Comfortable with conflict

Alan Kohler isn't perturbed by some comments in the media about his holding both News Ltd and ABC positions, and believes government might have a role in protecting journalism.
Alan Kohler isn't perturbed by some comments in the media about his holding both News Ltd and ABC positions, and believes government might have a role in protecting journalism.

EVERYONE these days has an opinion they're willing to share - even the person who shares the lift that takes you to your office each day.

Within days of announcing the sale of his digital publishing business to News Ltd, ABC TV finance reporter Alan Kohler came under fire for what some saw as a looming conflict of interest.

Under the $30 million deal, Kohler would be contracted by new boss News to manage the online Business Spectator publication he co-founded in 2007, while continuing his ABC roles, presenting a nightly wrap-up of business news for national 7pm bulletins and the weekly Inside Business program.

One of the more strident attacks was published on the ABC's Drum site. Its author, Ben Eltham, is part of the Crikey stable, which is housed one floor beneath the Business Spectator offices and whose owners are also investors in Business Spectator.

There was even a howl of protest from within the News Ltd camp, Terry McCrann declaring it ''completely unacceptable'' for Kohler to be the face of ABC TV's business coverage.

The conflict-of-interest gripe isn't new, having already been aired by the ABC's Media Watch, though Kohler hints he should have been more prepared for when it reignited last month.

But as he points out, he's always worked in print or online journalism at the same time as the ABC and was contracted to Fairfax Media, owner of The Age, when he first joined the ABC as a business and economics reporter on The 7.30 Report.

''Everyone is entitled to their view, that's fine,'' Kohler says.

''If ABC management agrees and wants me to move on, fine. I'll do that.''

Given the vocal support of ABC news director Kate Torney, that seems unlikely.

Kohler says he will disclose his relationship with News when he comments on the business or interviews one of its executives - as he would also do interviewing someone from Fairfax.

Kohler's TV debut came at the end of his editorship of The Age in 1995.

With no previous TV experience, he admits it was a tough start, ''much harder than I thought''.

''I'd spent my life in print and the difference, simply expressed, is that in print you tell people, on TV you have to show them. It's a different mindset.''

He says that for the first few years he approached TV as a print journalist who wrote a script that he then read aloud in front of the camera.

At the time there was a revolving door of executive producers, one of whom insisted Kohler do ''proper TV packages'', including interviews and pieces to camera.

''That's when I had to be forced, but I learnt TV properly then,'' Kohler says.

The waterfront dispute in 1998 became Kohler's baptism by fire. Covering the protracted landmark dispute was, he recalls, ''intensive but very educational for me''.

''It's not often you get a yarn where you have to do six-minute packages every day for The 7.30 Report.''

In 2002, Kohler moved to the 7pm news, where his now legendary financial segment was born.

''They wanted me to intersperse my finance segment with film clips of business people at press conferences or whatever. The trouble is there weren't many. I had to do something visual. I couldn't just stand there for a minute and a half.

''I've always thought that charts are useful because what charts do is they tell you about relationships, the relationship of the present to the past, and also the relationship between one thing and another. I thought, 'I need to show people.' Rather than say, 'Where we are now compares with this in the past,' now I can just show it. I don't have to go any further. It's worked out very well.''

Every afternoon, Kohler makes his way to the ABC studios in Southbank, where he spends a couple of hours filming his segment. By 7pm he's at home watching the news. ''Then there's this guy who comes up who doesn't seem like me, because I'm in my trackies by that time.''

He is married to novelist Deborah Forster, has three grown children and is a keen TV watcher, citing MasterChef, Breaking Bad and Justified as favourites.

Like his TV predecessor Robert Gottliebsen, who is a partner in Business Spectator, the pair also having worked together at The Australian Financial Review, Kohler didn't envisage a dry, matter-of-fact report filled with numbers and data that would confound a lay audience.

''I wanted to do it in a way that people would understand and enjoy. I've been in finance journalism all my life. I've enjoyed it. My view is that it's an interesting field, it's about people, it's about people's behaviour and there's usually lots of drama about it. I just try to convey that.''

The downturn of once-thriving industries comprises a large part of what Kohler reports these days. Media is one of them and while he sees parallels between the problems faced by media businesses and other industries, a special case should be made for journalism, he argues.

''Government supports car manufacturing, pours hundreds of millions of dollars into it just to preserve the jobs and maintain the industry in Australia. Obviously, the government and the community think car-making is special; however, the government is not supporting journalism beyond paying for the ABC, which it has to be said is a big thing.

''It's a big amount of money that the government pays for the ABC, so it shouldn't be forgotten. But I do think journalism is important in terms of revealing to the community what's going on and I think what we're going through is a period of time when newsrooms are going to shrink in size. The size of newsrooms as they've been can't be supported. I think the fact we're going to have fewer reporters is an issue, a problem for society. As to what's to be done about it, I don't know.''

This story Comfortable with conflict first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.