Australia’s national daily newspaper The Australian has been wasting scarce journalist resources on a vendetta yet again. The latest victim is media writer Margaret Simons whose 2007 book The Content Makers remains the definitive account of the geography of Australian media (though someone needs to update it for the last five years). In recent weeks, The Aus has unleashed its attack dogs over claims Simons has somehow caused a breach of practice by her actions in the recent Finkelstein Review into media which was inspired by the serious criminal behaviour of one of The Australian’s sister publications in the UK. There are many ways in which this attack on Simons is risible and they are all brilliantly exposed in Robert Manne’s new Monthly essay.
The point Manne is making about the tactics of the newspaper is twofold. Firstly, it doesn’t matter if your allegations are true you just have to make enough of them and some of the mud will stick. Secondly, it is another shot across the bows of anyone who dares be critical of the newspaper with treatment similar to Julie Posetti and Larissa Behrend dragged out whenever a punchbag is needed.
The newspaper fulfils a crucial function in our democracy as one of the few media outlets with a truly national outlook. But it would appear the power conferred by being one of the central squares of Australia’s public sphere has gone to the broadsheet’s head. In its constant efforts to defend itself against critics, it has become warped and has forgotten its purpose: to give Australians a useful national perspective on the important news of the day.
The Australian appears not to want to learn from its mistakes. It never admits it is wrong. Under Chris Mitchell in particular (editor in chief since 2003) it has been front and centre in a culture war. The newspaper and its Saturday companion have an armada of columnists which can recite the party line in their sleep and who regularly trot out the house rules.
There are enough good writers at the paper to provide the news function. They cover politics, business, law and international affairs in some detail (with the help of good Murdoch sister papers such as the Wall St Journal and The Times). But their editorial and opinion pages have become barren wastelands of News groupthink where writers like Greg Sheridan, Chris Kenny, Dennis Shanahan and Christopher Pearson flourish. Even when turning to unorthodox opinion it favour those who unorthodoxy is mostly directed against the left and the greens (Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi, Bjorn Lomborg) .
As Manne said (and as I can corroborate from discussions with News journalists) there are many within the organisation appalled by the blatant and biased political tone set by the editor and his inner team. Manne reckons they should speak up which would be a better way of dealing with issues than any outside body Finkelstein could recommend. Indeed there is a precedence when journalists at the Australian went on strike in 1975 in protest as Murdoch’s open support of Malcolm Fraser in the lead up to the election.
But it is unlikely any uprising will come from within. News is one of the last 20th century media empires and most workers there fear for their future. It is not making a graceful transition to the digital age though it remains an extraordinary wealthy company and very powerful in the local market. The Australian, often described as a Murdoch vanity project, is not driving any of this wealth. But it is very influential with its high demographic readership and its access to power. Politicians of both major parties are wary of criticising it though the Greens have dubbed it hate media.
This is unsurprising as much of Mitchell’s vitriol is reserved for the party which his paper has openly called to be destroyed at the ballot box. Why The Australian even feels it has a right to make such a recommendation is a revealing aspect of its DNA. “We know best,” it screams and we will punish anyone who has the temerity to think otherwise. No wonder it cannot deal with the social media sharing tools of 21st century when its views are steeped in 20th century paternalism. It prefers intimidation to trust as a way of maintaining its authority. But The Australian is on borrowed time and not just because Murdoch will sooner or later die. Its thrashed brand is a tragedy as much of Chris Mitchell’s making as Rupert’s and one which must not be repeated by whatever colonises its habitat when it is gone.