The Canberra Times’ Big Stoush: Read All About It (From One Perspective)

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The Canberra Times is engaged in a ding-dong battle with the ACT Chief Minister, and if you believe the letters to the editor page, it has staggering levels of support. John Passant is not so sure.

The Australian Capital Territory’s Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, recently made some private comments about the mainstream media recently that have provoked massive outrage, at least in the letters page of the particular newspaper outlet involved, The Canberra Times.

First, some background. In the ACT’s 25 seat Legislative Assembly there are 12 Labor Party members, 11 Liberals and 2 Greens. One of those Greens, Shane Rattenbury, is a Minister in the Barr Government. This ensures there is a functioning government. The arrangement gives an ALP/Greens majority on major issues.

What is it that Barr said that has so outraged the people of the ACT? To help explain let me publish in New Matilda my letter to the Canberra Times on the subject, sent on Tuesday 13 March and, as of Friday 16 March, still unpublished. I wrote:

Amid all the pro-Canberra Times letters expressing outrage over the comments of our chief Minister, I had been looking forward to reading a number defending Andrew Barr’s fairly truthful analysis of our modern mainstream media. The fact that they have not been forthcoming suggests one of two things. Either every Canberran is incensed by Andrew Barr’s comments, or The Canberra Times is exercising a benign censorship over the letters page. It would be interesting to see an analysis of pro- and anti-Barr letters submitted versus the number published.

I find it hard to disagree with this from Barr:

“I’m over dealing with the mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke and it will be only a matter of years before it closes down…”

He then went on to say that “… the circulation of the print edition of The Canberra Times was less than 15,000.”

These comments appear to me to have the ring of truth about them. So tell us, CT, what is the circulation of the print edition, and does management think it is in terminal decline? Is it making a profit or a loss? If it is making a loss what are the long-term plans for the paper if it continues its loss making ways?

Every move by the Canberra Times to address these issues – such as the Fairfaxisation of the paper and now its Murdochisation – only appears to exacerbate the fall in paid hard copy readership.

I only subscribe to the Canberra Times to support its cartoonist, David Pope, and for the cryptic crossword. Most of the analysis (apart from Pope’s cartoons) is kindergarten stuff. Many of the opinion writers, but not all, display about as much insight as Tony Abbott.

I much prefer the analysis from online outlets like Independent Australia, New Matilda and Crikey, and an Australian socialist magazine, Solidarity. Apparently I am not alone.

If the Canberra Times cannot broaden its appeal – I know a rather left wing writer whose MEAA endorsed rates are reasonable – the disease of ‘sensible centrism’ and cost saving will kill it.

I must finish off with a declaration of interest. I write a weekly column for Independent Australia.

By way of starting the discussion on the need for a new communications strategy to engage younger Canberrans, Barr said he hated journalists. He then went on to say, as I mention in my unpublished letter above, that he was over the mainstream media as a form of communicating with the people of Canberra and that The Canberra Times with its abysmal print sales record and joke reporting could not survive for much longer.

The Chief Minister also said, quite reasonably, that it was those over 60 who generally watched the ABC. What he didn’t say was that they too are turning away from the ABC as Michelle Guthrie Murdochratises it too.

Barr has since said hate is a strong word and he regrets using it.

ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr. (IMAGE: Gavin Tapp, Flickr)

The fact that The Canberra Times has not published my letter or indeed any letter of support for Barr I think proves the point about censorship. Since Monday, when the Canberra Times made Barr’s private comments to a group of communications providers public, the newspaper has printed letter after letter condemning the Chief Minister. It has not published one defending him.

By my calculations the scorecard in the letters pages over the period Tuesday to Friday has been 53 anti-Barr letters, and none defending him. This is the very problem with The Canberra Times that Barr identified. It clearly has an anti-Barr agenda and is using its control of what is printed to push that.

This is not some aberration by The Canberra Times, or indeed mainstream media in general. They are the spokespeople for capital, and while there will be differences among the 1% about the way forward for their capitalism, they won’t, except in very rare occasions, discuss alternative views that put people before profit, or even fairly moderate Corbynite social democracy or Sanders’ democratic socialism. Those rare occasions, as Corbyn and Sanders show, are when a mass movement for progressive change or even socialism erupts.

The decline of mainstream media as rivers of gold for their owners has coincided with their shift to the right and decline in readership. This shift to the right is obvious in the case of the Murdoch Press, which now feeds raw meat from right-wing nut jobs to its readers.

News Corporation chairman, Rupert Murdoch.

But it is also clear from developments at the Fairfax papers and the ABC. When was the last time a socialist was invited on to ABC TV to comment on politics? When was the last time the Fairfax media published an article by a socialist analysing Australian or global politics?

As the major parties lose more base support because they are all sycophants of neoliberalism, so too as the mainstream media echo the neoliberal agenda and shift further to the right they lose readership.

Corbyn has reinvigorated politics in the UK by mobilising and being mobilised by a mass movement for change. We need a Corbyn media equivalent in Australia, one that speaks to and reflects ordinary people and their desire for a better world.

Independent media such as New Matilda and Independent Australia provide that embryonically, although the need for paying subscribers is just as important for them as for the mainstream media, although not on the same scale.

For the cost of a subscription to the Canberra Times you could support five independent media outlets. To keep alive real difference, discussion and debate that goes beyond the narrow conservative confines of mainstream media, more of us should be subscribing to and contributing to progressive independent media.

John Passant

John Passant is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the ANU and a member of the small revolutionary socialist group Solidarity.

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