Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Age of Nefarious

Fairfax senior management has come down on the side of The Age’s editor Andrew Jaspan in a serious argument with his journalist staff over his decisions to allow commercial partnerships to compromise editorial independence. In a letter to the Melbourne broadsheet’s journalist representative Greg Baum yesterday, Fairfax chief executive and publisher Don Churchill said he was "completely satisfied" that Jaspan had not contravened the "fundamental values of independent journalism". And in a warning sure to infuriate Age journalists further, he warned commercial partnership deals were here to stay.

Crikey broke the story last week after Age editor Andrew Jaspan held a “clear the air” meeting at the paper attended by 235 journalists. At the meeting, the journalists voted unanimously for a motion accusing Jaspan of “degrading their ability to produce independent journalism.” The meeting produced many displays of anger with Jaspan openly accused of lying. The frank exchange was captured on tape which was subsequently leaked to Crikey.

The meeting produced a motion (pdf) which was unanimously agreed to by all journalists present. The motion expressed alarm at “recent developments” that showed that the church and state separation between the paper’s commercial and editorial departments had been undermined by pressure to favour organisations with which the newspaper has struck commercial and sponsorship arrangements. The motion condemned these developments and said they contravene the MEAA code of ethics and the Age’s own code of conduct.

The journalists released a statement of support which outlined six recent examples of where they say The Age transgressed the commercial / editorial boundary. The first of these was Earth Hour (partially owned by Fairfax). Support for the event meant that the corporate partnership not editorial judgement dictated news coverage. Reporters were pressurised not to write negative stories and instead “to promote a campaign being waged by external interests, and write stories that had self-interest rather than news values at their heart”. Last week’s Media Watch also reported that story suggestions from Earth Hour’s Melbourne Project Manager were including in the paper without criticism.

The other five issues raised were a) sport coverage compromised by increasing commercial emphasis on special relationships and partnerships, b) the decision of Jaspan and his deputy editor to attend the 2020 Summit, c) the “R Walker” letter in the Age (that did not identify the writer as Fairfax chairman Ron Walker), d) special treatment given in coverage of the Melbourne Grand Prix (where Walker is also chairman), and e) the issue of bay dredging in which journalists say Jaspan “has pursued an undeclared campaign” which has been “aggressively directed to reflect the view that the dredging is a mistake”.

After the details of the spat between The Age and its journalists were revealed by Crikey and ABC’s Media Watch, Sydney-based Fairfax CEO wrote the letter to Age staff referred to at the start of this article. In it he reaffirmed his support for Age Managing Director Don Churchill. Kirk said he was “disturbed” some staff members had taped editor Jaspan’s remarks to the meeting and distributed them to other media. Kirk said these “discourteous actions hurt the paper and I think they also do the staff no favours”.

Kirk then went on to attack what he called Crikey’s “unremitting criticism” of Fairfax Media. Kirk was referring to Margaret Simons' piece in Friday’s Crikey in which she sheeted home blame for the problems not only to Jaspan but to his superiors: Churchill, Kirk and the Fairfax Board. In a scathing article, Simons said there were two issues which have damaged The Age. Firstly there is the blurring of the line between commercial and editorial, which she acknowledges is a problem at all media organisations. Secondly, is the fact senior management have knowingly allowed someone to remain as editor who is incapable of getting the respect or confidence of his staff.

The Age independence committee said today in its response to Churchill, that there is an urgent need to address the documented instances of infringements on editorial independence. The committee’s mission is to protect the integrity, independence and quality of the newspapers. The committee endorses The Age Charter of Editorial Independence which was conceived in 1988 as a campaign to prevent Robert Maxwell taking over the newspaper after Warwick Fairfax's financially disastrous purchase of the Fairfax group in 1987.

The committee has since been active in 1990 (when Fairfax went into receivership), 1997 (during the aborted Packer takeover bid) and 2005 (when the Howard government brought in its new media laws). Now it faces its most serious fight yet as the editorial management team has changed sides and fights with the commercial arm. The stakes are high. Victory for Jaspan, Churchill and Kirk will consign the quaint notion of editorial independence to a twentieth century media museum.

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