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Crikey Bias-o-meter: The newspapers

Thanks to the dominance of News Limited and its gimlet-eyed boyo editors, the print media in Australia skews to the right: old fashioned, blokey, economically libertarian but socially conservative and mostly anti-intellectual.

Meanwhile Fairfax has become more liberal left wing in recent years, or perhaps just more confused, largely because nobody at the top understands how journalists work which leaves them liable to write for themselves and their peers. The truth is there aren’t many out-there radicals in Australian newspaper-land, whether of the left or the right.

The market is too small to support newspapers that don’t play to the centre ground, so the Crikey bias-o-meter has had to be finely calibrated. In a marketplace full of bland centrist publications and carefully mixed stables of commentators, small deviations can look extreme. A cultural warrior here or an aging Whitlamite there can throw the thing way out. But here goes:  


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The Australian

Reputably John Howard’s favourite newspaper. He has been profuse in his praise – which should make journalists worth their salt ashamed. You need to worry when the politicians praise you. Redeemed itself with its work on the Australian Wheat Board, which had some Government figures protesting that the paper had a “split personality” or even was “betraying us”. The Oz is also the paper that first ran doubts about the truth of the Government’s line on the children overboard story. The present editor, Chris Mitchell has described the paper as “centre right” in its editorial line, but claims it is down the middle in its news coverage. The truth is that Mitchell is mostly a good editor with courage and sound journalistic values, but his credibility is undermined by occasional weird bees in his bonnet. There was the Manning Clark story during his time at The Courier-Mail and most recently the fruit-loopy editorials attacking and distorting the work of Robert Manne and others. The truth is that Rupert’s Australian flagship is a measure of the Murdoch pragmatism. For many years it has been in sympathy with the agenda of federal governments of both colours. Under editor Paul Kelly it helped define Paul Keating’s “big picture”. During the Howard years it has provided both turf and fuel for the culture warriors of the Right.

 

The Australian Financial Review

Different. The AFR costs more, with the highest cover price of any newspaper, and has the wealthiest and best educated audience. To justify and play to all that, it has to provide in depth analysis and real inside knowledge, rather than mere ideological fisticuffs. As a result despite its audience of high wealth individuals it is politically one of the most balanced newspapers in the country. Obviously pro free markets and pro business, but in other political commentary – the closest to the centre on the Australian media scene.

Right/Left: 0

 

The Sydney Morning Herald

The great lefty-curmudgeonly Fairfax tradition of knowing that anyone who makes it to being the boss must have something wrong with them is in abatement among Herald senior journos, where Capt’n David Kirk now has a trusty cheer squad on the Starship SMH , including editor Alan Oakley as Mr Sulu: “Ahead warp factor one, Capt’n. Integrated newsroom ahead”. The line among senior Herald insiders is that whereas former CEO Fred Hilmer was a defeatist not interested in papers, Kirk is a good man to have in a rugby scrum, intent on winning, and everything will now be tickety-boo with the business in the new media age. How does this square with the aforementioned lefty curmudgeon tradition? These days the Herald seems confused more than anything else – gung-ho right wingers in charge, and liberal lefties in the newsroom. A good stable of left of centre columnists mixed with token right wingers, erudite but fence-sitting editorials, erratic news judgements and a general air of niceness, North-Shoreness and inner West sensibilities. Lots of polish as the Starship proceeds wordily and gracefully to somewhere in the universe quite distant from the real and messy business of Sydney.

   The Daily Telegraph

“We just represent mainstream Australian values,” says editor David Penberthy, who is as much of a News Limited boyo as a modern man can be. This means he doesn’t piss in the sink during news conferences and knows how to talk to women, but sits with his legs spread wide apart in news conferences and uses the word “w-nker” with great liberality. Has acquired the News Limited defensiveness gene – but is smart and charming and usually (not always) catches himself before taking the whole shebang too seriously. So how does Australia’s most tabloid of tabloids divine the mainstream amongst the many rivulets of Australian opinion? Basically conservative, but more than anything else anti-elitist, pro family and anti wackos and pseuds - be they greenies, right wing nut jobs, Labor Party machine men or Liberal blue bloods. Assimilationist and always pro law and order. Always sure that the world is getting worse, (except for those heart warming stories that make for good pics on page three) politicians stink and the management of the state and nation is f…ed. At its best, wittily incisive. At its worst, silly and destructive. Has declining circulation – which suggests the mainstream, if there is such a thing, is moving on.

 

 

The Age

The curmudgeonly Fairfax tradition (see above) survives - hardly surprising given those in charge. Editor Andrew Jaspan is euphemistically described as “high maintenance” even by his supporters. His greatest supporter, board Chairman Ron Walker is “Mr Melbourne” and thus far too interested in the kudos and connections the publication can deliver. Since Jaspan is notorious for not reading what is in his own paper, the publication is pulled together on a day to day basis by the senior editors just below him. The people are high quality, but the result is erratic. There is an increasingly effective investigative effort, an op ed page with intellectual kick arse and a Saturday paper that beats the Sydney Morning Herald ’s effort most weeks, but a good news day will frequently be followed by a weak attempt to imitate the Herald-Sun, or a front of book that is, weirdly, almost devoid of news. Meanwhile management’s emphasis on marketing has led to partnerships with almost anything willing to be partnered in Melbourne, which puts the paper too much at the mercy of vested interests. Morale is at wrist-slashing levels and the ship leaks like a sieve as a result. Bullies are tolerated in middle editorial management, while some senior journalists resist sub editorial input with prima donna like self importance and sulks. The result? Left liberal, iconoclastic, compromised, traces of the old intellectual Melbourne tradition but largely out of touch with or unable to capitalise on Melbourne’s best gossip networks.

 

Herald-Sun

A comparatively tame tabloid for a staid and comfortable town. It would rate closer to the middle on the bias-o-meter if it weren’t for Andrew Bolt, who skews the whole operation with his “I’m just a simple patriot sickened by lefty traitors” right wing schtick. Active and livelier than its broadsheet rival, the Herald-Sun earns its title as Australia’s largest selling newspaper with a lively and professional approach to news and a willingness to wear out shoe-leather in its pursuit. The appointment of Bruce Guthrie as editor earlier this year makes the rivalry with The Age personal. Guthrie, who has edited just about everything over his career, once headed The Age during the Kennett Government, and (according to Guthrie) - was pushed out by Ron Walker and the board for being too critical of Kennett. Views about Guthrie are polarised, but he has yet to make a big mark at the paper. He is on the record as thinking journalists should always be “for” the readers and against the big end of town – no matter what the political colour. The Hun has a varied stable of columnists, including Jill Singer and Lindsay Tanner. None except Bolt could be described as radicals of the left or right. The Hun is a comfy paper rather than a screamer – confirming prejudices, sharp and sometimes creative in covering local news, populist but covers the main stories of the day even when they are boring. Stirs up mild controversy.

 

The Courier-Mail

In a one newspaper town The Courier-Mail is a conventional News Limited tabloid, which means no better than it has to be, and one of the contestants in a close run field for worst paper in Australia. Has a less than honourable history in Queensland – far too close to the centres of power during the corrupt Joh years, then in the news-rich post Fitzgerald-era, under then editor Chris Mitchell, pursued an expensive and crazy quest to prove that historian Manning Clark spied for Russia. Hardly the most important story in Queensland at the time. Things are tamer now. The Courier-Mail is mostly predictable and dull, with occasional honourable exceptions such as the exposure of “Doctor Death”, Jayant Patel. It toes the Rupert line – pro free market, pro Iraq war – but rarely covers local politics as other than biffo. Not much wrestling with the issues. The problems of cronyism and lack of diversity in the Sunshine State are increased by the fact that editor David Fagan is married to Madonna King, a top journalist who now broadcasts on Brisbane ABC Radio, sometimes interviewing her husband. Undoubtedly to the right, as the sleepier Murdoch tabloids always are – but it’s more lazy populism than ideological fervour.

 

The Advertiser

Another Murdoch tabloid in a one newspaper town, and another contender in the tight-run race for worst newspaper (see above). Adelaide is a nice town. So nice that there are hardly any politics, unless you are talking about the nastiness of Adelaide City Council or the constant backbiting over the sanctity of the Adelaide parklands and the fight between heritage and pro development lobbies. In its pre-Murdoch life the ‘Tiser was deeply conservative and an outlet of the Adelaide establishment. When the paper came into the Murdoch stable Piers Akerman had a fiery period as editor, broke the old culture and fired the place up as a rampant anti-Labor campaigning tabloid. When he left things soon settled back into sleepiness. Today it is tabloid without being sharp, and when it is sharp it is sometimes wrong. The paper, and its editor Melvin Mansell, displays all the arrogance and self importance that comes so easily to the big fish in Adelaide’s little pond. Once again, a lazy populist paper.

 

The West Australian

The wild, wild West and its wild, wild paper. The paper has a history of surging and surfing on the state’s excesses and now is no exception. Editor Paul Armstrong has been constantly controversial for political bias and what might politely be termed a robust attitude to managing staff. The paper is a screamer, a campaigner, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t also often wrong – both in fact and in judgment. Armstrong seems to be trying to out tabloid David Penberthy at the Daily Tele, with the difference being that Penberthy usually (not always) knows how far to push it. Armstrong doesn’t. There have been several critical Press Council judgments, and read about the recent stoush with the State Government here . Batty and bullying more than anything else, but at least it’s not boring. In the country of the politically bland, skews right wing.

 

 

The Canberra Times

This one is changing fast. The closest thing the pre-Fairfax merger Rural Press had to a metropolitan paper, it was for some time run like any other country town publication – provincial and conservative. The appointment of former Age journalist Mark Baker as editor signalled a recognition that Canberra is different, and the paper has since acquired more depth and intellectual weight. Despite tight resources, on most days it now plays well to its audience of well educated, mostly mild-mannered small “l” liberal public servants and those who service them with a mix of the local and the bigger picture.

The Mercury

What a news rich environment Tassie should be – but you’d scarcely know it from reading the Hobart Mercury, another self satisfied smug product of a one newspaper town. The discernable bias is against stirring up trouble. The blokey, anti-intellectual newsroom toes a safe line of provincial boosterism and small town conservatism. Weird Tasmanian politics don’t easily translate to right or left wing. Unthinkingly conservative.

 

Crikey

All over the place. An insider’s newsletter, governed by the factional politics of insiders rather than any simple left-right divide. Changing under the new editor Jonathan Green, a refugee from Andrew Jaspan’s Age. Becoming less erratic, but still largely about pissing into any tent it can find. On any one day the home of rabid comment from both sides of politics together with attempts at sobersides analysis and juicy gossip. Only passing gravitas. Not conservative. Has energy, but then so does a toaster. Breaks stories. Not part of any club. Pisses in all directions.

   


Courier-Mail editor David Fagan writes: A few of my staff who subscribe to your newsletter have passed on your analysis of newspapers. They should ask for their money back. It’s lazy and hackneyed and reads like it was knocked up between afternoon tea and scones. Its analysis of The Courier-Mail, for instance, is based on what the writer thinks happened 30, 20 and 10 years ago. It overlooks the fact that The Courier-Mail has led the debate on the big Queensland issue — how we handle growth for the past four years. It ignores that we broke one of the best national political stories of the year — the Santo Santoro shares scandal. The analysis would not make it into reputable publication. As to the alleged cosiness between The Courier-Mail and ABC Radio: I’ve been on air once in the past two years — the day on which we made the historic change from broadsheet to compact, an issue of some interest to ABC listeners. Your correspondent was once a good gardening writer. Out of charity, I will judge her on that.

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