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Mar 19, 2010

The bullies in a one paper town

Extraordinary attack on Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman by The Courier-Mail exposes the bullying tactics and simmering tensions between politics and an incestuous media environment in the one-paper town.

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An extraordinary attack on popular Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman by The Courier-Mail has exposed the bullying tactics and simmering tensions between politics and an incestuous media environment in the one-paper town.

The newspaper used its editorial on Monday to deplore the Liberal mayor’s “increased arrogance” and “Napoleonic tendencies” in trying to manage an announcement on the opening of the city’s landmark cross-city road tunnels. But a leading academic and political staffers at all levels of government told Crikey it goes to the paper’s dominance and arrogance in the market.

According to The Courier Mail, the Mayor’s media office demanded front-page treatment for a story on when the tunnel would be open. Quotes from the Mayor had to be included, opposition comment excluded, and any “negative connotations” within the story had to be verified.

But the mayor’s media office — led by former Courier Mail journo Michael Corkill — told Crikey it was editor David Fagan who personally offered the exclusive over coffee with staff. The demands amounted to “our understanding of these offers”.

The Courier Mail went to the tunnel proponent to get news of the opening — which council agreed to release — and reneged on its demands for an exclusive. “We made it clear that if we were to be cut from our own announcement we would release the information that night before the 6pm news,” Corkill said. The paper published the news on its website, killing its own exclusive, at 5:20pm.

The relationship is now at a nadir, though tensions have simmered for years (as Media Watch detailed in 2008). Both sides seem to be in agreement on the biggest problem: as The Courier Mail wrote on Campbell, “he wants things all his way or not at all”. Political staffers say the same applies to working with the paper.

One reporter told Crikey how much of a “pleasure” it was working on state government stories because the council — the largest in Australia — is so difficult to deal with. They claim councillors are shielded from the media, requests for comment are ignored (yet journalists are berated for not including a response) and advisors set about killing stories at first glance. (Other journalists, however, claim to have a productive relationship with the office.)

But the complaints are numerous against the The Courier Mail. One political staffer points to an increasing “paranoia” over losing stories to Fairfax’s Brisbane Times website, particularly now Fairfax owns Brisbane’s only commercial talk radio station 4BC. Another insider highlights the exodus of dozens of seasoned reporters from the paper — many moving across the corridor to The Australian bureau — leaving The Courier Mail with younger, less experienced reporters.

“There’s been situations in the past where they’ve made it overtly obvious they better not read it anywhere else,” said one political adviser.

A state government flack says the paper has threatened “three-page spreads” of negative coverage if it doesn’t get the scoop. “If they want something they get something,” they said. They believe the Courier took it upon themselves to oppose premier Peter Beattie’s reign because the Nationals-led coalition was so weak. While much of the balance has been restored in parliament, “that mindset continues.”

And then there’s the man at the top. According to one insider, Fagan favours his friends in awarding promotions: “They call them FODs — Friends Of David.”

Fagan has been at the helm of the Courier for more than seven years — a lengthy period compared to other News Limited editors. One former staffer says rumours point to his end being nigh: “My mail is he’ll be out of there by the end of the year.”

Fagan and his wife, former News Limited journalist turned ABC Radio presenter Madonna King, form a “media bloc” in the city, says one insider. Crikey understands problems between the Courier and the council started during the last election when King gave the Labor candidate half-hour of airtime but denied Campbell the right to respond.

It’s understood the council has previously lodged a formal complaint against King with the ABC but the matter was dismissed after review. Asked to answer the complaints, Fagan said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to respond to Crikey.”

University of Queensland journalism professor Michael Bromley says the state’s monopolistic environment — dominated at local council level by the country’s most powerful mayor, and News titles including the Gold Coast Bulletin, Townsville Bulletin and a slew of local freebies — breeds bullies.

“It’s a state of ones, it’s a state of a lack of competition,” he told Crikey. “It’s intrinsic that when you have a lack of competition, a lack of alternative voices, a lack of diversity, the temptation is always to push your weight around. It would be an exceptional editor to reign in that situation.”

That culture is rife at News Limited, Bromley believes. Editors are selected — “not necessarily on a rational basis” — and remain in the job because they share the ethos and deliver results. “If Rupert Murdoch was running The Courier Mail I don’t think it would be run much differently,” he said.

And, perhaps most worryingly, “not many Queenslanders baulk at it”.

Jason Whittaker Whittaker —

Jason Whittaker Whittaker

The Mandarin managing editor and former Crikey editor

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7 thoughts on “The bullies in a one paper town

  1. klewso

    With the results of that study, this week re “PR”, what about these media companies that actually function as scantily disguised PR companies, to further the cause(s) of the interests in which “they” have an interest, from their often unique, or near enough, position in the community? A position “bequeathed” by a “thankful” previous federal government?
    Funny reading David Fagan’s views on “the roll of PR in the media”, Tuesday’s Crikey; considering the paper’s, he edits, various high profile PR campaigns like “viva free trade/market forces – for others”, “Right to know – for others”, “bullying – for others”.
    And let’s not forget their less overt campaign, in the difference in the way his paper habitually querulously treats “Labor” against their selectively amnesiac, sanguine acquiescence in the way they treat “their” Coal-ition.
    Being “captive” to and partaking of the only Qld paper is like being a part of Nicole Kidman’s “The Others”!
    “Examples”? The selective way embarrassing aspects of Labor are brought to the light with alacrity, against the way it hides Coal-ition “warts” (Abbott’s “Parental Leave Plan” didn’t “rate” mention for nigh a week).
    The lack of any number of contradictions of Abbott’s utterances, past to present, or the parties own “promises record” while sustaining fire on “Rudd’s”!
    Look at this weeks “Get to Know Wyatt Roy – Coal-ition Candidate for Longman – Campaign” : three days, three half page+ spreads, with pics. How much would that have cost any other advertiser, on their “open market”? And that followed two editorials in the week before the last election, devoted to pimping two individual candidates (Brough and Boswell) to their constituents. Has any such largess been extended to Labor individuals?
    All to persuade voters to “a certain end” – “Murdoch’s”! “Butt take a number.”

  2. dearley

    Have to call bullshit here Jason. Not on the “one paper town” argument, but the idea that the editorial in question was just part of wider bullying tactics by the Courier Mail.
    Council has form – as you mention, noted previously on Media Watch – and to ignore that here in favour of taking largely unrelated swings at the Courier Mail is letting council off the hook far too easily.

    This the kind of “positive coverage” Newman demands, and inexplicably gets, on Clem7. Not exactly a credible alternative being offered by Fairfax here.

    “The crowd abounded with families with children in strollers, couples arm-in-arm and the elderly who had only ever dreamed of such a magnificent construction in their city.

    As visitors emerged from the dimness of the tunnel, they marvelled at the enormity of the project and beamed with pride that they had been a part of such a memorable occasion.”

    Demands from Newman’s office about positive/negative coverage are not limited to the Courier Mail, but Brisbane Times remain the go-to guys for soft treatment.

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