How do you dismiss a general manager?

Thirty-one years have passed since Nicholas Shand dreamed up this newspaper and gathered a band of fellow dreamers to help him make it real. In those 31 years The Echo has grown, like a magic beanstalk, far taller than we ever imagined, and it is now a feature of Shire life. Our ongoing series on the history of our beloved rainbow rag continues this week, written by the newspaper’s longest-serving drudge, David Lovejoy.

Nicholas Shand, founding editor.

Founding editor Nicholas Shand returned from his long-service leave at the end of March, 1996. He was highly amused at the comic opera scenario playing out in Council, and at The Echo’s unavoidable central role in it.

It was clear that neither the majority of the community nor the majority of the councillors were prepared to see Max Eastcott continue his reckless regime. But with the mayor unwilling to act, the problem was how the general manager could be dismissed.

A true gentleman

It was also clear that Councillor Ross Tucker needed to calm down. The fury of his histrionic performances in the Council meetings called in response to the Cavanbah Arcade scandal had not abated.

At a June meeting there was a scuffle involving Tucker, documentary filmmaker David Bradbury and developer Jerry Bennette. Tucker pushed Bradbury aside as he was filming proceedings, and Bradbury stumbled and inadvertently knocked Bennette’s wife over. Instead of going to his wife’s assistance, Bennette immediately assaulted Bradbury. The next meeting of Council censured Tucker, not for the physical attack on Bradbury, which was then sub judice, but for a verbal attack on another councillor whom he had falsely accused of leaking documents.

In due course Tucker and Bennette were convicted of assault. I attended the court hearing, and noted how the prosecution witnesses were not consistent, precise or well-drilled. They were simply individuals who had been at the scene and remembered it in slightly different ways. The defendants’ witnesses, on the other hand, were all word-perfect and totally unconvincing. Despite their efforts, the magistrate found for the prosecution and imposed fines and costs. His question about prior records elicited the fact that Tucker had been convicted of assault before.

Both men appealed, and Tucker alone was successful. The appeal judge did not recall the witnesses; he merely read the transcripts and decided the matter without reference to the body language and verbal cues which the magistrate in the lower court had observed.

After the appeal Tucker argued with indomitable chutzpah that Council should pay his legal costs as the incident had occurred at a Council meeting. Naturally the councillors refused. Over the next few years Tucker shamelessly raised the matter at regular intervals until Council finally, through fatigue and a threat from the Ombudsman, yielded to his importunity.

Jumping ship

Max Eastcott also had a fair share of chutzpah, and not a little cunning. When it became clear that the councillors were serious about getting rid of him, he negotiated a big payout on his contract, and the condition that there should be nothing said in public about the reasons for his going.

The enforced silence from Council surrounding the general manager’s departure allowed the right wing to ignite public fury among those committed to the Eastcott cause, and those they had successfully misinformed.

There was a protest march in Mullumbimby, adorned with placard messages in support of Max, which turned out, on close inspection, to be written on the back of a local real estate agent’s signs. The councillors who had voted Eastcott out were booed, hissed and shouted down when they left the Council chambers. Nicholas was sideswiped by a car driven in the protest cavalcade by a Max supporter; fortunately he suffered only bruises and surprise.

A large portion of the fury was reserved for The Echo. We suddenly discovered that some of our main advertisers had withdrawn their custom. Other clients reported that a deputation of prominent conservatives had visited them, saying that it was time for businesspeople to stand up and resist the green scourge corrupting the Shire, and urging them to transfer their advertising from The Echo to the Byron News.

Freedom of expression

Our response was threefold. Revenue had dried up so alarmingly that the first step was to make immediate cuts. Henceforth the paper lost its B4 magazine appearance and for a while was printed as an untrimmed and unstitched tabloid. We decided to leave downgrading our stock to newsprint until it was absolutely necessary – fortunately it never was.

Emergency revenue was created by printing stickers and buttons supporting a free press in general and The Echo in particular. These were offered in return for a donation to the paper and were very popular.

The third thing we did was let people know what was happening. In a publishers’ letter Nicholas, Jeff and I wrote that it was entirely up to our customers where they placed their advertising, and that we did not support the efforts of those trying to organise a boycott of the shops which, for whatever reason, had withdrawn their business from us.

This was Nicholas’s sincere position, based on an almost holy belief in freedom of expression. But the result, a genuine surprise to him, was a wonderful vote of confidence in the newspaper by its readers, who – without our encouragement – deserted the politics-playing advertisers in such numbers that in a matter of weeks they had all returned to our pages.

More Echo history articles

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