3AW mornings host
Born in: Melbourne
Foes: Simon Overland | Stephen Mayne
Home Town: Melbourne
When the powerful want to talk to Melbourne, there's one man they choose: Neil Mitchell.
Jeff Kennett and Steve Bracks checked into his studio once a week. John Howard and Kevin Rudd called in once a fortnight. And Ron Walker, Christine Nixon and Andrew Demetriou are others who have used him as a message service.
"Everyone goes to him," says pollster Gary Morgan. "He's the doyen of Melbourne radio."
For the past 24 years, the bearded wonder has steered debate in the bleak city with his three-and-a-half hour morning show, which attracts a daily audience of about 380,000. His regular column in the Herald Sun has added to his firepower.
"Politicians believe we're all-powerful," Mitchell tells The Power Index, "but it's really the audience, not us. If you don't read them right, you've got no power. If you take them along with you, you can do extraordinary things."
And tuning into his audience is his forte. "Mitchell understands the psyche of middle Melbourne and plays to it remorselessly," says one former Melbourne editor. "He knows which issues will play to his listeners and chooses his topics accordingly. He knows exactly when to rant and when to pontificate and, because he knows that, he is a formidable player in setting Melbourne's agenda."
Or, in the words of The Age's opinion editor, Paul Austin: "Mitchell has an unerring feel for what issues will resonate in Melbourne. If Mitchell grabs hold of an issue, all associated with it are on edge."
Certainly, no one wants to get him offside. "No one in state politics or football would dare embark on anything bold without the support of Mitchell or the Hun," says the former editor.
Mitchell's big "achievement" this year was to bring down Melbourne's Police Commissioner, Simon Overland, after a relentless campaign of criticism that culminated in the accusation that Victoria Police had cooked their crime statistics.
In 2008, his big influential win was to get former Liberal opposition leader Robert Doyle elected lord mayor of Melbourne in a close race.
But while there's no doubting that Mitchell rules the local radio waves, his ability to set the nation's agenda is much more open to debate.
Former Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner believes he is "very important at a state and city level, but he's very state focused".
A prominent Liberal powerbroker also reckons his power is limited. "He doesn't have anywhere near the influence of Alan Jones or Ray Hadley in Sydney," he told The Power Index. "Do you hear a lot of people talking about Neil Mitchell's opinions? No."
Media watcher Peter Maher (and former managing director of Rehame) once claimed that Mitchell and 3AW tag along behind the Telegraph and Sydney shock jocks when it comes to setting the national agenda. But Patrick Baume, of Media Monitors, is not so sure, telling The Power Index that Mitchell lands more big political interviews than Jones or Hadley, has a broader audience and takes a more balanced view of issues. "He's more influential in his market than Jones is in Sydney, partly because of the feeling that you don't know exactly what he's going to say."
It's worth remembering, too, that it was on Mitchell's show in the 2010 election campaign that Tony Abbott declared the death of WorkChoices, signing a paper to say the policy was "dead, buried and cremated forever". And it was Neil's dogged questioning that pushed him to it.
Unlike his ruder, rougher Sydney cousins, who claim to be "entertainers", Mitchell is a journalist at heart. He doesn't do live reads or advertisements and was never involved in cash for comment. He has nothing like the ego of John Laws, the bile of Jones or the rudeness of Hadley, whose on-air approach he describes as "hysteria".
"I don't think the style of Sydney radio would work in Melbourne," Mitchell told The Power Index. "I respect their work, but I don't like what they do."
But don't be fooled into thinking that he comes from an entirely different planet. Like any popular radio host, he lives or dies by his ratings, and he's ever ready to channel the anger of his listeners, however irrational it may be. Earlier this year, he hacked into Prime Minister Julia Gillard in two bad-tempered interviews that targeted the flood levy, the carbon tax, her financial competence and trust.
Mitchell's first question on the flood levy (which a charitable person might have supported) went straight for her throat: "With your government's history of mismanagement, like the insulation program, school rebuilding, who are you going to put in charge of spending the money you're going to be taking from us."
This was rapidly followed by: "How can we trust you, why should we trust you, given the history of the government, not to waste money?"
Before long he was hyping it up further with: "Do you agree you're staking your whole political future on this? If you can't sell this, you're finished?" And "Why is there such massive opposition to this? Are you denying it's massively unpopular?"
The answer to all of which might have been that he and his mates in the media were beating it up unmercifully.
A few weeks later, Mitchell was back into the attack on the carbon tax, where his only real interest was Gillard's credibility and the fact that she had lied to the electorate.
Most of his listeners told him he was right to go for her. "It was about time she had a few home truthes (sic)," one commented on 3AW's website. "Neil had the guts to tell her how she is perceived by the real people, she didn't like it, bad luck."
But Gillard was understandably none-too-thrilled with her treatment. "I don't think she's a fan," says Mitchell laughing.
Nevertheless, she returned in July for another dose of scorn, after which he assured readers of his Herald Sun column that she was "as unpopular as typhoid ... She no longer communicates. She hectors and dodges and snipes ... She now looks to blame everybody and everything else for her predicament."
What marks Mitchell out from the Sydney shock jocks is that he's prepared to dish it out to anyone. Unlike Alan Jones, he doesn't savage Labor then suck up to the Coalition, or reprise his attacks on Gillard so Tony Abbott can agree. "The great thing about Mitchell," says Gary Morgan, "is that he goes for both sides. He may be a conservative but he takes no prisoners; he's not soft on anyone."
As evidence of this even-handed approach, Mitchell attacked old buddy Jeff Kennett mid-year, when the ex-premier tried to rebut the attacks on Overland, branding yesterday's Liberal hero "ignorant", "a bully", "a sleaze" and "a dictator".
But The Power Index is not convinced. The tone of his interviews with Gillard was carping, high-pitched and contemptuous. With Abbott, by comparison, he was kind and patient, even though the Opposition Leader's truth-telling and political opportunism are on a par.
Such a style may well reflect the current public mood. But the fact that he is prepared to lead the mob suggests he, too, is a captive of his audience.
Mitchell assures The Power Index that he never tailors his opinions to suit his audience. "I couldn't lie to the mic," he protests, "I'd be found out." But while it's true that he has campaigned against the death penalty, it's clear he's happy to surf the waves of discontent and be swept along by the tide of his audience.
And perhaps 24 years as king of the hill has gone to his head. As Eddie McGuire succinctly puts it, he can be a "self-appointed, self-important windbag". It takes one to know one.
Like so many powerful people, Mitchell has spent a lifetime in the business. A teacher's son, he joined The Age straight out of school, was chief-of-staff by 24 and news editor at 26. He left to join The Herald, where he was editor at 32, quitting in 1986 when Murdoch bought the company. "Rupert called all his Pacific editors to a meeting on the Gold Coast," Mitchell recalls. "Les Carlyon resigned as editor-in-chief on the plane on the way back; I resigned in the arrivals lounge."
Mitchell's departure from the Murdoch stable was not out of deep aversion to the Dirty Digger. "I was tired. I'd been working 12-14 hours a day, six days a week for years and I needed a break," he says. "Besides, I knew Rupert would want someone else as editor and I didn't want to go off and run some paper in Kentucky."
He joined 3AW seven months later as a fill-in for morning host Derryn Hinch, and more than two decades on, he's still going strong. Aged 60 in November, he's not about to relinquish the throne: he has just signed up for another three-year stint.