Opinion

Joe Aston’s war with Alex Malley is a triumph for campaigning journalism

Campaigning by the AFR's Rear Window has triggered major changes for the CPA and forced it to reveal the sizeable salary of its fame-hungry CEO. Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes argues that the saga demonstrates that the role of a newspaper diarist is often underrated.

The Australian Financial Review has a good scoop on its front page today.

But the credit for much of the campaigning work that got it there belongs on the back page.

In recent months, the place to start The Australian Financial Review every day has been Joe Aston’s Rear Window column – to find out the latest on his war of attrition with the CPA.

For months, Aston has been battling for the boss of the accountancy industry body to reveal his salary.

The boss in question is Alex Malley, who may be familiar to you even if you’re not an accountant, as the CPA has been spending millions of dollars a year in making him famous.

They’ve paid for him to have his own TV show on Nine – “In Conversation with Alex Malley” – in which he interviews actors and astronauts and the like.

They’ve helped him publish a book.

They’ve built up a social media following for him.

They’ve paid for him to front a careers advice website in which he tells students about what he gets up to.

Malley’s careers advice website

It turns out that money can buy fame.

Or as many a desperate agency boss trying to hold on to a piece of business knows, when in doubt, put the client in the ad.

The Naked CEO even won the CPA a silver in Mumbrella’s BEfest Branded Entertainment Awards in 2015. The justification being that Malley humanises the face of accountancy and provides a role model for future members to aspire to.

But then Aston began to question whether the expenditure by the CPA was actually benefiting its CEO more than it was the membership of the organisation. He was first to point out that the content marketing emperor was wearing no clothes.

Aston’s column last year questioned CPA expenditure on making Malley famous

And as Aston began to point out hypocrisies, with Malley writing columns about big business transparency without telling members what he was being paid to run the industry body, the pressure on the CPA began to mount.

Wider questions about governance, disclosure and its board members began to come to the fore.

AFR colleagues also began to join the battle, with stories and revelations moving to the rest of the paper.

But still, details weren’t revealed to members about what Malley is being paid.

Meanwhile, the CPA swiped back, hinting to members Aston was motivated by jealousy of Malley because he lost his own Sunday morning TV slot.

Aston had his own slot on the AFR’s short-lived Sunday morning business show

But today, came a key moment. The CPA finally revealed to the AFR’s Patrick Durkin that Malley is being paid $1.8m a year – a lot for the boss of an organisation with lots of small-end-of-town members, and more than the bosses of many ASX companies. Durkin also revealed that chairman Tyrone Carlin, who has only been in the role for a few months, is stepping down “in the spirt of renewal”.

And of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. It’s hard to see how Malley will retain the moral authority to continue to lead the organisation in the future. Every time members see his face on an airport billboard they’ll be reminded of how much they’re paying him.

Nonetheless, it’s already a victory for the Rear Window campaign.

And it demonstrates the role a good diarist can play. The job of mixing humour, with campaigning reporting and a willingness to be unpopular isn’t for everybody.

Aston also made enemies when he was among the first to deride the decision to make Deborah Thomas the boss of Ardent Leisure. Some accused him of sexism in questioning why a former magazine editor was ideally qualified to run a leisure parks group, but Thomas’ inept handling of the Dreamworld disaster proved him right.

And as I’ve said, he made enemies of the CPA leadership too.

But the secret to winning a journalism campaign is to keep going. And he kept going.

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