Crikey doesn’t agree with a lot of this piece from Michael Warby about The Age but publishes it in the interest of broadening the debate as Australian commentators spend far too little time analysing the quality of our major media outlets. For instance, where is the watchdog website called like most major American media outlets have watching their every move.

Journalists are easy targets, of course. As is notorious, Morgan polling on the status of various professions and occupations regularly show newspaper journalists as having a level of (dis)respect amongst the Australian public which is beaten only by that of used car salespeople. Even politicians score higher than newspaper journalists (as do advertisers and talk-back radio announcers).

This disrespect is, of course, terribly unfair on many journalists. It is not, however, at all hard to work out reasons why it occurs. Near the top of the list has to be that a profession noted for the negativity of its product (that journalists are only interested in bad news is a constant complaint amongst those who come to deal with them) is not so good at looking at the failings of its own institutions. The result is that features of institutions regarded as standing jokes within the profession are treated in public with embarrassed silence. Without public exposure, nothing gets better. One of the great advantages that a free society gets from a free press exposure of failings: it can hardly be repeated often enough that one of the great advantages Australia has over most of its neighbours to the North is an uncorrupt business press does not apply to the press itself.

Don’t rock the media boat

This is not to say that journalists and commentators don’t have a go at each other in public. Of course they do: indeed, assaults on the moral character of dissenters pervade Australian public debate (what I call the ‘lone poppy’ syndrome). It is full-blooded critique of newspapers and broadcasters as a whole which are thin on the ground in the mainstream media.

The reason for this is hardly mysterious. If you are a metropolitan newspaper journalist, there are only two major employers: Fairfax and News. No Fairfax journalist is likely to be so suicidal as to publicly criticise or expose one of Fairfax’s major assets. As for News journalists well, you don’t want to burn your bridges, now do you? Besides, it is easily construed as just sniping at a competitor.

An example of this phenomenon was Mark Day’s two-part piece in The Australian’s Media (February 8 & 15, 2001) on problems with The Age which gave a mere passing mention (a quote from Terry McCrann who, even though a former Age journalist, is with the rival Herald-Sun) to the one thing that everyone knows about and which is central to the paper’s problems but so few are prepared to publicly discuss the incredible narrowness of its journalistic culture. A paper whose least Left in-house commentator is Tim Colebatch is indeed one whose internal opinion ranges (as Andrew Bolt said of the ABC) all the way from red to pink. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Tim, even when I disagree with him.) The recent addition of Christopher Pearson as columnist has been cancelled out by also adding Malcolm F (in a previous life a Liberal PM, now seeking a twilight popularity by agreeing with fashionable opinion on almost everything).

The remarkable thing about The Age is how it is publicly paraded by the profession as one of Australia’s quality newspapers and privately regarded with eye-rolling derision. Talk to a Fairfax journalist living in Melbourne but not employed by The Age, and the comments are remarkably similar: narrow, biased, out-of-touch, serves Victoria badly. (At least one senior Fairfax journalist refuses to read The Age on principle.)

A classic example of all this came from talking to an ABC producer and trying to pithily express my concerns about the ABC. I said that it was not an appropriate use of taxpayer funds to produce a broadcast version of The Age. Without skipping a beat without even a pretence of ‘what do you mean?’ the ABC producer immediately launched into an explanation of why the ABC produced a much better product than The Age: more diverse, more balanced, more informative, higher journalistic standards generally. As it happens, I don’t agree, I think they are as bad as each other for much the same reasons. But the taken-as-read understanding of The Age’s problems and lack of quality spoke volumes (as does the near-complete reluctance to discuss them in public). As one senior Age journalist was so incautious to volunteer to me ‘but Michael, we make our living from gratuitous leftwing crap’. In fact, talk to an Age journalist who works for its Business section, and you will likely get much the same comments about the News section. (It should be noted that the Business and Sport sections are easily the best parts of The Age Stephen Bartholomeusz, for example, is quite possibly the best business journalist in the country and lack what one observer has labelled the ‘pulverised propaganda’ of the News section, while the ever-expanding Lifestyle empire seems to suggest where management thinks the bits more likely to appeal are.) One Fairfax journalist hypothesised to me that Age [news] journalists knew what they were produced lacked quality, which is why they were so unhappy.

Whose newspaper is it anyway?

Said unhappiness is a common symptom of staff-capture, a term of art meaning that the interests of some or all staff dominate the organisation. People talk as if to say something is staff-captured is to imply that the staff are, therefore, a happy bunch of vegemites. On the contrary, staff-capture is more-or-less guaranteed to lead to unhappy staff. Why? Well, in the absence of an effective owner and/or effective management, everything is up for grabs. This makes for internecine warfare over resources and status Academia is a classic place for staff-capture and its politics are notoriously vicious.

An excellent illustration of this was provided by a recent Media piece (Aug 9, 2001) on Sue Masters’ experience in moving from the ABC to head Drama at Ten. At the ABC, everything had to be continually fought for. At Ten, she was given a budget and told to get on with it. The difference between a staff-captured organisation with no bottom line (so everything is up for grabs, everything is a power struggle) and one with a real owner and a clear bottom line (are we making a profit?) was patent.

But newspaper management is notoriously weak-kneed and broadcasting is much more competitive than newspapers. The current Age newspaper advertising campaign, which consists of a series of oh-so-clever puns (Know Season, Know Thyme, the Knows have it, etc.) on what everyone knows that there are facts, or at least purported facts, in newspapers and The Age is a newspaper is a sign of this. The Age is over 160 years old. Melbourne has a fairly clear view of its product. To mount a major advertising campaign without changing the product has to be an exercise in management bankruptcy. Clearly, changing the product is just too hard advertising allows management flag-waving for the staff and looks good to those managers who don’t see any connection between the bottom line and quality of the journalism.

Of course, the implied view of the general public this exercise manifests is another symptom of the problems of The Age (while the downward trend in the weekday readership implies that the product does not simply represent the wishes of its audience). What is much of The Age about? Telling you what to think. Not informing you so you can make your own opinions, but telling you selected facts so you draw the right conclusions. Thus the in-house news coverage of the War on Terrorism is written from a far narrower range of perspectives than one sees in the US media, even in liberal (in the US sense of cross-dressing social democrat) papers like the Washington Post and New York Times. As a friend said, it is like reading a UN newsletter (though some of the reprinted pieces from overseas newspapers have been excellent).

Similarly, when the Bracks’ Governments abortive Fair Employment Bill was on the agenda, the difference in the coverage of the issue in The Age (where Editorial, Opinion and News sections all mounted what was in effect a PR campaign for the bill, though the Business section showed rather more scepticism) with the much more balanced and informative coverage in the Financial Review was patent. In fact, the Age’s ideological partisanship advocating immediate passage of the original Bill not only left it in the position of being a newspaper against continuing debate, but looked particularly ridiculous after the Government itself began to backtrack from awkward sections once some of their implications sank in.

People in the PR business comment that a Herald-Sun journalist usually just wants to know what the story is while, with an Age journalist, you are much more likely to be dealing with an ersatz political activist with their own agenda.

The Sydney Morning Herald has similar problems, though generally not as bad (indigenous affairs is a notable exception where The Age’s coverage has generally been wider than the SMH’s ). A friend who recently moved from Sydney to Melbourne commented that the experience had shown him what a relatively good newspaper the SMH was (and John Howard’s reported belief that the SMH is the worst newspaper in the country is evidence that he does not read The Age). When I moved from Canberra to Melbourne in 1995, I told friends that I had moved to a strange place: one where the tabloid was intellectually more alive than the broadsheet (and, according to Morgan polling data, the tabloid is gaining on the broadsheet for the number of tertiary graduates who read it). When I worked in Parliament House, you would read the Oz, the SMH and the AFR. One rarely bothered with The Age. Too tired and predictable. Indeed, it is often surprising to discover, given their work and interests, who does not bother to read The Age.

Sign of the timing

The failure of The Age’s metro throwaway Express is symptomatic of its problems. Going for the morning market, so having to disseminate from the suburban edges, rather than the evening market, as MX has, so being able to disseminate from the centre, was something of an obvious handicap. But MX also got the tone right here are some brief facts, we hope you find them entertaining/informative/amusing. Express was produced by The Age and they couldn’t help themselves, they had to sneer and preach. (A classic example was the cover story on 31 May 2001 on the One.Tel collapse, which showed pictures of Lachlan Murdoch and Jamie Packer with the subheading ‘So , 05 what are we gonna tell the old blokes? Like, we’ve blown a billion, but jeez, they wouldn’t cut our allowance would they’. All the wit and sensibility of an undergraduate student newspaper.) Why on Earth would anyone think that people look forward to reading the sneers and preaching of people who have less status than advertisers?

If one is concerned about the quality of a product, one has to look at the management. Here, the news from Fairfax is also not encouraging. Consider websites. How large is cyberspace? Approaching infinite. How valuable is real estate in cyberspace therefore? Approaching zero. Yet Fairfax keeps losing money trying to make its bit of cyberspace valuable. The most scarce thing in an information economy is not information we are deluged with that it is people’s attention. Hence the key importance of branding. But Fairfax whose Board lacks a single person with media experience or background, and whose senior management is hardly better is busy using syndication to reduce the specificity of its franchises and failing to address the obvious problems in the franchises as they are. These are not encouraging signs for those who would like a better Age.

Anchoring advertising

What keeps The Age going is, of course, its advertising demographic, particularly the Classifieds. If you want to advertise specifically to Northcote and Camberwell, you are pretty well stuck with The Age (though, according to Morgan polling, Saturday Age readership for the year-to-December fell 5% from 1996 to 2000, in contrast to the SMH’s rise of 2% over the same period). And it is precisely the presumed social snobbery of Camberwell and the presumed moral snobbery of Northcote that The Age caters to (when the elite retailer George’s was on the skids, it was amusing to contrast the robust view in the Herald-Sun that if it wasn’t profitable it should go with wailing in The Age about the loss of a Melbourne landmark). Except that Camberwell is getting tired of having its political views constantly sneered at and Northcote increasingly wants the courtesy of making its own mind up. Hence the Financial Review (the best newspaper in the country) doing very respectably in Victoria. Indeed, the 18% growth in the AFR’s weekday readership nationally from 1996 to 2000 (year-to-December figures) registered by Morgan polling slightly exceeded in number of readers the 2% and 5% drop in SMH and Age weekday readership respectively over the same period. (This for a higher-priced product, suggesting there is demand for higher quality.) But it also reduces Fairfax’s incentive to do something serious about quality problems in the News and Opinion section of its ‘quality’ Melbourne newspaper, though the more recent year-to-June 2001 figures suggest that any such complacency is misplaced.

A former housemate of mine, a working-class boy made good as IT professional, commented that he reads both the SMH and The Age online. He characterised the SMH as ‘humanitarian’ in tone, and that of the The Age as ‘if you didn’t go to Melbourne or Geelong Grammar why are you taking up our oxygen?’. Quite. I was startled to find that even friends who were Center-Left in their politics had given up on The Age because they resented being told what to think.

But an advertising campaign telling people the blindingly obvious but irrelevant is so much easier than changing a culture seen as unfixable. As long as Fairfax shareholders don’t get too worried about what their money is being spent on.

Michael Warby is a Melbourne writer who doesn’t work in the media and can be reached at [email protected]

Michael Warby’s Age baggage

Hi Crikey,

Michael Warby needed to make one very important declaration before beginning his rant about the Age. He wrote a piece for the Age a couple of years ago which was the subject of a Media Watch story.

It went something like this:

That Warby would not forgive Jane Fonda for her anti-US stance during the Vietnam War, despite her having apologized to Vietnam veterans. Hanoi Jane could not be forgiven because during an early 70s visit to the north of Vietnam, Warby wrote, she was taken by her hosts to visit some American POWs. One of them slipped Jane Fonda a note to pass onto his family letting them know he was still alive. She palmed the note and then gleefully passed it to a North Vietnamese officer nearby. The POW was given a severe beating by his gaolers. Pretty damning stuff.

But Media Watch showed how Warby had plagiarized the whole story almost word for word from a dubious right-wing American website, which is bad enough. Only it got worse for Warby. Turned out the whole episode was a complete fabrication. Jane Fonda never went near any American POWs.

I’m not calling Michael Warby a liar. Heaven forbid. He was just very unlucky that he happened to plagiarize the work of a liar. It would be worth finding out if he’s been able to get any of his work (or anyone else’s work under his name) published by the Age since then.

It would also be worth finding out why this proven charlatan might be published at all after such a shameful episode.

Kevin Gardiner

Flemington, Victoria

CRIKEY: I agree that the plagiarism incident with The Age should be disclosed but also think Warby has a good mind and a right to be published in the interest of open debate.

Michael Warby responds

Given that I have published far more words — in The Age, The Adelaide Review and The IPA Review — apologising for, and retracting, the Fonda article than were in the original article and given that it has been subject to no less than two exposes in the Monday 9.15pm timeslot on ABC, and mentioned there on at least one other occasion, plus being covered in Errol Simper’s column in the Media section of The Australian as well as being mentioned on quite a number of other articles in the mainstream media, the matter has been given a very great deal of coverage already. Indeed, it would be hard to find any newspaper article in the last ten years which has been picked over more times than that one. The price of screwing up when one is a public dissident.

Michael Warby