Long-serving NT News editor Matt Williams is the mysterious “senior media figure” identified in the ICAC’s grandstand scandal investigation, sources have confirmed, who allegedly used the Territory’s only daily newspaper to provide favourable media coverage for the Darwin Turf Club and chairman Brett Dixon while the club faced scrutiny over the alleged misuse of public funds.
A text message alleged to be from Williams to Brett Dixon, seen by the NT Independent, offers Williams’s “absolute best to put a stop” to perceived negative media coverage around the controversial taxpayer-funded project and offers “plenty of positivity” for the Turf Club through the NT News.
Anti-corruption commissioner Ken Fleming’s investigation found that “a senior media figure” – who was not named in the report – had “personal and professional relationships” with racing industry players and that the arrangement between he and Mr Dixon included providing “positive media coverage” about the controversial taxpayer-funded grandstand.
“That undertaking was honoured and continues to this day,” Mr Fleming wrote in his report.
The report made repeated references to a redacted version of a text message between the unnamed media figure and Dixon.
But an original copy of the message referred to in the ICAC report, and confirmed by the NT Independent through various sources, shows Williams wrote to Mr Dixon on October 21, 2019, referencing an earlier “chat” and pledging to make the negative media coverage stop, in the midst of unrelenting public outrage over the government awarding $12 million to the club while in a financial crisis.
The ICAC’s report found the message had been sent by a “senior media figure” to Mr Dixon around the time “DTCI were receiving negative media coverage and there was talk of reporting the matter to ICAC”.
The message seen by the NT Independent and alleged to be the message referred to in the ICAC report stated:
“Hi mate, thanks for the chat. Hang in there.
“Will do my absolute best to put a stop to this and you can count on us to deliver plenty of positivity when the grandstand opens. I can understand how tough this has been on you.
“The NT News, especially since I’ve been in charge, has been a big supporter.”
That “support” by Williams appears to have included numerous articles and editorials over the last few years in the NT News, including the NT News writing in the 2019 Most Powerful List that, “Dixon has always had Darwin and the Territory’s best interests at heart” and that “you would be a brave person to bet against him”.
The NT News also reported first with “exclusives” on both the Gunner Government awarding the Turf Club the $12 million grant and then Mr Dixon’s company Jaytex being awarded the tender to build the grandstand that caused widespread outrage in the community.
Both of those stories objectively contained no outside commentary or criticism of the grandstand project or Mr Dixon.
Williams was recently moved into a new role interstate with News Corp that will see him act as editor of the company’s “national racing and sports wagering” product.
The Darwin Turf Club is a major advertiser for the NT News.
Sources have also confirmed Williams was routinely a “guest of the chairman” of the Darwin Turf Club at the Wood Lounge over the years – which offers prime views of the race track – and celebrated his last day as editor of the NT News at the Silks lounge two weeks ago.
Mr Fleming found that the “senior media figure” had “a personal and professional relationship with actors central to this ICAC investigation and their industry”.
Williams did not respond to direct questions from the NT Independent about his alleged involvement in the scandal, including whether he felt it was appropriate for the editor of the NT’s only daily newspaper to offer biased coverage for a friend and advertiser.
News Corp’s corporate affairs and policy group executive Campbell Reid also refused to answer specific questions posed by the NT Independent about Williams’s alleged role in the Darwin Turf Club scandal.
News Corp was also asked if Williams had been intentionally moved interstate before the ICAC’s report was handed down.
“Under Matt Williams’s editorship the NT News won a well-deserved reputation for news campaigns that championed the Top End and its people, leading to significant change and reforms,” he said in a statement, providing no examples.
“Mr Williams’s strong performance and stewardship of this important masthead led to his recent promotion.”
Current and former staff of the NT News who asked not to be named, told the NT Independent the NT News’s perceived breach of public trust, involving allegedly biased reporting of Brett Dixon and the Grandstand, has irrevocably damaged its credibility in the community.
What those on the inside of the newsroom say
One former staffer said prior to 2015, leadership at the NT News strived to put the interests of readers and the Territory public ahead of other considerations, even when faced with considerable pressure from ministers, governments and large advertisers to tailor coverage to suit their ends.
“When the editorship of the NT News changed in 2016, the newspaper’s approach clearly shifted,” one former employee said.
“It became obvious that relationships with the government and with advertisers, and financial considerations, were given additional priority.”
“The findings of ICAC were not a surprise for anyone who worked in that newsroom.”
Most of the reporters approached by the NT Independent did not want to provide comment for fear of retribution by News Corp. Several said they had not been ordered to write positive stories directly by Mr Williams.
But those with knowledge of how the newsroom works said the articles would most likely be assigned by the chief of staff directly to the reporter as Mr Williams did not come into the office until later in the morning and rarely spoke to reporters.
Most of the newsroom was relatively inexperienced and would not likely question stories allocated to them, sources said.
The favourable Turf Club coverage included stories by a junior reporter at the NT News on how Darwin Cup Day tickets were going on sale, followed by a story two weeks later stating how strong interstate ticket sales were performing. Another article celebrated the club’s charitable efforts.
However, most of the articles written about the Turf Club grandstand scandal over the last two years were authored by the business editor and not general-round journalists or the political reporter.
NT News reported that Dixon’s feelings were ‘hurt’ over media reporting of grandstand controversy
The list of objectively positive reporting by the NT News about the grandstand and Turf Club events – which began before the text of October 21, 2019 – is expansive. One example is a piece by business editor Gary Shipway about the grand opening of the grandstand which “reads like a paid advertorial”, a source said, “but was presented as a straightforward news story.”
The NT News article dealt with the scandal swiftly and dismissively in just two words, “controversy aside…”, before launching into a description of the new grandstand’s features, and stating it had “come in on time, and on budget”.
The NT News also had a similar “exclusive” earlier on September 4, 2019, written by Shipway about the construction contract being awarded to Jaytex. It contained no criticisms or opposing views.
While other media reported immediate public incredulity about the integrity of the tender process, and of the Gunner Government giving money for the construction, there appears to be no NT News investigative stories and few stories that looked critically at the tender process – that were not following other media unearthing new parts to the scandal – and very few NT News articles seeking outside comment on the impacts of the growing scandal.
This would have been standard journalism practice for the paper before Mr William’s editorship, sources familiar with the NT News have said.
There were NT News articles that followed other media reports, including Chief Minister Michael Gunner seeking advice from the independent probity auditor who reported on the tender process, criticism from then-independent Member for Nelson Gerry Wood about the government decision being “totally inappropriate”, other minor reporting on ministers not showing up to Darwin Cup Day, and a story written from a radio interview with Labor Caucus secretary Kate Worden calling for the tender to be re-commissioned, followed by a response from Mr Dixon rejecting that suggestion.
Then on October 1, 2019, while Mr Dixon was promoting the project publicly and defending his company being awarded the contract, and three weeks before Williams allegedly sent the text, the paper ran an article under the title “Darwin Turf Club chairman Brett Dixon ‘hurt’ by Turf Club fallout”, that described an interview he gave to Mix 104.9, in which he hit out at unnamed “devious people” who “provided a false narrative” about the project and his company.
Reputation remediation through ‘Most Powerful List’
Sources have told the NT Independent that the NT News’s annual Most Powerful List is seen as an opportunity, in part, for the editor and senior reporters from the paper to reward those who are onside, to ingratiate themselves, or to punish.
On December 21, 2019, just two months after Williams sent Mr Dixon the text message, Mr Dixon made the list at number 7, with a glowing description of him despite the continued controversy over his role in the grandstand scandal.
“Dixon is a decent person who is determined to make the grandstand a raging success for Darwin…” the piece stated.
“Knowing Dixon’s previous business successes, you would be a brave person to bet against him. Dixon has always had Darwin and the Territory’s best interests at heart and his supporters know how much he does behind the scenes that he doesn’t get credit for. Yes, he has some enemies but usually that’s a by-product for successful people.”
On December 15, 2020 the NT News write-up about Mr Dixon in that year’s Most Powerful List spruiked the worth of both the grandstand and the Silks Club.
“Dixon still has his knockers but he’s shut most of them up in the past year – just like he promised he would,” the piece stated.
“The longtime chairman of the Darwin Turf Club has had a huge year with the establishment of both the $9m Silks venue and $12m grandstand at Fannie Bay. Both have been an extraordinary success …
“Now the election is over, you can expect government ministers to start returning to Fannie Bay to check out their investment in the grandstand.”
‘The media is a powerful and influential part of our democracy’: Former independent NT MLA
Former independent MLA Gerry Wood issued a media release after the ICAC report last week, questioning why the NT News – and every other NT media outlet except the NT Independent – had not reported on the findings that one media organisation offered to provide “positive media coverage”.
“So why has this comment not been reported in the NT News?” he said.
“And does their behaviour, whilst not criminal, comply with the Australian Journalists Code of Ethics?
“Do not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis … Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.”
Mr Wood said the positive media coverage for the Turf Club grandstand was not the first time the NT News had been accused of favouring one side in its reporting.
“Dan Murphy certainly had plenty of positive media coverage, and the media organisation seemed to relish the opportunity to push its view, leaving a lot to be desired when it came to accuracy, fairness or independence,” Mr Wood said.
“The media is an important, powerful and influential part of our democracy but as it is not elected it therefore has a big responsibility to make sure it produces news that doesn’t have distorted emphasis.”
Mr Wood added that he was surprised to see such a glowing story about the grandstand written by Shipway on June 27, 2021 – the day after the paper reported on the ICAC’s damning report that made adverse findings against five people involved, including Mr Dixon.
“The positive media coverage in the follow up story the next day in the Sunday Territorian, highlighting support by various business representatives for the grandstand, was interesting,” Mr Wood said.
“No reporting of those who opposed the taxpayers’ funding of this facility. And for those reported who supported this facility – the end does not justify the means.”
On the day after the ICAC report was handed down – and after Mr Williams had left town – the NT News wrote an editorial calling for greater transparency in public dealings, parroting some of the findings while still talking up the debunked claims about the grandstand’s impact on tourism.
It finished with the line: “If there are lessons learned from this investigation it is that being open and honest is the best policy.”
Disclosures: David Wood was formerly employed at the NT News as a reporter from December 2010 to March 2015, and deputy digital editor from mid January 2019 to March 2020 and for part of that time he reported to Williams, and also worked for News Corp in Sydney from August 2016 to December 2018. He directed and was involved with some of the online coverage of the Turf Club.
NT Independent editor Christopher Walsh was senior political reporter for the NT News for more than three years and sued News Corp and Williams for wrongful dismissal in 2017. The matter was settled out of court.