tip off

Mitchell’s ‘magnificent obsession’: the man behind The Oz

Lyall Johnson had only been working for the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, for a few days when he was directed to escalate the war between the government and The Australian.

As the minister’s press secretary, Johnson’s job is to respond directly to queries by journalists. But on May 24 he was told to break with tradition by putting his response to a journalist’s questions into a general press release and distributing it to the entire press gallery.

There was no mystery as to why every hack in the gallery was gifted the story, the answer was pretty obvious. The reporter was from The Australian and Conroy was fed up: the Minister’s office believed the paper’s coverage of the National Broadband Network was consistently misleading and this was their shot across the bow.

Two days later, another reporter from The Australian received the same treatment from Conroy’s office.

Crikey understands that Johnson then received a tip off — he was told that the paper wanted a photo of him — and that the photographer would track him down over the weekend to take one. The photographer was willing to stake out Johnson until the paper had its picture — effectively, to paparazzi or “papp” the press secretary.

The practice of staking out and taking the picture of an unwilling or unsuspecting subject is normally reserved for shonks or unco-operative celebrities, certainly not government functionaries.

The photographer snapped Johnson at a public event the following Monday. The picture was never published. Just what The Australian was trying to achieve by this tactic is unclear. But for observers of the national broadsheet, this behaviour was not entirely out of character.

Mitchell told Crikey today that Senator Conroy has now ”abandoned the practice of releasing our questions” and that “relations between Senator Conroy and our Canberra bureau are cordial again.” However sources have told Crikey that Conroy has reserved the right to continue releasing questions from The Australian if he believes that the paper is pursuing a story that isn’t “legitimate.”

If it is war between the national broadsheet and the federal government, then the general leading the newspaper’s campaign must be Chris Mitchell. As editor-in-chief since 2003, Mitchell has used The Australian like a weapon to fight what often appears to be personal battles on a great many fronts.

He is sometimes described as a crusader editor because of the zeal with which he fights for causes.

Last week in a June 16 editorial entitled “Fairfax shows how not to run a serious newspaper”, The Oz took a swipe at its competitors:

The decline in relevance of these papers is directly related to their surrender to advocacy journalism. They no longer attempt to appeal to the broad population of the cities they serve but increasingly reflect the narrow interests of those who would shut down any argument that does not accord with their prejudices. To their journalists and editors, life is a battle between right thinkers and wrong thinkers in which they, naturally, are on the side of the angels.”

In response, critics of The Australian might be tempted to use words like pot, kettle and black. But then the editorial continues:

A newspaper which aspires to play a constructive role in civic society cannot afford such conceit, or such contempt for its readers. Its pages should be a clearing house for ideas that stimulate rather than suppress debate and play a part in the development of sound public policy. The vast majority of Australians have open minds and are willing to change them when presented with new evidence or fresh information.”

And therein lies the tension at the heart of Mitchell’s stewardship of The Oz.

I worked at The Australian from 1999 to 2004, and saw the transition from David Armstrong to Chris Mitchell in 2003. My experience mirrors most journalists who’ve worked at The Oz in that I did not work with Mitchell one on one, especially as I worked in Melbourne. However, even in the Melbourne bureau, Mitchell’s presence was pervasive. When the phone rang from Sydney, it was often to convey an idea and a story angle that had originated with him.

Reporters at The Oz know that Mitchell fights for ideological territory, ranging from climate change, the culture wars, the future of education and the NBN to the supposed bias of the ABC and Fairfax. On every second page of the only national broadsheet it seems there’s another long-running grudge being played out in the editorial copy. Many stories require careful reading to discern the paper’s vested interests from the actual news content.

But The Australian is also home to plenty of fine reporting. This too reflects Mitchell’s leadership. He is credited with those important journalistic qualities of tenacity, toughness and the ability to hunt down a damn good story. As a former reporter, he understands the craft of journalism and backs his reporters.

David Salter, the editor of The Week, says the direction of The Australian inevitably reflects the character of the person at the top: “So much of the paper is really good but parts of it are rabid. It reads as vaguely bi-polar.”

Mark Latham wrote in The Australian Financial Review in December last year, “Some have labelled the newspaper’s approach as ideological. It is, in fact, egotistical.”

Mitchell says this suggestion is “…ironical at the end of a series of inquiries asking me to reflect on my paper, and coming after a long investigation by Crikey and forthcoming pieces by Rob Manne (in the Quarterly Essay) and Sally Neighbour (in The Monthly). I believe there is a lot of focus on The Australian at the moment because supporters of the new paradigm government are distressed by the government’s problems. But those problems are internal.”

One insider describes Mitchell’s behaviour as a “magnificent obsession”. They say Mitchell has a preoccupation with his own legacy and with the legacy he is creating as editor-in-chief.

When it comes to protecting his own reputation, Mitchell works the phones assiduously, responding with lightning speed as if he doesn’t have another job. He takes a deep interest in what is being written about him.

Salter jokes about Mitchell: “You need to do two things to survive as an editor of a News Limited newspaper. You need to make money and you need to heed the master’s voice. Mitchell does one of those things.”

Some accuse Mitchell of hiding behind other journalists’ bylines, and the anonymity of the editorial, to push his agendas. Others say that he is reluctant to publicly defend his paper’s increasingly strident positions. Crikey knows of at least three major venues that have offered Mitchell a platform to express and defend his views, only for him to decline.

Any casual reader would agree that The Australian is a campaigning paper. Insiders will tell you that they are occasionally encouraged to chase things in ways that align to the paper’s various battles and that the paper is often not a disinterested player.

To a degree, all journalists are emissaries of their editors, but there’s something almost tribal or sect-like about the way it’s done at The Oz.

For example, a selection of journalists from The Oz were employed to cover the now infamous squabble between Mitchell and Canberra University academic Julie Posetti.

Posetti  is facing a defamation writ from Mitchell after she tweeted the comments of a former Australian journalist at a conference in Sydney last November. Posetti believes she has a strong case because she faithfully reported Asa Wahlquist’s assertions that writing about climate change at The Australian was “torture”.

Mitchell had taken offence at the suggestion in Posetti’s tweets that he had directed Wahlquist’s coverage on climate change. He expressed his concerns both in a legal letter to her and the subsequent stories on the issue in his own paper, under headlines such as The Australian’s Chris Mitchell to sue Julie Posetti for defamation”, “Come and see for yourself how we work, Mitchell invites Posetti” and “Defamation case over Posetti posts ‘unremarkable’, lawyers say”.

The editor in chief told Crikey today “I have not decided what to do with the Posetti action”.

In the rolling Media Diary blog update “Twitter’s first defamation case” Mitchell made the point that he had not spoken to Wahlquist in several years. But as insiders will tell you, that this is not the way Mitchell works.

One ex-staffer told Crikey that it’s Mitchell’s senior colleagues and the section editors who commission the reporters, usually with a line such as “the editor wants a story on …” or “Chris wants us to take a look at …”

Seasoned reporters say it is possible to resist the ideas that they may feel uncomfortable about, but young reporters can be easily pressured into writing stories along the lines predetermined by the paper. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t unique to The Australian.

One person close to the paper told Crikey that when they see these kinds of editorially loaded stories appearing in the paper, they immediately feel for the person with the byline. Sometimes they  find themselves saying “Gee I hope that wasn’t your idea”.

They told Crikey that the paper has become even more strident in its attacks on Labor since Tony Abbott won the leadership. They says it’s as if they’ve now got someone to champion.

But at the same time, others reckon Mitchell might not be as effective at directing the troops to take on his fights because he recently lost his hard-nosed editor, Paul Whittaker, to the post of editor of The Daily Telegraph. In his place is the widely respected and eminently reasonable Clive Mathieson.

There is also consternation at News Limited’s Holt Street headquarters because Graham Erbacher, the paper’s long-term production guru, has left that role to head the News Limited’s “sub hub” — the centralised subediting office. Erbacher is known for his diplomatic skills and has been described as “the last repository of common sense, reasonableness and calmness. He handled the apologies and isn’t one of the mad company men”.

But the paper’s most magnificent obsession — itself — is perhaps best described by Mark Latham in his December AFR column:

Newspapers are supposed to talk to their readers about interesting events. Too often The Australian talks to itself about itself. Barely an edition passes without the denigration of its imagined foes, defined as those who disagree with its editorial line and/or work for rival media companies — a broad catchment. Barely an edition passes without the invention of a new angle by which the paper can boast of its imagined magnificence.”

*Tomorrow — part 2: Bob Brown tallies up The Oz’s coverage of the Greens, and employees’ high praise for the man who champions journalists

23
  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    …David Salter, the editor of The Week…”

    Shouldn’t that be former editor?

  • 2
    michael crook
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    The Australian is the campaign newspaper for the ideological right, advancing the power of corporate control of our world,it purports to be believe in the sort of “laissez faire” governments that preceded the formation of workers parties in the 19th century. It does not bother itself with such troublesome concepts as truth, justice or fairness. I stopped reading it some time ago as I realised that every moment of my life spent reading this shitfest was a moment of my life wasted.

  • 3
    Modus Ponens
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Mitchell gave the game away when he frothed that he wanted ‘to see the Greens destroyed at the ballot box’.

    Bad strategy.

    His ego is becoming increasingly embedded in the paper. Look forward to getting the Australian back when he leaves…

  • 4
    tinman_au
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I’d be surprised if anyone was actually surprised about any of this, The Oz is, after all, a paper version of Fox News, and FN’s audience is also considered one of the most misinformed ( http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thecutline/20101217/bs_yblog_thecutline/study-finds-fox-news-viewers-most-misinformed-on-issues ).

  • 5
    Pete from Sydney
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Not too sure about quoting Mark Latham…..“Some have labelled the newspaper’s approach as ideological. It is, in fact, egotistical.”….though there’s a bloke who’s certainly well acquainted with ego

    Just seems a bit ‘Pot Kettle Black’ to me

    PS what journo hasn’t been told…’;your editor want you to look at a particular story’…that’s why they’re the editor

  • 6
    Pamela
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Response from Oz Journo today when I queried the approach to a story on one of the Oz well honed themes-

    don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory view of the Australian……
    rather Chris Mitchell’s approach has been clever in carving out a distinct identity and a personality for the paper in a dying market.

    Is this what it is about?

  • 7
    mikeb
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Trust Latham to encapsulate the argument with brevity and wit. For all his faults he sure can write memorable prose.

    Oh and Andrew Dodd - your article is spot on

  • 8
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    A newspaper which aspires to play a constructive role in civic society …..”? Implication being, his charge is?
    I’m not an engineer, but I reckon for anything to be “constructive” there has to be 2 sides considered at least - and “half-hearted lip service (at best - egocentric, partisan dismissal at worst)” doesn’t constitute one of those.

  • 9
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I was quietly gobsmacked that the Weekend Australian article on the PM’s anniversary was quite even-handed, insightful and dare I say it, positive. Written by Tom Dusevic I think. Or maybe because Mitchell doesn’t think anyone reads the Magazine. Or maybe, he doesn’t read it! Sorry if I’ve dobbed you in Tom…..

  • 10
    Timmy O'Toole
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t disagree with Andrew’s article and his analysis, tired as the whole debate is getting. But that’s not his fault.

    As a regular reader of Crikey over the years, but particularly in the last year, I would argue that Crikey is beginning to emulate the Australian. I am not sure that this is entirely conscious but, like the Oz, Crikey has a ‘preachy’ tone and is increasingly ‘self-aware’ (but not yet as obsessed…!) with its own role as an ‘alternative’ media voice . I dare say that it really isn’t much of an ‘alternative’ any more, especially when you compare its content with the Age/SMH.

    Like the Oz- and the media generally- it encourages its writers to develop profiles and to then generate copy/analysis that rests on the writers’ own untested assumptions. I refer particularly to your political reporter who essentially chases as many rabbits down burrows as any one in the Oz does.

    I don’t seek to trash Crikey- I pay to read it and will continue to do so- but it ought to be frank with itself. You guys are as pro-NBN and as pro-Climate Change action as the Oz is ostensibly ‘anti’ these things. I don’t have a problem with your positions, and largely support them, but maybe get off your high horse a little or one “might be tempted to use words like pot, kettle and black.”

  • 11
    david
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Andrew the crux of the matter…. “the paper has become even more strident in its attacks on Labor since Tony Abbott won the leadership. They says it’s as if they’ve now got someone to champion.”……precisely.

  • 12
    David Hardie
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Actually I think Lathem’s view of it about ego rather than ideology is wrong. The video of the day of John Stewart on Fox News Sunday (check it out for those who missed it, it is both highly entertaining and informative, a rare commodity at the bext of times) makes puts forward the view that it’s not that the mainstream media has an inherently liberal bias and conversely Fox has inherently right-wing bias. No. According to Stewart, it that both sides have a habit of lazy and sensationalist reporting.
    The Australian in order to sell newspapers, if it cant find a political conflict to report on, will create one.

  • 13
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    You’re right when you say that “But The Australian is also home to plenty of fine reporting.” And it has a far superior layout to any broadsheet in Oz, in particular the SMH, which is a dog’s breakfast now.

    That said, Mitchell’s banal support for all things Israel makes the Oz a laughing stock with regard to its foreign affairs coverage. It’s attempted demolition of the Marrickville Council’s support for the BDS of Israel was absolutely hysterical. I recently by chamnce met a one-eyed Israeli supporter who said he believed The Oz’s coverage of the Marrickville issue actually damaged the Aussie Zionist movement ‘cos it was so blatantly one-sided!!! One can imagine that in Political Science & also media tutorials across Australia at the time, tutors were pointing out the banality of Murdoch’s blatant use of his mastheads to support US foreign policy. Shlomo Sheridan’s rants only add to this banality.

    Poor old Rupe..he’s getting on you know.

  • 14
    Trevor Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    A nice article, and confirmation of what anyone with a reasonably unbiased viewpoint knows already: The Australian is a self-obsessed, monomaniac extension of its editors reactionary psyche. I’ll ensure I never buy a copy again.

  • 15
    Michael Hughes
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s such a partisan wreck of a publication. I actually used to get it. But I was so tired, so tick of the partisan hackery that went on and the blinkered ‘four legs good (liberals) two legs bad (ALP/Greens)’ approach I just gave the hell up.

    I’m curious … has it ever made any money?

    I wonder if Mitchell’s going to enjoy his legacy … running a joke of a paper that’s laughed at openly by almost everyone except the sad sacks that buy it.

  • 16
    Jeremy Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    @Timmy
    If crikey ever becomes as dishonest and vain as the oz I would ditch it immediately
    I’d prefer to get my news from a paper any day but I don’t find crikey distorts the truth the way the oz does.
    I find the oz sickening and its nothing to do with disagreeing with their views
    I don’t read the age but I find crikey quite different to the smh - crikey has far more detail and often has more original thought and edge

  • 17
    malcolm
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    The Oz is a trash rag. I’ve never understood the digital media’s obsession with it. It’s crap. Ignore it please

  • 18
    Trevor Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Timmy O’Toole….thus you try to defuse any criticism of The Australian? Or can one not support the NBN, and climate action, without being accused of being “preachy” and “self-aware”? There are common-sense positions on these subjects, and there are reactionary, politically-driven scare campaigns. The NBN is undoubtedly the best idea a modern Australian government has ever had. Action on climate change is plain common sense. The rest is just raging, right-wing gobshite.

  • 19
    Neil Walker
    Posted Wednesday, 22 June 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I used to buy The Australian on Mondays (for its Media section) and occasionally on other days but don’t any more. The reason is simple.

    I have no issue with The Australian or any other media outlets ‘going after’ politicians or political parties. Anyone who runs for public office should expect to face scrutiny. There is also nothing inherently wrong with being a ‘crusading’ newspaper.

    However, The Australian has damaged itself under Chris Mitchell’s stewardship. The Australian’s pursuit of its non-political critics has been nasty and vindictive as illustrated by the threat of legal action against Julie Posetti.

    All too often The Australian is happy to publically dish out criticism – as is its right – but is astoundingly thin-skinned when anyone publically criticises the publication or its journalists, often threatening legal action as its first response. They have a perfectly valid platform to respond to any criticism they feel they must counter – it’s called a national newspaper.

    The unedifying spectacle of journalists threatening legal action against fellow journalists is also depressing in its implications for free speech. Journalists, much like politicians, should be able to accept the knocks that occasionally arise from having a public byline, especially when they write articles critical of others. Journalists have ample public space and opportunity to respond to criticism.

    I believe there are some good journalists at The Australian and hope they soon rise to the top and stop the policy of threatening legal action to try to silence debate.

    (Please note the above is not a Crikey article, merely a comment on a Crikey article by a reader, so all views expressed are my personal views.)

  • 20
    william magnusson
    Posted Wednesday, 22 June 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    i never buy newspapers….i always read somebody elses

  • 21
    Timmy O'Toole
    Posted Wednesday, 22 June 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    @Trevor, my point is one of advocacy. Crikey has, in a sense, decided to play a similar role to the Oz in advocating for certain policies and views they agree with. You might say that it is perfectly warranted- and that’s fair enough- but in doing so they risk becoming like the Oz.

    As for “common sense”- in politics it is better to talk of consensus. When one speaks of “common sense” there is a risk that we are using the concept to disregard the views of others. So whilst one may agree with action on climate change or better broadband in Australia, that does not mean they accept a particular approach to these problems and advocate for them accordingly. Unless they are political parties or interest groups, which the Oz and Crikey are not.

    I am not trying to denigrate Crikey. But I do think that if one takes a step back from Crikey they will see that it is at risk of developing some of the undesirable characteristics of the Oz. Perhaps, given the direction of Fairfax, this is simply a sign of the times in the media. Lindsay Tanner’s book is well worth reading on all of this.

  • 22
    Barry 09
    Posted Friday, 24 June 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Timmy , at least Crikey gives you space to put your view online. Try that at any of the 70% Rupert owned rags ? That’s the difference.

  • 23
    nuytsia
    Posted Friday, 24 June 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    You’re all right - The Oz is a terrible paper in many ways, but I will continue to buy and read it as long as there is no national daily alternative.

    The editorial standards of the Age and the Herald may be higher, and they are certainly more to my tastes politically, but unless you live in Melbourne or Sydney, they are awful papers - great tomes packed with wads of glossy local advertising, dominated by local stories of irrelevant state governments and hopelessly skewed towards the local sporting teams and weather reports.

    Fairfax, the ball is in your court - we don’t all live in Sydney or Melbourne you know…

    PS Timmy O’Toole and Kevin Herbert make some good points also.

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