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									   Good contacts,
      by Brett Williams

Veteran reporter Mike Smithson has enjoyed
great success in his field, but how much of it
was possible without good confidential sources?

Police reporters and other
                                                   “If someone has given you information,            “I think in some ways it would be a
                                               particularly written information, they are        thankless task,” he says, “because the
journalists are never likely to crack “the     putting a whole lot of trust in you that          hierarchy of the police force doesn’t really
good story” without first-rate contacts,        nothing will go wrong,” he explains.              want them (Medial Liaison staff) passing
according to long-time Channel Seven               “They have to know that, if all else fails,   on sensitive information.
newsman Mike Smithson. And he should           if the crap hits the fan, you are going to            “Therefore, the sensitive information is
know, after reporting on the Melbourne         protect them as a contact.                        withheld, and they (the staff) are the real
underworld, the Skase chase and the War            “The contacts will tell you: ‘If this         meat in the sandwich. But I think they do
on Terror, over the last 29 years.             gets out and comes back to me, I’ll lose          a really good job.”
   “Your contacts in journalism are most       my job.’ And I’ve always maintained that              If the quality of police-media relations
important,” he insists, “probably the key      you don’t even tell your boss who your            were to improve beyond “good”, Media
to your success.                               contacts are.”                                    Liaison police would, according to
   “Unless you’ve got good contacts, all           Of course, while Smithson extols the          Smithson, have to become accessible to
you’ll be doing are the bleeding obvious       value of reporter-established contacts,           reporters 24 hours a day. He rejoices at
stories, the stories that everybody else       he does not deride open, official                  the prospect but knows that, owing to
does. If you’ve got good contacts, you’ll be   relationships. In fact, he reflects on the         strained resources, it will never happen.
doing the extraordinary stories.”              creation of the SAPOL Media Liaison                   Although Smithson chiefly covers
   But, before a reporter can even think       Section, which started during his earliest        politics today, he did himself work one
about bathing in the glory of a journalism     days in television, as “a real turning point”.    of the nation’s most intense police
award for extraordinary coverage, he               The way he saw things, it brought             rounds of the 1980s. Criminal activity
or she first has to establish those good        a level of co-operation not necessarily           in Melbourne was as rampant then as
contacts. And, as 52-year-old Smithson         enjoyed before, and enabled journalists to        it would become in later years, with the
tells it, once such a relationship is          get deeper insights into specific stories.         gangland killings depicted in the TV
established, a reporter who betrays his or     And, still, today, he regards police-media        drama Underbelly.
her contact’s trust is destined to be “run     relations as “good”, and Media Liaison                Contract killers, such as James Bazley,
out of town”.                                  cops as “patient and helpful”.                    who murdered drug couriers Douglas and

24      Police Journal February 2009
                                                                                       Mike Smithson reports from outside the Police Association building.

Isobel Wilson and conspired to murder          Pentridge escapees. He was right on              in the mid-1970s, before joining Channel
anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay,           the scene when the “last and nastiest”           Seven Adelaide in 1979. His time as
were receiving life sentences. And other       of the five murderers was about to                Seven’s Melbourne police reporter, and
criminals were on the run, after staging a     lose his short-lived freedom near the            subsequent years with Ten, ran from
mass breakout from Pentridge Prison and        Victorian snowfields.                             1981 to 1989, when he joined the Adelaide
taking hostages in the process.                    Police arrested him as he hid behind a       bureau of the Hinch programme.
   Says Smithson: “All sorts of things         hedge, with Smithson and his cameraman               In 1993, he left Australia to work
were happening where you would be taken        positioned on the other side of it. “This        as Seven’s London-based European
into people’s confidence, and it was like       police dog came racing down the street           correspondent. His greatest thrill in
watching an episode of Underbelly almost       and over the hedge and grabbed him,”             that post was his exclusive coverage of
every day of the week.                         Smithson recalls.                                infamous failed businessman Christopher
   “And whether you liked it or not, there         “It was just the quintessential dog          Skase appearing in a Majorca court.
would be people on the phone who had           arrest. And I knew we had it, and no one             After a call alerted Smithson and
tracked you down and wanted to have a          else could get it. We had it absolutely          a colleague to the appearance, they
chat. They would come around for a quiet       exclusively – bang. That was a major             immediately boarded a plane for Majorca.
chat in my office, and that happened            story in Australia.”                             “We had a day-and-a-half’s jump on the
almost on a daily basis.                           As enjoyable and stimulating as              story,” he says. “Not one other news
   “You felt threatened to a point,            Smithson found his Melbourne police              organization in Australia even knew he’d
but you really got to know these               round, it came as a 24-hours-per-day             been arrested.
underworld people.                             commitment, from which he eventually                 “The first they knew was when we had
   “It was a great round. If you had to do a   wanted “a breather”. So he returned to           the full story with the full pictures on the
police round and had the choice of any era     Adelaide in 1985, when he joined Channel         news at six o’clock that night. Now that is
in any city in Australia, I would have said    10 as its weekend newsreader.                    a real buzz.”
the ’80s in Melbourne.”                            But the former Westminster School                Another of Smithson’s major overseas
   Likely to remain with Smithson forever      boy first ventured into the media with a          assignments came in 2002, when he
are his memories of the recapture of the       Messenger Newspapers cadetship back              reported on the War on Terror from the

                                                                                                            Police Journal February 2009         25
Afghan-Pakistani border. He found the job,          The way he tells it is that government          But how does he keep his friendships
which he did not take on happily, more           ministers, including the Premier,              from influencing his work? “As soon
dangerous than he had ever expected.             sometimes seek journalists’ opinions           as the camera’s rolling, all bets are off
    “It was like being a commando dropped        on the political issues of the day. And,       for those three minutes,” he insists.
in the desert and told: ‘Good luck,’ ” he        occasionally, one of those opinions,           “Once the camera’s off and packed away,
says. “And there was a lot of civil unrest       according to Smithson, “winds its              you’re back to the friendship.”
in the area we were in, a lot of people in       way through the system” to become                  Smithson further defends his
the street just shooting: bang, bang, bang.      government policy.                             journalistic integrity with two other
A stray shot could have hit you.”                   He believes his advice was influential       points. One is that he gives his friend the
    And Smithson has never forgotten             on the Government’s water policy,              Premier “a belting every second week”
the sight of the first US air strikes. From       particularly desalination. And he has          in his Sunday Mail opinion column. The
his hotel roof he saw the jets light up          sometimes told the Premier his views on        other is that each side of politics labels
the night sky as they flew in formation           particular politicians – views he suspects     him a supporter of the other.
into Afghanistan.                                were “taken on board”.                             Now, to Smithson, the career he began
    “You knew that you were part of world           “It’s just another set of eyes,” he says,   29 years ago seems as if it started yesterday.
history,” he says. “You were right at the        “an independent look at people.”               And, even after all that time, he still craves
absolute pointiest of pointy ends of the            Of course, many see closeness               involvement in covering a good story.
biggest story happening in the world that        between political reporters and politicians        While some reject the veteran-
day. That was the exciting part.”                as a conflict of interests. But Smithson        journalist tag, fearing that it ages them,
    Back in Adelaide, Smithson has               has formed friendships with several of         Smithson remains at ease with it.
remained in the news media as Seven’s            those whom he fronts every day with the            “I guess it means that you’ve cut the
senior political reporter, a role he took        hard questions.                                mustard,” he says, “that you’ve achieved
on in 1996. He describes some of the                Among them, he lists Premier Mike           what you wanted to achieve. My son works
decision-makers he has to deal with              Rann, Deputy Premier Kevin Foley,              in journalism at BMG Radio, and that’s
in politics as “real knuckleheads”, but          Opposition leader Martin Hamilton-Smith        great because you feel you’ve imparted
enjoys the work because he gets the              and Police Minister Michael Wright. In         some knowledge to someone else.”
chance to wield some influence.                   fact, he dislikes only a couple of MPs.                                                   PJ

Police Club
For the ladies
   February is ladies’ month at the Police
Club, so, for a $4 glass of Sparkling
Rosemount O, you will be in the draw
to win a ladies’ gift hamper filled with
jewellery and beauty products.
   Also available in February is takeaway
wine – Zilzie Sav Blanc or Shiraz, for only
$10 per bottle.
   Bring your social club in for a celebration
and Police Club manager Heather Holmes
will arrange great drink prices for you.

March specials
   Think about this outstanding lunchtime
special on offer in March: order any steak
dish and you can purchase a glass of red
wine for $2.
   Other specials include Coopers Pale Ale       Functions                                      the Police Club, a great venue for
                                                                                                any occasion.
at $4 a pint and Corona stubbies at $4 each.        If you’re looking for somewhere to             You’ll find excellent facilities and
   And look out for our $10 lunch specials,      celebrate your birthday, anniversary,          menus to suit your function. Call Heather
which are available from 11:30am, Monday         or any other special event, consider           on (08) 8212 2924 to make a booking or
to Friday.                                                                                      arrange a menu for you.

26      Police Journal February 2009

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