Chapter 10. A media circus

IN 2004, in a burst of social enthusiasm, the club staged a Journalists Ball that, just once, arguably overshadowed the Quills dinner. It was the brainchild of committee member Genevieve Brammall who wanted to put on a night like the Quills – ”but without the speeches.”

There was a circus on in town at the time, complete with Big Top, trapeze artists, hula dancers and all the trimmings. Genevieve and her co-conspirators brazenly asked the circus owners if they would let the journalists have the Big Top for a night, with the best of the circus acts to go with it.

The sweetener was a contra deal with Fairfax and HWT newspapers.

More than 500 tickets were sold and the night was a blockbuster; still talked about today and fondly remembered as some of the best money the club ever spent.

“It was a great night,” says Mike Smith, “but it cost us $50,000. We never regretted it. We rationalised it as a return on investment to shareholders.....”

Genevieve thinks the cost was closer to $80,000...” and I’ve never been given permission to do another one!”

Watch Genevieve Brammall look back on the Journalists Ball, a night that was "akin to the Quills but without the speeches."

The dream of a “home” for the club remains alive although is not likely to be achieved any time soon and, in any event, must be of lesser significance than the club’s profile and credibility as an institution for the advancement of journalism in Melbourne. Many is the organisation that has squandered limited resources on grandiose premises at the expense of its core business.

Bartlett and other key figures in the club are acutely aware that the key to its ongoing success is continuing support from sponsors and media partners.

“The biggest threat to our future is financial viability,” he says. “Our position is very good at the moment but every media company is going through difficult times. It is a particularly difficult time for traditional media, with no sign things will get any easier in the short term.

“All of our partners and supporters are continually and carefully reviewing budgets and cutting discretionary spending. A continuing challenge for the Press Club is to continue to demonstrate to its media sponsors in particular that the club warrants their support.

“My own view is that as long as the club can continue to attract strong presidents who command respect in and beyond the industry and continues to have a hard-working committee of committed people, its future is assured.”

The last 10 years of the club have seen two elements firmly established in its “reason for being.”

The first is the aforementioned luncheons featuring high-profile speakers of national and international significance; the second is the Quill Awards that continue to gain in stature and have done so much to promote healthy competition in a fiercely competitive industry.

Each year, the judges assess hundreds of entries in a range of categories, their collective eye most keenly focussed on the piece of work that qualifies for the club’s highest honour: the Monash University Gold Quill Award with its $5000 prize.

The Australian’s Cameron Stewart carried off the Gold Quill in 2009 to add to his winning of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award the previous year....not a bad double.

Watch Cameron Stewart's speech at the 2009 Quill Awards

 He speaks eloquently of the value of the Quills in acknowledging good journalism in Melbourne.

“I nearly fell off my chair when I won my first Quill award. It was completely unexpected and I appreciated it all the more because the Quills are judged largely by our own peers who understand what goes into a good story.

“In Victoria, journalists place enormous value on the Quills because it gives them a chance to compete with, and observe, quality work which is done by so many different forms of media across the state. The best thing about a Quills night for me is seeing some of my colleagues and friends receive gongs for work I know they have sometimes worked on for months on end.

“I was particularly honoured to be awarded the 2009 Gold Quill for an exclusive story on Australia’s second largest terrorist investigation known as Operation Neath. This was a difficult story for the judges to assess because it was controversial at the time of publication, having been criticised by Victorian police chief Simon Overland who was concerned that some editions carrying my story appeared on Melbourne streets before police conducted raids against the terror suspects.

“However, the full story soon emerged that The Australian had known about the raids for some time and had held at the story at the request of the federal police until they gave us permission to publish.

“I believe this was a proper balance between protecting national security and the public’s right to know about a major terrorist investigation.

“I was pleased the judges viewed the story in the same light.”

As Nick McKenzie and others observe, the Quill Awards presentation dinner is Melbourne journalism’s “night of nights” where competitive rivalries are suspended for a few hours in the interests of collective acknowledgement of work well done.

John Trevorrow describes it as an occasion “like Switzerland... everyone leaves their swords at the door.”

In one year, however, while swords may well have been laid aside, fists were not. A senior ABC newsman (not Ian Henderson!) possibly overcome by the emotion of the occasion, engaged in fisticuffs with a fellow journalist at a Quills after-party. As far as is known, this was the only time when anything approximating violence has disrupted the smooth and civil running of the Melbourne Press Club.

The incident had a potentially nasty sequel two years later when committeeman Mike Smith was hosting executives from Monash University at the Quills dinner, hoping to persuade Monash to take over from Tattersall’s as principal sponsor. The club’s new management team of Sue Henderson and Kate Edwards – blithely unaware of the pugilistic history –had placed the two prize fighters on the same table as Mike and the Monash people. He spent a very nervous night hoping there would be no return bout in front of his sponsorship prospects, and getting a quizzical look when pulling the pair aside separately to explain the seating plan was a complete coincidence.

As well as honouring winners of Quill Awards, the presentation dinner features a Lifetime Achievement Award whose honour roll is a Who’s Who of Australian journalism.

There was an especially significant occasion in 2007 when Laurie Oakes and Michelle Grattan – the doyen and doyenne of Australian political journalism – were named joint winners of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

John Trevorrow recalls that “Mike Smith had the brilliant idea of getting them to talk about each other on stage, and what came out of that was their obvious respect not only for each other but for the craft which they have served with such distinction. It was a wonderful experience.”

The occasion is fondly remembered as the Quills’ finest hour.

Three years later, Oakes had a stellar year when he won the Gold Walkley Award, a Logie and the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award for his coverage of the 2010 federal election.

Watch Laurie Oakes' Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award acceptance speech at the 2010 Quill Awards.

Accepting the Perkin Award at the Quills dinner in April 2011, Oakes said of the Melbourne Press Club : “It’s not a haven for pokie addicts, real estate agents and log-rollers. It’s all about the journalism and I wish the National Press Club was the same.”

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.


Chapter 1: The search for a well
Chapter 2: Lunch at $5 a head
Chapter 3. A remarkable editor
Chapter 4. A Woman President
Chapter 5. The club in crisis
Chapter 6. Lazarus rises
Chapter 7. A shovel for a Premier
Chapter 8. The power of Mandela
Chapter 9. The Push for Membership

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