes, enough votes that will affect an outcome. The same thing doesn't happen in Australia because the vast majority of people are voting in Australia. The average turnout is still 93 per cent. Its very difficult to reach enough people via the internet to change votes, and I discovered this personally last year. I ran in the Victorian election last year. I spent $35 000 and I set up a website called Bracked.com, trying to trade off the back of Jeffed.com. I didn't particularly have the original content that I had with Jeffed because I hadn't been an insider who could blurt all this stuff out like I had with Jeff Kennett. I brought up an email list of about 3000 people and I was pumping out stuff every day, but I barely got any mentions in the mainstream media. The mainstream media pretty much ignored me and our little party called People Power and I got a miserable 1.3 per cent and it had absolutely no effect whatsoever. That incredibly difficult experience of trying to get up an alternative political candidacy and party got me thinking.

The bottom line is that Australian politics is still dominated by the old media, and they still command millions of eyeballs. The circulations of the News Ltd papers and the viewership of the free-to-air stations is still vast; it still runs into the millions, compared to even Crikey'sMySpace and have your own page and politicians are embracing that and Labor's use of YouTube this week was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I think it was a key moment in the use of the internet in Australia, but it actually didn't necessarily need to be YouTube. It was just the old traditional ‘Labor today released a TV ad', which is what it was and even if they hadn't posted it on YouTube, it still would have had a big run in the mainstream media because they would have done the old ‘Labor releases TV ad'. Here's John Howard with his eyebrows and the amazing pictures of Bush and Howard in bed—very powerful images about being asleep with climate change. It had a far bigger impact because it followed Howard trying to embrace YouTube, but it wasn't the people visiting YouTube that effected it, it was the fact that it ran on all the TV bulletins and it made the front page of the papers. So it was the old media's mentioning of YouTube that made it, and that was my experience with Jeffed. It wasn't people coming to Jeffed that changed things; it was the mainstream media mentioning it.

If you're going to be successful in changing politics in Australia from the internet's perspective, you have to have a partnership effectively with the mainstream media, which still dominates the traffic figures. Even if you look at who are the top websites in Australia, it's all the same old media—it's still Ninemsn, Fairfax, News Ltd and the ABC. So the old media, which was supposedly going to be broken down by the internet, is actually dominating about 90 per cent of the relevant traffic in terms of political coverage and people getting political information. I don't think it has changed as much as a lot of people say. You might think it's surprising to hear that, but I think it's actually overstated in terms of the impact.

There are a couple of other interesting things I want to mention about the technologies and how they've changed things. There's a website in the United States called Digg, which you might have heard of, which is democratising what is good in the media. What happens is that if you like a story, you will click ‘I dig this' and that goes to the website in the US, and stories get ranked based on the number of clicks they've had. This website now has 1.5 million members—it gets 140 million page views a month. At the bottom of every News Ltd story on their website, and on some of the Fairfax sites, they say ‘Do you dig this?' So you have this website in America getting plugged by Australian newspaper sites saying ‘Please say you dig this', and then you go to the Digg site and the stories that have been most popular (i.e. voted by the punters, not chosen by the journalists or the editors) rise to the top. That is where obscure blog postings and things that wouldn't normally be discovered are actually getting introduced to a wider audience and that is a very good example of democracy coming to what is important news, what is worthwhile reading news. That's an example of how the internet has changed things in the terms of the way people are consuming their media.

Perhaps I should mention GetUp! People are talking about GetUp as being a powerful political tool in Australia based on a US model, which has been successful over there. GetUp has a large email list; I get their messages every day. The problem with GetUp is that its people are too associated with the left and with the Labor Party, with some of the founders now being endorsed Labor politicians. They did manage to galvanise people, and probably the best example was the protest they ran outside Parliament House on David Hicks. That was a GetUp campaign. They are an emerging force and they should be watched, but at the end of the day, I think even the power of GetUp is a little bit overstated. It is effective in what was already a very active community, amongst the green groups and the unions and the left, who just picked a slightly different tool and tried to dress it up as a new and innovative thing.

There are a couple of other points I want to make in terms of how the internet is changing politics. One of the most important is fundraising, particularly in the states. The mechanism by which you can raise money is absolutely important, and certainly my discovery last year with trying to do People Power is that mainstream media and money are still the two biggest things to crack in politics. The US election next year will be the world's first billion dollar election and that is massively expensive and while the internet does break down some costs, it doesn't break down enough. In the Australian context, if you try and get up a political party, and man every booth and printout millions of how to vote cards, it literally costs you a fortune. So until in Australia we get things like direct voting, internet voting, which takes away the people barrier of manning all those booths and the actual cost of printing all those how to vote cards and putting all the bunting up and the signs up at polling booths, the barriers to entry are going to be there and as strong as they've ever been. Can anyone see anyone getting up and challenging the Australian political duopoly? Is the internet throwing up new fresh candidates? Where independent players are doing best is where the internet is least placed, like in regional seats and Pauline Hansen. And Pauline Hansen was certainly not the result of the internet generation embracing her. It was very much a non-internet generation embracing her, as told by the mainstream media. It was a classic example of mainstream media creation.

Myspace, yes, if you're a politician, it's cool. You've got to be on myspace and it's worth having a page. In the Australian context, the vast majority of the population aren't interested in politics, so the politicians have to project themselves into somewhere that people are interested in. They have to project themselves into the YouTubes and the myspaces, which are basically about entertainment and networking amongst friends. For a political class, which is largely ignored by the majority of the voters, particularly the young voters, it makes sense to present into their space where they are interacting and talking. But you have to do it coolly and properly, and certainly the way John Howard did it this week wasn't an example of that.

Finally, I'd like to make a few more comments about the media and what it means. I think the internet's influence is far more profound on the media than it is on politics. One of the very important things is the way it is fundamentally undermining independent quality journalism, because the revenues that support independent journalism are being seriously attacked. Seek.com does pay for any journalism, yet it is massively eating the lunch of Fairfax and News Ltd by taking away direct classified advertising revenue. So you are going to see things like the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald merging their bureaus. You are going to see less investigation into journalism because the internet is full of commentary and opinion, and commentary and opinion is cheap; it is easy. It's full of self-opinionated people banging on and often saying things which aren't particularly of value to anyone.

Really useful, unique information that changes the public debate, making uncomfortable disclosures about politicians that are in the public interest, doesn't come cheap. You need serious journalists doing serious research to do that. Now there are some aspects of the internet which augment investigative journalism in a very positive way. Take the typical Four Corners story. Ten years ago Four Corners was a three month investigation which was aired in 45 minutes and that was it. Now it's a collaboration between what goes to air and the full transcripts and the full interviews. You get far more accountability and far more information from a typical Four Corners program now because they give you all the research documents. They make it a far more fulfilling and deep research project and that does add a lot of value to it.

I think it is a real worry that quality journalism is not going to be as well funded in Australia. There is too much easy opinion and cheap opinion on the internet. The other thing is this whole notion of citizen journalism, and how citizen journalism will change the way that politics happen and that media happens. In some senses that's right. Hurricane Katrina was a classic example, where because of people with their telephones taking photographs, you actually had a situation where the media knew more about what was happening after Hurricane Katrina than George Bush did. I don't think George Bush ever really recovered from sitting up there in Washington saying: ‘We just didn't have the information, we just didn't know what was going on', yet meanwhile on websites and all over the place there were pictures, there was imagery, there were live reports, and the reality for George Bush was that he looked like a guy who was too slow and out of touch.

The key thing for politicians is this 24-hour news cycle that we now have, around the clock cable TV and things like that, which are actually almost more important than the internet. The initial response from a politician is now far more important, and it becomes indelibly implanted into the public opinion. In the old days, when something happened, you'd have four or five hours to consider your response, and you could come out, draft a statement, talk to the lawyers, consult a few people and then put it out there. Now for the politicians, it's all about getting out there quickly, and if you don't get out there quickly and decisively it can do you some serious damage, and I think the whole Katrina reaction from Bush was a great example of that.

There are also some dangers in this. Do you remember the story of the Brazilian electrician who was shot by the British police? The citizen journalists who reported that said that this guy sprinted into the station, leapt over the barrier, was running away from police, and was shot. Everyone thought a bomb was about to explode or something and he got shot, and that went around the world; live witnesses reported that. What actually happened was, he strolled in, he put his ticket in, he went through the bar, he bought a newspaper and was walking down the train station and was shot. So the initial response put out there by the citizen journalist eye witnesses was actually inaccurate, but a lot of people still had in their mind that that's what happened. It is a really good example of how quick responses are absolutely vital and it's a big challenge for politicians to be fleet-footed and get out there with an instant response, because if you don't the media cycle will have moved on and the public's opinion will have been set in train against you. and as I said I don't think Bush ever really recovered from that perception about how slow he was.

The final comment I'll make is that the internet does to some degree take the journalists out of the equation. You are seeing a more direct conversation between the politicians and the public and that's our model. We actually like to keep the journalists out of it and go to the direct players and ask them to write about what has happened to them, and it is the same with blogging. Andrew Bartlett is directly communicating with his audience and his followers, rather than relying on the mainstream media, the gatekeeper if you like, the journalists, from deciding whether something is interesting or not and then distilling the information, maybe getting some quotes wrong, and putting it out there. So there is this process called disintermediation where the journalists as gatekeepers are actually being largely bypassed now and the internet has been an important factor in that.

I always say to people that there's not a lot of accountability on the internet; there's not a Press Council like the newspapers have, and there's not an Australian Communications and Media Authority like TV and radio have. But I lost my house—we were sued for defamation and I had to move house five times in 13 months, and that is a level of accountability. But these forums are a form of accountability, and I always encourage people to get up and ask very hard hitting questions and really rip into me and give me a left jab, because I find it's a good way to be held accountable, because it is a bit of a law of the jungle on the internet. You can say what you like and there is a perception that people aren't held to account. 46 000 email list, and even the traffic that goes to the blogs and online opinion and all these sort of places. The online space in Australia really is for the junkies and the specialists and I don't think there have been too many examples where the internet has fundamentally changed election outcomes in Australia. Sure you've got to have your own site and its cool to be on

Question — In the interest of full disclosure, I was Natasha Stott Despoja's Chief of Staff. I now work for the Greens. You raised some really important points and congratulations on Crikey by the way. I'm not going to be as aggressive as people might think. You say it's important to reveal to voters: ‘Here's what Jeff Kennett's doing behind the scenes', because presumably you think people need context. It's not just the decisions that politicians make, but the reasons that they might make them, or the way that they might benefit from them. I agree, and I think that is very important. But then on the other hand you say: ‘Isn't it great how we allow anonymous vitriol to be posted on a website?' and you say that's alright, because we invite everyone to leak, to conceal their identity, to lie to their colleagues. We're open, we're democratic, we invite everyone to lower their personal standards. As Natasha's Chief of Staff, I'm sure you can comb your files and not find one email from myself defending Natasha. Certainly you won't find one attacking the people who were attacking her, yet your readers are reading stuff saying: ‘Did you know Natasha did this?' not: ‘Disgruntled ex-Chief of Staff who lost job and got big pay cut has something nasty to say about Natasha.' You've just got an assertion and an allegation. If context is so important, and we have to have the full picture, and Crikey is the bringer of truth to this, how can we achieve that if we're actually just putting cowardice on a pedestal and inviting other people to play just as grubby a version of gossip?

Stephen Mayne — Well it's a good point and it's the big challenge for any blogger or any mainstream media site that is running an unmoderated forum. This is the big issue that they are grappling with now. If you allow anyone to come in and make a posting, you are effectively giving them a vehicle, a platform to say whatever they like and you are exposing yourself to defamation and the important point to note about Crikey is that we've never actually done that. I used to get 200–300 emails a day, only 10 per cent of which would ever have seen the light of day. So the key role that I had as the gatekeeper then—I effectively was the moderator— was in sifting the wheat from the chaff. I don't know how many times I didn't run: ‘John Howard's having an affair with Prue Goward.' It was bollocks, it wasn't right and I didn't put it up there, and there are any number of other example like that.

In the case of Natasha I do quite openly say that we ran too much trivial, petty stuff from disaffected Democrats, and I think that we probably were overall unfair on Natasha. But in the end, when the big story came, it actually came to us because we were the only outfit that had taken an interest in the minutiae. After that I've basically not criticised Natasha since she left the leadership. She ended up marrying an old flatmate of mine and we had a lot of tension, but I do agree with you that I was running what you would call a receiver model. I didn't wake up in the morning and say: ‘Right, this is a good story: journalist 1, 2 and 3 go and do three FOIs; you ring 10 people on the street and ask them this; this is our idea for the day.' I had no resources for that. I was sitting in the spare room at home; I had defamation cases coming at me and big debts, and I basically was sitting on the end of the email and if it came in I would say yes, no, yes, no, whatever, and out it went. In those early days I do think a little bit too much got through on Natasha and I'm quite open to say that. But at another level if Natasha or anyone else supporting her had wanted to put a piece in, we would happily have run it, and if we got something wrong, we would happily correct it.

I think that Crikey did have the most transparent and open corrections policy and right of reply policy. The best example I'll give you is when Terry McCrann sent me a 6000 word piece attacking me. It went on for 6000 words absolutely spraying me, and I happily published it because I'd criticised him and he gets a go. In the mainstream media, you'd never get that—you never get people getting a prominent correction on A Current Affair or the front page of the Age. So I did let more stuff through than I should have, but the policy was never to ban someone from having a right of reply. Natasha and her supporters simply didn't chose to take the right of reply and that was how it panned out. But you've got some fair points and it's something I do think about quite a bit.

Question — Thank you for the entertaining presentation. Crikey costs $115 per year subscription and worth every penny too. Presumably that makes it copyright material. What is your policy on subscribers forwarding copies of Crikey.com emails to non-subscribers; and if you think it's a perfectly fair thing to do, do I run the risk of defamation the same as you do if I do so?

Stephen Mayne — We say that you can't. There are ways and means of actually finding people who do, but it's illegal to then pursue them. So it's a tricky situation, where you use software and the ability to actually find out who is doing it, but the only thing you can do is say: ‘Please don't do it', and rely on people's honesty. The biggest problem for internet business models is multiple uses of passwords, and massive on-passing, and that's why Crikey, for all its size and great email list, is actually a pretty small business in terms of revenue. In the last 12 months that I had it we did $440 000, and I think they've probably tripled that now. So they've gone from 5000 subscribers paying $80 to 13 000 paying $115, and they have increased the advertising ten fold. We were doing 7000 ads, and they have a department of four selling advertising, but it's still only somewhere around 1.5 to 2 million dollars in revenue, which in the context of any other commercial media outlet is an absolute drop in the bucket. It's a very tough thing to build a sustainable business online and people on-passing your product and swapping their passwords and things like that are big problems. You can only just look people in the eye and say: ‘Please don't do it.'

Question — I want to raise something that you've talked about in the past, and that's the defamation laws in Australia. Would Crikey ever have come to its current state if it weren't for the penurious defamation laws? You prided yourself on running the sort of stories that the big boys wouldn't. If our defamation laws weren't as severe and strict, do you think that the major players would be freer and less reluctant to run the sort of stories which Crikey made its name on?

Stephen Mayne — It's an interesting point. In a weird way the thing that made us was losing our house. When Steve Price, the shock jock, injuncted the sale of our house, we ran a massive marketing campaign saying: ‘Evil millionaire shock jock throws internet publisher, wife, and baby onto street, please subscribe.' Our revenue went from $10 000 a month to $30 000 a month on the back of that, and we appointed him our honorary marketing director. So in a weird way defamation battles and David and Goliath marketing helped make us, but moving house five times in 13 months, whilst you're having three kids, was a hell of a struggle. But I got through it three times—two of them where I paid out; $50 000 to Steve Price and $25 000 to Nick Bolkus, where I made mistakes with inaccurate material and then magnified it with inflammatory responses, and handing out flyers outside 3RW saying: ‘Steve Price shouldn't sue', and other provocative stuff. I learnt a lesson when we lost our house, which was: the moment anyone threatens you, collapse, apologise, and move on, because it's not worth it, and I literally haven't had a new writ in six years.

The open corrections policy, giving everyone a right of reply, saying sorry if you make a mistake, is transparent and it's fair, and it also stops you getting sued. For instance, one of the nicknames we used for Natasha which was very unfair was ‘Ah Satan', which was Natasha backwards, and she went to see Steve Price's lawyer and was about to issue a writ about that and I got that on the grapevine and announced that we were going to stop doing it before the letter arrived. So when you've gone too far and you need to neutralise it, you need to apologise or adapt your policies. I got through it three times, under three different laws because we had the state based laws. So I got sued in South Australian law, Victorian law and New South Wales law. Now we've actually had a very good reform driven by Ruddock saying: ‘Get a uniform law or I will legislate' and the states have got together and now have uniform laws which is good, and companies can't sue, which is good, and means there are less writs and a maximum payout of $250 000, which has dramatically reduced the number of defamation writs. I think it is going to be one of the lasting worthwhile reforms of the Howard Government to have facilitated that, albeit it was the states who agreed on the detail. Given the Howard Government's record on free speech and locking up whistle-blowers, or really being aggressive on some of those issues, the defamation changes have actually been very worthwhile, and as I said the new owners of Crikey haven't had a writ and I haven't had one in six years, so that's good.

Question —One of the things that runs through a lot of what you're saying is the difference between the argument about hominem and the actual argument. In other words, playing the person or making a personal comment, and sometimes the latter although less moral, is more strident and takes the argument. Like the drunk trying to get his key into a block of flats door, and the woman at the top says: ‘You're trying to get your key into the wrong door', he says: ‘That's nothing: you've got your head out the wrong window.' It doesn't actually add to the debate but it carries a lot of weight. Would you like to say something about how you steer around that?

Stephen Mayne — It's a good point. I've been to a lot of shareholder AGMs, I've filled in on the ABC as a presenter, I've been a shock jock, I've tried to start up a political party and I've hosted a website, and I can tell you that all of them attract a similar group of people. They are often lonely, a little bit eccentric, and they might have a grudge that they want to get out there. People Power, I used to say, was a grudge factory. People were coming in, they were upset, they wanted to sound off, and people who post on bulletin boards on bloggs are exactly the same. Bloggs and the internet are all about a massive increase in self-disclosure and expression of opinion, and a lot of it is very bad, and how does that differ from talk-back radio? A lot of people who ring talk-back radio are just very ordinary, but that is filtered. The producer asks: ‘What do you want to talk about?' and ‘Who are you?' You have a little bit of quality control, but with the internet, it's often just anything goes.

If you think about the issue of political staffers rorting the feedback system; you have the political staffer who sends letters to the newspaper endorsing their candidate, or who rings up talk-back and says: ‘Isn't it fantastic?' Well it's even easier on the internet to get out there and start posting really totally anonymous and damaging stuff. This is user-generated content and 95 per cent is garbage—it's really very ordinary. Alright, it gives people a chance to get something off their chest. It gives them the chance to meet other people of like-minded view, but the bloggers on the Australian and News Ltd will tell you it's often the same group of people who are emailing stuff to Crikey, posting on Matt Price's blog, ringing up talkback—they often have a big grudge and they want to get something off their chest. Sure it's great everyone can have a say, but I agree with you that the quality of 95 per cent of the user-generated comment is pretty lamentable and doesn't add much.

Question — I have a question about fundraising using the internet in the Australian context. In the US in 2003 we saw a marginal Democrat candidate, Howard Dean, hit the mainstream by using the internet. This time around it seems like its Barack Obama, who was mainstream to start with, making a run over the internet. In the Australian context we haven't had that happen yet. Do you think here it's going to be an opportunity for the small independent parties or an opportunity for the big players to just keep raking in the dollars?

Stephen Mayne — I think the Australia duopoly is well and truly entrenched for the reasons I gave earlier. Compulsory voting is the key. It's very difficult for a newcomer, and Hansen was the exception, to explode onto the scene. You have to have a very charismatic leader with something to go on. Don Chipp was an ex-cabinet minister, well known, with something to go on.

In Australia we've seen very little independent donations. It's just basically the old system of the party heavies go around to the big corporate and the big unions and give us your big cheque—Macquarie Bank $320 000 last year and nothing to any independent candidate anywhere. So I think that for various reasons we have a very entrenched duopoly. Some would say we have the most stable political system in the world—that's the same thing as an entrenched duopoly. I can't see anything breaking it down too quickly and I think the media concentration and the sheer expense of getting up, and public funding is the other thing that is an absolute killer for a minor party. We spent $35 000 and our party spent $200 000 all on the basis that Victoria had introduced public funding and we would get $1.72 per vote for everything over 4 per cent. But not one candidate got over 4 per cent. So public funding delivers tens of millions of dollars to the major parties, it fundamentally bankrolls them, but there are barriers to entry when a start up party has to reap 4 per cent before they get onto that trough. It's just very difficult.

Question — Doesn't the internet provide the small players an opportunity to get past those sorts of barriers though? Going back to Howard Dean again, the last US election was the most expensive one they ever had and he was leading the primaries until he fell apart towards the end. It was only the internet that got him that far. Are we going to see a similar thing here with the Greens and the Democrats having that same opportunity?

Stephen Mayne — No, because in the primaries it is only a very small number of people and he was able to galvanise the political junkies who participate in and vote in primaries. Here you have to get millions of people. How do you reach them? You can produce fantastic stuff on the internet but no-one will know about it unless you get Jon Faine going out and saying: ‘There's this one website which has great stuff.' You have to have something to launch on—you have to have a platform. Matt Drudge says if he was launching the Drudge Report again today, he wouldn't have a clue how to do it because he had his Monica scoop and that was his thing. So to get off the ground as a new party you have to have a major event and you have to be able to keep it together, and show me a small party standing today that's been able to keep it together. The Greens are still going. They are the only one that hasn't imploded at some levels. So I've tried it—I thought I had a bit of profile and platform and whatever and I can tell you I won't be doing it again. It's very hard and I might run as an independent but a start up party using the internet is like herding cats. It all sounds good but: dollars, mainstream media, compulsory voting, very entrenched duopoly. We've got Coles and Woolies—we've got Labor and Liberal. That's what it's like.

Question — You mentioned Matt Price's blog, which is always very entertaining. What interests me about the blog is it seems to produce political opinions which differ greatly from what the Australian might be saying in their opinion pieces. So I wonder do you think that the input of readers of online magazines or newspapers is actually making a difference to how the newspapers are producing their news online—that's one point about the political view. Also the serious papers like the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, if you go on and look during the day, they are putting the ‘man bites dog' stories up to the top. It's as if they are trying to appeal to a wider audience. Do you think there's a contradiction there?

Stephen Mayne — Because they have that software that ranks the most read stories most highly, they've quickly learnt online that pictures of women and man bites dogs type stories are actually often the most popular. It's the DiggIt phenomenon and it's difficult for them to ignore that when the measurement on the internet is so clear for the world to see. It's like television ratings. You know that a show has flopped because you are given an exact figure on the audience for 15 minute breakdowns. With a newspaper you have your annual subscriptions, you know you're doing 200 000; nothing really changes if you put serious politics on the front and the other stuff is buried down the back. With the internet you get far more specific information on what's popular and that tells you the sort of stories that you should do. In terms of newspapers changing their position because of feedback from readers, you do get a lot more feedback. In the old days if you did something controversial, you'd get a bagfull of letters, which no-one sees and you publish two of them and its your little secret that you actually had a little revolt there, and circulation might ring up and say: ‘We've dropped 300 subscribers today because of this' and you go: ‘Ooh, OK', but no-one knows it. Whereas when the Daily Telegraph does a splash attacking Mike Carlton as a disgrace for his comments about Stan Zemanek, their website was full of comments defended Carlton and saying Zemanek was a lamentable fool who deserved to have that said about him and that was the readers pushing back in a way that's visible because they didn't stop the comments from going up there.

So it is more transparent, and the internet is dramatically increasing the number of people who are accessing the Australian. The Australian lost money for years and I think it's going to make about $7 million this year, it's doing nicely, and it's profitable. I think they actually earned $7 million in advertising revenue from the web this year. They are actually making a good fist of it and they have a far wider audience, but I don't think it's going to affect what appears in the paper. Chris Mitchell still has his agenda and he's going to go on with that, but the whingers can have their say on the blogs and we'll let debate flourish there, and we'll take note of it a little bit, but I don't think it's really going to fundamentally change a position of a paper like the Australian just because Matt Price's blog gets a different view coming through.