Friday, May 25, 2012

Manne bites Australian

Not that it should be a surprise to anyone but Australia’s national daily newspaper The Australian has been wasting scarce journalist resources on a vendetta again. The latest victim is one of the country’s leading media writers 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 in turn 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 or false 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 which will be dragged out time and time again 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 warped in on itself and forgotten what it is there for: to give Australians enough information to give them a useful perspective on the important news of the day.

The biggest problem with the Australian is that 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 built up an armada of columnists which can recite the party line in their sleep who regularly trot out the house rules. 

There are still 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 favours 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 that are 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 the issue than any outside body Finkelstein could recommend. Indeed there is a precedent 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 extraordinarily 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 remains 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 it 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 sharing tools of 21st century social media 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.


Anonymous said...

Exactly. Nice to see a critically thinking journ from western qld! How do your columns go in Roma with the locals?

Derek Barry said...

They may not agree with my political opinions but I'm general trusted because I'm honest

Anonymous said...

there goes any chance of a job at the OZ then. well said too Wooly.
I saw QA the other night with Sheridan trying to defend torture as per the Murdoch line. it was sickening to watch. what a bunch of arse-lickers.....Phil_space