COME 1999, the new club president was Neil Mitchell, an intriguing choice. Neil was the current affairs commentator on 3AW and way in front as the top-rating radio man in Victoria. If John Howard, Kim Beazley or Peter Costello had something to say, they could not afford to overlook Neil.
When Jeff Kennett was Premier of Victoria, he did not like the print media and he refused to have dealings with the ABC. However, he found he could reach a large audience by talking every week to Neil Mitchell.
So Mitchell gave a new direction to the Melbourne Press Club. He was the first radio man to become president. His print credentials also were impeccable. He was editor of The Herald from 1985 to 1987 and sports editor of The Age from 1980 to 1984.
When Neil took over he was anxious for the future of the club. He was aware that both Fairfax and the Herald & Weekly Times could discontinue their sponsorships at any time. He said both Steve Harris at Fairfax and Julian Clarke at the Herald & Weekly Times had made it very clear that if the club did not stand on it its own feet they would remove their support.
"Where would that leave the club?" said Neil. "If you don't have the support of the two publishers in town you are nowhere."
By the end of 12 months the club had gathered strength and gathered sponsors. Mike Smith produced a remarkably complete business plan, which showed exactly where the club was heading.
Mitchell said Mike was the real force behind the club, an untiring worker. Mike, a former editor of The Age, was then Australian chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, formerly International Public Relations. One of Mike's clients was ISIS Communications, which was bringing Nelson Mandela to Australia.
Mandela, whom some described as the man of the 20th Century, was the former President of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mike suggested to ISIS that the Press Club could be an ideal forum for Mandela. The result, said Neil, was really a turning point for the club.
The lunch was huge, certainly the biggest Neil Mitchell had attended. Jointly organised by ISIS and the MPC, at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, it was for 1500 people. The object was to launch the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. The price to the public and business people was $1000 a seat. MPC members paid their regular $50, but it cost $200 to bring a guest. During the lunch Mandela received a cheque for $1.7 million from the ISIS Foundation for his children's fund. Nelson Mandela did not want to give a speech, but he agreed to a lunch interview by Neil Mitchell, also broadcast nationally over ABC television.
Watch: Neil Mitchell on what it was like to interview Nelson Mandela.
Neil said: "I don't think I have ever been so nervous. I did about four times the normal amount of research. I remember speaking to some of his minders. I got there early to the luncheon area and waited. I hadn't met him before. The reconciliation issue was hot at the time. The minder came over to speak to me and said: 'We don't want you to ask any questions about Aborigines.'
"I thought, here we are, going to a nationally televised interview with Nelson Mandela and I can't even ask the vital question. I said: 'That's very difficult. I really feel I have to ask him, even if he doesn't answer.'
"The minder replied: 'Can you give me a list of questions?' I said, 'No, I can't. I don't do that, because I have no idea where the interview will lead.' He said: 'OK.' I thought at that stage he might even back out of the interview but he accepted that. Then he said: 'You must be aware that he has a hearing problem and he doesn't understand the Australian accent.'
"So I was going into the interview thinking, he doesn't want to answer the questions I am asking, he is given to long answers, he is partly deaf and he won't understand my accent. How in heaven's name is this going to work? I was very, very edgy about it.
"We sat in two armchairs and as he came forward and shook my hand, he said, 'You will be very gentle with me, won't you? I thought this interview just couldn't go wrong with that sort of attitude.
"He was superb, a magnificent sense of timing. He picked up on the body language. If I thought we were getting a bit slow, he picked up on the body language and moved on to the next item. He knew when we were wrapping it up and left it with a very upbeat and amusing line. He was one of the most fascinating people I have ever interviewed, not just because of what he said, but because of the way he handled it."
Neil said to him: "There is a magnificent feeling in your face when you are with young people. Are young people your inspiration now?"
He replied, "Every human, young and old, is an inspiration. You can get a lot by listening carefully to what they say. But children ... children, of course, I had not seen one for 27 years."
As John Hamilton put it in the Herald Sun, suddenly the audience was absolutely silent, remembering this old man had spent that amount of time in jail for his belief in the equality of man.
Mandela continued: "When I came out I had to pay more attention to them because I see them as the most important asset in any country. Any country that does not care for its children is not worth being called a country."
As for reconciliation, he was diplomatic, but his parting line was: "The Australian people have already influenced me: I don't know if I can influence them. I have found a great deal of warmth and generosity amongst them, and I would like them to know that we respect them. They are our heroes and heroines, and I would sincerely think ... hope that the problems they have, especially the relationship with the indigenous community will improve, and that in the near future the Aborigines themselves will say, we now feel we are part and parcel of Australia.
"All the opportunities are open to us, and for that I am sure there are leaders amongst Australians who themselves are striving for this goal, and who do not have to be lectured by a retired and unemployed old man like myself."
The club had some powerful speakers in 2000 and 2001. There was the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks; the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard; the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello; Sir Gustav Nossal and a very lively football panel with Kevin Sheedy, David Parkin, Tim Watson and Sam Newman. The club continued with the idea of giving guests unusual, or as Neil Mitchell put it, slightly pointed presents.
Steve Bracks had been in the news for arranging a barbecue party for the Victoria Police. At the last moment, under heavy criticism from the Left, he cancelled the idea. So the club gave him a barbecue apron, which sported a Tandberg cartoon featuring a pig on a spit roast.
Prime Minister John Howard had been the most celebrated, most photographed visitor at the Sydney Olympic Games. There was hardly a venue where he was not seen. So they gave Mr Howard photos of himself at the Olympics. Mr Costello's gift was a kick with members of his beloved Essendon Football Club. He said it was the best present he had received. As for Sam Newman, famed presenter on the Channel Nine Footy Show, he received an autographed photo of himself.
Yet the lunches were not just about speakers. The interaction was important ... journalists, radio and TV people getting around and talking to each other. Neil Mitchell said he loved this aspect of it. Often he was the last to leave the lunch. One of the vital things that happened in 2000 was the appointment of a full-time office and secretariat. Mary Cotter was there to answer calls and queries and take part in that often amazing task of chasing down speakers and actually getting them to the podium.
The club also organised a comprehensive website, which gave instant details of the club's history, committee, membership, constitution, applications to join, and the complete speeches of recent speakers. The slave work in getting it to the screen was done by Mike Smith, but he was greatly helped by Mark Forbes and Corrie Perkin.
In 2001 both the Herald & Weekly Times and Fairfax gave promises of sponsorship for three years and the club's future seemed assured. Doug Riley, a senior accountant with the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, has done all the audits since the club's birth. This hasn't always been easy. Almost invariably the club treasurer has been a journalist. As Doug put it with a wry smile, some journalists are better at figures than others.
Lyle Tucker in the early days was always smart enough to put money into secure investments. However, Doug said there had been some sticky times. He turned his books to 1983, for example. In that year the club had just $81 in the bank and $945 in fixed interest investments. The club did not see a sponsor of any kind until 1994.
Since then the transformation had been amazing. In 2001 sponsorships amounted to $120,000 plus another $49,000 for the Quill Awards. Those on the list were Tattersall's, Channel 7, Tooheys, The Age, the Herald & Weekly Times, Minter Ellison, RACV, Foodworks, Deakin University, Smart Works, ISIS Communications, Channel 9, Visy, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Slater & Gordon, 3AW, Weber Shandwick, Qantas, American Airlines, The Medallion Club, Bridge Printing, Reading Entertainment and Mont Blanc pens. The top sponsor was Tattersall’s “The Tatts people have been terrific,” said Neil. “I went to Tatts last year. I wanted them to double their money and I had this pile of documents, business plans and things, showing them why they should put in more money.” They said ‘Well, what do you want?’ I said, ‘Double the money,’ and pushed forward all the paperwork. ‘Ah, we don’t need to read all that,’ they said. ‘You can have it.’ So Tattersall’s put in $35,000 for the Quills and $5000 as a sponsor.
This is an excerpt from Informed Sources, written in 1991 by former Club president and legendary columnist Keith Dunstan.
The online version has been updated by Rick Swinard, a former corporate affairs manager of the Herald & Weekly Times, chief of staff of The Herald in Melbourne and Managing Editor of the Christchurch Star.