It takes just over 30 seconds to walk between the Isabel Menton Theatre on Mount Street in leafy North Sydney to Coca-Cola Amatil’s loading dock just around the corner in Wheeler Lane.
As the first blast of winter gripped the city last Wednesday, Catherine Brenner made a quick dash between the two buildings, accompanied by a stony-faced security guard.
A Coca-Cola Amatil director for almost a decade, Ms Brenner was facing a shareholder revolt at the annual general meeting in the wake of her controversial and sudden resignation as AMP chair a few weeks earlier following astonishing testimony at the royal commission into banking.
As the waiting media were lured into the parking lot at the rear of the theatre, Ms Brenner made a dash for the front door, unaware an ABC crew was waiting to ask for an interview. As she paced across the street, head down and silent, our reporter followed, repeating the request for an interview.
The public response was as startling as it was polarised. Almost immediately after the footage was aired, the accusations on social media, some from unlikely sources, began. It’s a witch hunt, they cried. Ms Brenner is a scapegoat. How dare you chase her down the street!
It’s just not cricket
Let’s backtrack just a little here.
Catherine Brenner until a few weeks ago presided over AMP, an organisation that has been pilloried before a royal commission, admitted to fleecing its own customers of millions of dollars and deliberately misleading the corporate law enforcement agency, ASIC.
A month ago, counsel assisting Rowena Orr sensationally recommended royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne consider criminal charges against unnamed senior AMP officers.
Disgraced Australian Cricket Captain Steve Smith broke down when he spoke to the media about the ball-tampering scandal. (AAP: Brendan Esposito)
Compare this to a separate scandal just a few months ago that, like AMP, brought the nation to a standstill.
A young man, Steve Smith, who possesses an uncanny ability to wield a piece of timber to avoid being hit with a leather ball, stood accused of presiding over a team where one of his underlings used a piece of sandpaper to scratch said leather ball.
What followed was an international scandal. There was the outpouring of grief as a nation hung its collective head in shame along with the righteous indignation from rival teams and countries. And finally, the spectacle of a distraught Smith, pursued and hounded until his tearful apology before the full glare of a censorial world.
So, where’s the moral? We can tolerate multi-million-dollar theft, so long as it’s at arm’s length and orchestrated from a position of privilege but, whatever you do, don’t scratch the cricket ball.
It’s official: Business media in shocking discovery
Nowhere is this weird dichotomy better illustrated than in our media, which for decades has adopted a fawning approach to those with wealth.
And as the digital world has drained traditional media companies of advertising revenue, so too has it depleted the independence of those covering business.
Barely a handful of investigative reporters with the ability to trawl through business affairs remain in our mainstream media. Many have been deliberately moved on.
Unlike sport or politics, anyone engaged in critical analysis of the finance world runs the risk of being castigated as “anti-business”.
Critics of the Prime Minister, however, are never called anti-democracy. Those piling in to Steve Smith weren’t denounced as anti-sport.
The royal commission has left most of our media confused and naked. Having campaigned hard on behalf of the business lobby, marshalling senior columnists to editorialise against the need for an inquiry, our major commercial news outlets suddenly have found themselves conflicted.
On the one hand, you don’t want to upset the power elite. But then again, the lurid details of tawdry behaviour and blatant disregard for consumers and by association, the national economy, are just too enticing.
Many have offered a perfunctory mea culpa, claiming they had no idea just how bad things were.
What about all those stories of egregious lending practices to small firms stretching back to the 1980s, the way farmers were treated with the foreign loans scandal in the 1990s and the endless rip-offs on every conceivable market from interest rates to currencies and precious metals. Was there never a pattern?
Gender equality or cop out?
The plight of Ms Brenner, however, has opened a new fissure in the debate.
It’s all because she’s a woman, argue those wanting to throw a bit of smoke over the issue.
Reportage of Ms Brenner’s previous lacklustre career as a middle-ranking investment banker that included embarrassing excerpts of an interview she gave years ago about her extensive beauty regime sparked something of an internal war at one national outlet.
Within days, an underling at the same organ went in to bat for Ms Brenner, going full throttle on the gender-equality argument.
It is true plenty of male directors have failed in their duties, at AMP and other corporations, over the years. The question, however, is why has the media been so reluctant to report on their indiscretions?
When it comes to crime, we lap up footage of handcuffed detainees being marched semi-naked out of their houses in the pre-dawn light.
We sit in front of our television sets and delight in the shame parade of those convicted of minor indiscretions and watch on in glee as dodgy plumbers are chased down a street.
Dare question someone rich and powerful over serious allegations emanating from a royal commission, however, and suddenly out pop the moral crusaders.
It’s a good thing Catherine Brenner never took up cricket.