The interview to bring down a government, brought down a promising radio talent instead

Opinion by Peter Saxon. Not quite a year ago, Michael Smith (left) was being lauded by his 2UE bosses and colleagues as an exciting new talent destined for a long and successful career in talkback. He was starting to make a name for himself having been credited with getting Craig Thomson to admit on air that he had wrongly authorised credit card payments to a brothel. Flushed with that success, he went after Julia Gillard herself with a yarn that could bring down her government.  Yet, by November 2011, following a protracted legal battle with his employer, he was gone. Last Friday, he was the subject of a lengthy interview with Alan Jones on 2GB.

Smith had dredged up some old allegations, dating back to 1995, alleging that the PM was involved in a scheme to defraud the Australian Workers Union. Although the issue had been dealt with in the media on several occasions over the years, denied strenuously by Gillard each time, and subsequently dropped – the opposition haven’t touched it since, even under parliamentary privilege – Smith has continued to pursue the matter with the zeal of a copper (which he once was) out to get his man.

It is not the purpose of this website or my intention to argue the merits of the case which is, inevitably, politically charged. Those who lean to the right of politics tend to believe that the allegations are true, because they want to. Equally, those on the left want to believe that it’s all a beat up.

Nonetheless, on 2GB last Friday, the case against Gillard, complex as it is, when articulated by two of Australia’s most gifted presenters, the fresh talent of Smith and the old master Jones, was persuasive and made for compelling listening.

On a number of occasions during the interview Jones suggested that Smith had lost his job at 2UE because he tried to bring these matters before the public and management wouldn’t let him. To some listeners the inference would be that Smith was sacked – depending on what their Clintonian definition of “lost” is, and how they want to interpret it in the context of the narrative put forward by Smith and Jones.

While Jones was free to infer what he liked about the reason for Smith’s departure, Smith himself said nothing, probably because the out-of-court settlement with Fairfax bound both parties to silence – a silence which was echoed in his official parting statement last year, “Due to editorial differences over the AWU (Australian Workers’ Union) story, I have decided to end my contract with 2UE.” 

It was certainly for that reason that the other protagonist in the case, then Fairfax Radio GM, Graham Mott wasn’t prepared to comment for this article.

However radioinfo followed events closely prior to the settlement last year, and this much we know…

Whether he was fired or parted company, the fact remains that Smith is no longer on the radio at 2UE. But not because he was silenced over the whole AWU/Gillard affair as was claimed on Jones’ program. Most, if not all, of what he said to Alan Jones last Friday he had previously said, for days on end, in his afternoon shift on 2UE last year without consequence.

No, the dispute with his employer, and in particular with Mott, came about because of an explosive interview that Smith had recorded with ex-union heavyweight Bob Kernohan in which, it is claimed, he blew the lid on the whole alleged affair.

Promos for the “interview that could bring down the government” had already started to air when Mott heard them and asked if the interview had been properly legalled. He was horrified to learn it had not.

As I wrote in an opinion piece last September, For more than a week the station’s lawyers have been poring over the material to see if there is any way it could be aired without risk to their client. After all 2UE, like most media, is in the business of breaking news not burying it. It could do with a scoop.

As it was reported by radioinfo and other media, the sticking point was that Smith refused to sign an undertaking not to broadcast the interview.

Perhaps, like Derryn Hinch has done on several occasions during his career, Smith was standing up for his principles, prepared to take the consequences. As I also said in that same article, If Smith truly feels that he is being unfairly gagged by management and he wants to crusade for lofty ideals of free speech, then he should have the courage of his convictions and post the interview on his own website at his own risk.

To my knowledge, The Kernohan interview has never been broadcast or posted anywhere. And, tellingly, Alan Jones, the Gillard Government’s most fearless critic, didn’t take the opportunity to air a single word of it during his lengthy chat with Smith last week.

radioinfo has had no response to an email sent to Alan Jones yesterday asking, “Can you confirm whether or not your show or another on 2GB is prepared to broadcast that interview at some stage?”

But we did get a response from Michael Smith to this email:?Hi Michael, I heard your interview with Alan Jones. It was compulsive listening. What I can’t understand is why nobody, including 2GB, is prepared to actually broadcast your interview with Bob Kernohan? Do you think it will ever be put to air?

His response, in full: “The truth will out ultimately.”

“Ultimately” could be a long, long time. Whether or not Smith’s interview with Kernohan could have brought down the government, “the truth” is Julia Gillard will most likely be gone before the end of next year anyway.

Meanwhile Michael Smith is still out of a job in metro radio. Which is a shame because it means that one of the most promising talk talents we’ve seen for a while is not on air and has few options. He’s unlikely to be welcomed back any time soon at Fairfax. And at 2GB the ‘no vacancies’ sign is well and truly up. As one insider quipped, “For crissake, Steve Price is doing nights.”