An eye on the Mayne game

Mark Day
April 27, 2010

As appeared in The Australian on April 27, 2000.

Mayne's hobbyhorses are legion

THE words seem to link themselves automatically, like fish and chips or bangers and mash. When you say Stephen Mayne, the statement is not complete until you add: ``He's a bit mad, y'know.''

A bit mad? As Mayne puts it, he's ``extremely tall and, some would argue, extremely mad''. So we won't quibble about that.

Mayne is also a radical journalist who is doing an old-fashioned thing in a new fangled way, and by so doing, is reminding us of some of the fundamentals of journalism which are all too readily overlooked or forgotten.
Mayne is the proprietor of, a Web site of news and comment involving Mayne's passions – politics, the media, and shareholder democracy. It's a spicy mix, the best site of its kind in Australia if you're looking for something pot-stirring, cheeky, larrikin and opinionated.

It takes a lot of effort and a lot of guts to produce a weekly magazine of this style. Mayne's output is prodigious and his hobbyhorses are legion.

Mayne came to my attention when he was business editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph. Perhaps frustrated by trying to get information out of corporate public relations people, Mayne decided to do that old-fashioned journalism thing and go direct to the source.

He put his hand into his own pocket to buy shares in companies that interested him, and turned up at their annual general meetings to ask questions from the floor as a shareholder. Sometimes he got answers; other times he got horribly squelched. Each time he got a story.

Mayne later moved to the Telegraph's news desk. Then he quit, saying later he was more than somewhat irked by the domineering style of the Tele's editor-in-chief, Col Allan.

Mayne's trademark of direct action was next seen when he tried to stand for election in Victoria. He was ruled ineligible because he had not been a resident for the required time. But that merely encouraged him to tap out an 18,000-word critique of the Kennett government, for whom he had worked as a press secretary (read: spin doctor.) This inside knowledge allowed him to raise many questions of propriety, which he posted on the Web at

The site got a lot of hits, and Mayne takes some credit for the demise of Kennett, although many Victorian political observers say that is a fanciful claim. Whatever, even his friends were saying he was unemployable after his very public ratting on his old boss.

But not so. He bobbed up for a short time writing a gossip column for The Eye but then, as Mayne writes in his CV on the crikey site, ``Fed up with the mainstream media, a failure as a political candidate and too old to play the tennis circuit, [he] had two options: marry very well or start a Web publishing business. He's doing both and therefore has a rapidly diminishing share portfolio that does not match his appetite for asking questions on the floor of AGMs.'' Mayne writes much of crikey's content himself. In one early edition 16 stories were posted, 12 of them written by Mayne. He is also the ideas man, creating some eminently readable material out of what may be simply bees in his bonnet.

For instance, he hates public relations people. He regards them as perversions of the sanctity of news and information – benders, twisters, distorters of the truth, spin doctors and sanitisers, traitors to the cause. You are never left guessing what he really thinks!

So Mayne began circulating lists of journalists who had left the main game to work in PR. The lists grew and divided – journalists who had worked for politicians; for corporations; those who returned to journalism; those who had never tainted themselves or sullied their profession, who he called the lily whites.

He was aided and abetted by many journalists who contributed names or details to the lists. He also ran many letters which followed, arguing whether or not it mattered that a journalist could be a gamekeeper one moment and poacher the next.

This kind of input makes the crikey site interactive and worth returning to each week. A series of stories on the alleged shortcomings within West Australian Newspapers has provoked a lively response from journos working on the paper (unidentified, of course!)

Mayne has also invented a novel Web ``circulation booster'' – the sealed section. This is a tried and true technique of women's magazines: put your raunchy reading into a special section liberally splashed with warnings, call it educational, and watch it sell on intrigue alone.

But on a Web site? Mayne blurbs his best story – in the current issue, a yarn about how Kerry Packer allegedly fired at a plane carrying Paul Keating – on crikey's home page, but says you have to subscribe (at $30 a year) to get the story.

I'm a sucker. I filled in the credit card form, but so far I still haven't got the story. I presume it's e-mailed to subscribers.

The subscription concept may not work on the Web, where the underlying notion is that everything is free. Mayne is planning to build a new site based on shareholder activism which he hopes will be revenue-producing, thus underwriting crikey.

He does not take advertising, unlike Ash Long, who produces another media-related site, Media Flash, which is hotlinked to crikey. Last week, Long had $2800 worth of line ads at $100 per 100 words – not enough to make him a cybermillionaire yet, but it's a promising start.

I hope Mayne can keep crikey going. It's a worthwhile additional voice in our society; quirky and independent. It is not perfect: sometimes sloppy with the facts, often in need of a good sub, or spellcheck at least, and hard to read with its text at full screen width.

But its true value lies in its commitment to the old-fashioned pot-stirring elements of journalism. Ours is not a profession for the meek and unquestioning, yet many of our mainstream publications seem content to stick to their tried and trusted formulae, unwilling to innovate or even surprise their readers.

Journalism is all about prodding the comfortable, testing the boundaries, asking the hard questions, provoking debate, pricking the pompous, and doing the unexpected. To do this successfully, you've got to have a little cynicism and a lot of irreverence. It might also help to be a little bit mad.