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‘A lost cause’: is The Australian really Canberra’s most influential paper?

Anyone who’s anyone in Canberra reads The Australian. But that doesn’t mean the paper is as influential as it says it is.

A former prime minister to Rupert Murdoch’s left, the current prime minister to the right. Around the room were Ricky Ponting, James Packer, Kerry Stokes, Ian Narev, Frank Lowy, Richard Goyder and plenty more. Was it, as Daily Telegraph editor-at-large John Lehmann asked, “the biggest power room ever?”

Whatever it was, The Australian’s 50th birthday gala was a fantastic way to make an impression. Here was Prime Minister Tony Abbott tying the national paper to the very fabric of Australia. His speech was beamed on the ABC and on News Corp’s websites. A bigger display of influence and power would be hard to imagine. Who could doubt now that The Australian was the country’s most influential paper — the one more likely to shift governments and mark the country?

It turns out, plenty of people. This isn’t the piece your correspondent set out to write. As our only national broadsheet, surely the Oz had clout, and it would be more interesting to look at how it pursued and used its influence in Canberra rather than to question it. But asked if The Australian was Canberra’s most powerful paper, as is often claimed in its own pages, the political operatives Crikey spoke to hedged and equivocated.

A chief of staff to a high-profile Senator told us he never bothered much with the Oz  — or any newspaper. “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper,” he said. The Oz wasn’t read widely by voters, so he tended not to worry about it. However, when pressed on what was the most powerful newspaper in Canberra, he “grudgingly” conceded it was the Oz after all, but not by a huge margin.

A media public servant told us his department had so many ways to get its message out, The Australian was just one media product among many these days.

It’s a surprising reaction. The Australian pioneered reporting of national affairs, and to this day focuses on it to a far greater extent than almost any other paper except The Australian Financial Review. As a former editor-in-chief David Armstrong puts it to us, there is simply no comparable Australian paper. Armstrong was editor-in-chief until 2002, and before that he edited the Canberra Times, and has seen Canberra through the prism of both News Corp and Fairfax. Now living in Thailand, he told Crikey that while city-based newspapers traditionally wielded influence through their wide circulations, The Australian’s influence was more subtle.

They slowly lost their way editorially, evolving into a quasi-alliance partner with the Coalition …”

“The readership isn’t huge, but it’s clustered at the top of the socio-economic grouping,” he said. “It includes a lot of people who are involved in the shaping of policy.” The paper’s reporting of things other papers largely ignore, like Aboriginal affairs, Armstrong says, makes it a must-read for those who write policy in those areas. “Over time, exposure to that content has influence.”

Another factor in The Australian’s influence is its consistency, he continues. Unlike the Fairfax papers, for example, whose commitment to Canberra has ebbed and flowed over time, The Australian has always prioritised the goings-on in the nation’s capital. This continues online, Armstrong says. The Australian’s website is very similar in tone and focus to the paper, unlike the websites of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

But in former Labor leader Mark Latham’s view, The Australian’s influence on political parties has declined in recent years.

“I think it did have influence when I first got to Canberra,” he told Crikey. “It was seen as an objective paper then. But it’s moved a long, long way to the Right, most notably under [current editor-in-chief Chris] Mitchell. As such, I don’t think you’ll find any Labor politician who thinks it’s viable to keep it on side … For anyone but the Coalition, it’s a lost cause.” And for the Coalition, Latham continues, it’s convenient to have a friendly outlet to drop to — but that’s not the same thing as that outlet having influence.

A senior staffer to the previous Labor government says media follow-through is the ultimate measure of influence for an outlet. He recalls that after the 2007 election, whatever was on the front page of The Australian would be splashed on the television news that night. This caused huge problems for the government, ensuring wide coverage for scandals such as the pink batts roll-out and the Building the Education Revolution scheme. “If you can keep a story alive from the breakfast shows to Laurie Oakes at night, you’re pretty much won,” he said.

But the Oz’s ability to set the agenda, the staffer notes, becomes weaker with every passing year. “They slowly lost their way editorially, evolving into a quasi-alliance partner with the Coalition … So the broadcasters started to view the coverage pretty cynically. They were often ignored altogether by Laurie Oakes and Mark Riley at 6pm. At the end of the day, those two remain the most crucial gallery journalists as far as most voters are concerned.”

Perhaps part of the reason other sections of the media began to look sceptically at The Australian is because of its tendency to pursue issues fiercely and uncompromisingly. The Oz is a campaigning newspaper. “It doesn’t drop off a story,” as Armstrong said. From the AWB scandal, which The Australian blew wide open, to the ongoing crusade against Clive Palmer, the Oz will sink its journalists for month after month on a story, keeping it top of mind among its readership. But sometimes its campaigns don’t stand up to scrutiny particularly well. For example, after Media Watch host Paul Barry failed to give The Australian a chance to comment on its financial figures, the paper responded, in part, by analyzing his Twitter feed for anti-News Corp bias. It’s no wonder most journalists, those at Crikey included, weren’t impressed, even if they thought the Oz had cause to be miffed about Barry’s original infraction.

Lately, The Australian has been unhappy that other media outlets have not been following up its angles. Last week it published an article haranguing the ABC, Fairfax and The Guardian, as well as the TV networks, for their failure to “prominently cover court proceedings involving Clive Palmer’s alleged use of siphoned Chinese cash in his election campaign”.

Latham says this is one measure of its lack of clout in Canberra. “Look at the inordinate amount of time it spends criticising others for not following its lead,” he says. “If it was influential, it wouldn’t need to do that.”

Most of the people Crikey spoke to agreed that who’s anyone in Canberra reads The Australian, so there’s influence in that. But as to whether it can change policy and unseat or crown governments, that depends on whether it convinces other outlets to follow its lead. When it’s onto a good thing, the Oz’s reach combines with its dogged, unyielding focus to make governments quake in their boots. But if the rest of the press gallery picks it up and shrugs, its scoops don’t make it to the broader public to force politicians to react. The Oz is the most influential newspaper in Canberra, but now as ever, it cannot affect change alone.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    And when it acts in concert with the rest of Murdoch’s viewsmedia empire?
    The vendettas pursued?
    Politicians hooked on good PR for re-election?

  • 2
    Popeye
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Its tendency to pursue issues fiercely and uncompromisingly’! Pursuing issues in a way that was fair and balanced would almost certainly make it more credible; I might even start reading it again. But there’s not much danger of any of these things happening. The paper, for many people, is now just a propaganda arm for conservative governments - and conservative oppositions.

  • 3
    Pete from Sydney
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    let’s be honest, The Oz was never going to get anything but a half hearted tick of approval from Crikey at best…they did have 1 current and 3 ex prime-ministers, a bunch of senators and pollies and a fair swag of CEO’s in the room…not sure that crikey would ever pull that crowd or too many other media groups for that matter

  • 4
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    The Australian was a great paper prior to its proprietors overt use of it as his personal stamp..the journalists working there need to spend some time in the room with mirrors..it is currently in its death throes..

  • 5
    Roberto Tedesco
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s recent hack-work on supposed increases in smoking rates after the introduction of plain packaging - tripe written solely to be “sold” to the UK media to “show” how “unsuccessful” plain packaging has been….really, it’s just a broadsheet IPA blog with added Coalition kowtow sauce.

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    The OZ is much like Alan Jones, lots of noise, smoke, mirrors and confirmations of prejudices but, influential amongst those with more than double digit IQ? I think not.

  • 7
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    The Oz is used by public affairs consultants to impress their clients with some national coverage from time to time. If a consultant has some national news sense, it’s not hard to place a story.

    However, since the Dirty Digger’s hatchet man Chris Mitchell assumed its management, it’s credibility has fallen dramatically, due to its vendettas against people it doesn’t like e.g anything to do with Islam or Arabs in the Middle East. Its slavish dedication to apartheid ethnic cleansing Israel is something of a standing joke among its staff. This pro Zionist stance on anything is more influenced by the Dirty Digger’s membership of the neocon warmongers than anything to do with Australia’s far right ethno religious Zionist influence.

    I wonder how the Oz is going to report the next phase of the DD’s entrapment in the UK phone hacking criminal investigation. He’s on tape admitting that he knew the hacking was going on, and the reporters he sold out to save his own scalp, are itching to table that tape at the next Commons Inquiry. Expect Big Red to be in the dock for perjury this time round.

    The cold hard truth is that the Oz won’t exist in print for much longer, as its bleeding losses at a growing rate..so when it goes on the net, it’ll be competing on exactly the same basis as Crikey and all the other local news websites…bring it on.

  • 8
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Pete from Sydney:

    Spoken like a true media outsider.

  • 9
    Margaret Ludowyk
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    The Australian is junk. A propaganda sheet for a greedy American who has only his own self interest at heart

  • 10
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    This is alarming!!

    This is unwelcome news for the inmates down here in the Crikey Crypt! Perceived wisdom here is that Murdoch influences sub-intelligent suburbanites through his newspapers to vote Liberal. Now we are told that the supposed most extreme campaigning right wing publication in Australia has not much influence at all. How did Latham put it? “If it was influential, it wouldn’t need (criticise others for not following its lead)”.

    What are we to believe??

  • 11
    leon knight
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Keep believing in the power of your hand David…
    The Oz employs some pretty distasteful people, and Abbott’s fawning was sickening.
    I will continue to trust Crikey, the ABC, the Saturday Paper and the Guardian - Rupert will get no business from me even if it is free at maccas..!!

  • 12
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    All Murdoch has to do through his Limited News (with it’s viewsmedia dominance) is influence the perceptions of a majority of the swinging vote - probably not 5% of the electorate, many nor fully engaged and probably quite cynical - to swing an election.

  • 13
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Friday, 18 July 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    leon knight: touche!!!!

  • 14
    Steve777
    Posted Saturday, 19 July 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    The Australian has become a paper that relentlessly pursues its own hobby horses, obsessions and perceived enemies, or at least those of its proprietor. I stopped reading it several years ago because not only had sunk to the point where it had little more credibility than its tabloid stablemates, it had become boring.

  • 15
    Elbow Patches
    Posted Monday, 21 July 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Yep to much of the comment here. We, avid news readers, lovers of the rustle of paper, gave up on the Oz after many years subscribing. We had once enjoyed reading the likes of Matt Price, George Megalogenis, Lenore Taylor, and the avuncular lefty Philip Adams and thus were more tolerant of the other more right wing views as we saw it as a range of opinion…but eventually it became less so, and after the hacking scandal and relentless campaign against Labor, decided on principle No More. This paper with its climate change denialism and other irrational biases is now damaging our country. Our household now enjoys subscriptions to Crikey, the new Saturday Paper, the free Guardian Oz, and the odd daily paid access to the Hoopla. I like variety, and a healthy media ecosystem is merrier with more of that.

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