One hundred years hence let us hope that future historians do not pore through the columns of The Australian to find out what happened in our period of history.
What would they find? An Australia that religiously followed the modern US Republican cause; that was profoundly unsympathetic to refugees; that nostalgically launched back into the Cold War again and again to inquire whether Russian KGB agents had infiltrated the highest levels of the Australian Labor Party; that crusaded back and forth about welfare without ever advocating an alternative; that was convinced that the best selling historian of Australia, Manning Clark, was also a KGB agent; that found man-made climate change implausible and that what revived Aboriginal Australia in the 21st century was an iron fist of military and police intervention!
But worse than all this, future historians would see that there was little original thought and that The Australian seemed to be a follower of trends abroad with a haphazard view of the nature and qualities of its own native, namesake country.
What primarily does The Australian and News Limited stand for?
It stands for its own self importance. The problem isn’t that the organisation favours one side of the news over another, it is that it is an insular club which is cold to outside influences. News Limited likes, above all, to be seen as a king maker and power broker. It does not want to report the news — it wants to make the news.
Newspapers should have strong opinions, make choices and offer recommendations. But such views need to be merit-based and emerge from a rich editorial process. At The Australian the conversations that occur between editorial bosses are extremely narrow. You contribute if you are in the News Ltd club. The choices that it makes are not informed by anything of substance but rather a perspective that such and such is someone’s friend, or has the tick of approval by the bosses, or is part of an establishment club view of the world.
The club shows no restraint. It will feature a half page picture of a favoured personality or raise a 16-point headline, even when the substance of a story contradicts it, in order to please the perceived hierarchy. Gail Kelly of Westpac found herself at the mercy of the News Limited spin merchants last week. Many have suffered a similar fate over the past few decades.
Because of its club-like atmosphere, News Limited is incapable of focusing in on shades of grey or real, nitty gritty contradictions. For example, you cannot imagine The Australian running a story which suggests that life in Aboriginal communities has gotten worse because of the Northern Territory Intervention — despite there being plenty of evidence to this effect. There can be no interruptions to the media mates’ general view of the world: cub reporters are given assignments to go out to interview people from a particular perspective in order to reinforce a dominant view. Minions are rewarded for their work with greater seniority. Even if news reporters do uncover something that departs from this blinkered perspective, then editors and sub-editors routinely correct it back to the News Limited line.
There are many fine journalists, columnists and contributors who write for The Australian and other News Limited rags. Most have moved for higher salaries and more security. Former editors of the paper and star feature writers have won the right to a level of autonomy. This does not mean such writers can contradict the general line of the paper, but there are senior journalists who will not allow any of their copy to be touched by lesser known mortals, which gives the overall product an inconsistent feel — like a ship being steered by several captains.
Similarly those of us who still occasionally buy The Australian — its circulation figures are closely guarded so that advertising is not jeopardised by a falling readership — do so in order to read one or two columnists. In so far as the overall presentation of the world is concerned, you have to learn to read through the pages. This is difficult for those who have no idea of the internal permutations of personalities and masters within News, or who don’t seek out other sources of world news.
It’s true that since the days when Rupert Murdoch virtually dictated Gough Whitlam’s "It’s time" campaign, News Limited editors have never shied away from being politically active and partisan. But this is not the real concern — what we should be worried about is the propensity for News Limited papers to create their own version of the news. The offensive quality of News is their sheer ability to bully a sort of reality. So much important information is left out.
During the reign of George Bush Snr there was absolutely no question that he was going to be re-elected if you read The Australian. For the entire Clinton period it was as if George Bush Snr had never lost the election. There were very few articles that portrayed Clinton in any positive light. Nine out of 10 columnists were from the conservative side of the Republican right. All of them hounded Clinton and his administration. Again, who cares if the editors favoured Bush senior or junior, but surely it was in the interests of quality that other sides of the debate were reported in good faith?
Similarly, The Australian was a kind of cheerleader for John Howard as prime minister — although its position was not really rational in an ideological sense. Rather, it likes to be seen as the confidant of presidents and prime ministers and the maker and breaker of administrations. Kevin Rudd spoiled his opportunity when he dared to criticise the editor of The Australian for either erroneously quoting him or quoting something off the record about a phone call with George Bush Jr. From that time on Rudd was history so far as The Australian was concerned — even though the former PM enjoys a strong personal friendship with Chris Mitchell, the paper’s editor in chief.
The implosion of the Gillard government is also being covered in an imbalanced way by The Australian. Blind Freddy can see that the Gillard Government will not win the next election — whenever it is held. But neither does the Abbott Opposition deserve to win government. The role of a national newspaper should be to constructively criticise all sides of politics with equal passion and to feature a diversity of high quality writing, not to act as if it is the king maker of every new government.
The ABC drama Paper Giants was an amusing and entertaining portrayal of the professional relationship between Kerry Packer and Ita Buttrose. But the darker side of the drama is that like News, the former Packer and current Fairfax empires, also revolve around very narrow clubs of interests and personalities. It is important for all of us to educate ourselves beyond the confines of the news clubs. Perhaps that is happening with internet-based news organisations like Crikey, Wikileaks and New Matilda, and the general use of more open, web-based sources of news. An optimistic thought is that the community has grown beyond the limited options of the mainstream news media. Historians of the future please take note: we are not all that dumb.
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