A storm is brewing over The Age’s decision to endorse John Howard for another term in government.

Firstly, let’s start with the correction. We sent our 5300 subscribers a story on Thursday evening claiming that Fairfax management had effectively intervened and ordered The Age’s editors to endorse John Howard.

Acting editor Simon Mann responded with the following account of the process:

“We ran an editorial conference involving several senior editors including departing Editor in Chief Michael Gawenda and myself, with Mark Scott attending. We debated the principle of not endorsing a particular party in an election campaign but the group agreed that the paper should endorse (I gather the SMH may not be doing that). We then thrashed out the issues with several people having a say, including John Watson. Opinions were divided. But the call was Gawenda’s and mine. We’ve endorsed the coalition on the back of seven years’ economic growth, but with some qualifications.

Simon Mann”

Crikey was contacted on three separate occasions by Age insiders this afternoon and all had the same message which led to this story going out tonight which Simon Mann is now vigorously contesting:

Fairfax management orders Age to back Howard

We all know that the Packers and the Murdochs are backing John Howard on Saturday but news reaches Crikey that Fairfax’s Sydney-based management has over-ruled The Age’s editorial team and ordered them to editorialise in favour of the Coalition being returned.

Morale at The Age was already low, but this is likely to be the last straw.

The sequence of events was as follows. Age editorial heavyweights gathered for about two hours yesterday to discuss who they would support.

Editorial writer John Watson produced a long list of gripes that The Age had identified about the Howard Government spanning everything from the treatment of refugees, the war in Iraq and honesty in government.

Incoming editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan apparently advised from the UK that he would like to sit on the fence which might explain TheSunday Age’s limp-wristed effort last week.

However, the local heavies accepted John Watson’s argument and didn’t think this fence-sitting was sustainable, so a decision was taken to call for a change of government. That decision was then overturned by Mark Scott, Fairfax’s head of metropolitan newspapers, who apparently made the rather extraordinary claim that backing Latham wasn’t in the commercial interests of the company.

This looks like a clear breach of The Age’s charter of editorial independence although Scott, a former Liberal staffer to the Greiner government, is nominally editor-in-chief of both The Age and The SMH.

The perception is absolutely terrible because this blatant editorial independence comes not long after former Liberal Party Treasurer Ron Walker joined the Fairfax board.

Woolies CEO Roger Corbett, the heir apparent to Fairfax chairman Dean Wills, is also a known Liberal supporter who turned up at John Howard’s 30 years in Parliament dinner and loudly told everyone that his industrial relations policies had greatly helped the Woolworths bottom line.

Everyone knows that The Age’s readers skew towards Labor, so this episode will greatly upset both the journalists and the paper’s readers.

The phone calls and emails keep coming to Crikey as everyone is up in arms. Here’s an example of one email from a hotmailer that just arrived:

“Word is quickly getting around The Age building that Mark Scott, Editor-in-Chief, has pulled rank and announced The Age will support Howard in our editorial to be published this Saturday, election day.

“Many staffers at 250 Spencer Street are disgusted, and rightly so. Four years ago, Fairfax took the line that Howard was a liar and a xenophobe who was whipping the public into a fear frenzy over national security. Little has changed since then, (except our Editor-in-Chief), who – it is said – was alone in his decision to support the Coalition this time around.

“Word is, he suggested in the editorial meeting that every other paper in the country would be supporting Howard, so to ‘stand out’ by supporting Labor would look ridiculous. He also suggested that supporting Labor would be bad for our ‘corporate image’. There’s little that can be done now. Michael Gawenda has written the editorial (nice legacy for our outgoing editor) and the rest of us must just sit back and wait for the inevitable conclusion.

“So much for the fourth estate.

“Displeased and disillusioned, Age staffers”

The fundamental inconsistency of the position becomes clear when you read the leader that appeared before the 2001 election. Here are some of the key points:

“By making the asylum seekers the central issue of this election campaign, Mr Howard has unleashed forces that will continue to be potent well beyond the election. His stand has damaged Australia’s standing in the region and divided the Australian community.”

“There can be no doubt that there are real questions about how Australia should deal with the asylum seekers, who, in increasing numbers, have undertaken the desperate journey, often in unsafe boats, to Australia. It is understandable that many Australians are unsettled by this and are anxious about the consequences for Australia. But instead of addressing these anxieties, Mr Howard has played on them. He has shown a complete lack of leadership on this issue by failing to proclaim and defend the spirit of tolerance and diversity that has been nurtured by a century of stable democracy.”

“The record of the Hawke and Keating governments on economic management and reform is a pretty good one, and although we have some doubts about the extent to which a Beazley government would build on that record, we believe it unlikely that a Labor government would undo the reforms initiated by its predecessors.”

“The centrepiece of Labor’s platform, the projected refashioning of Australia as a “Knowledge Nation” is consistent with the commitment to global competitiveness and profoundly extends it. The details of the project have not been fully elaborated, but its aims match the nation’s need to be globally competitive. And Mr Beazley is more likely to deal with the unfinished business of reconciliation and the republic, issues of social cohesion, than Mr Howard.”

“Mr Howard has asked the Australian people to re-elect his government on the basis of his stand on asylum seekers. He has asked them to re-elect his government on the basis that he has shown true leadership on this issue. We believe the opposite is true: he has shown no leadership on this crucial issue. He has pandered to fear. He does not deserve the support of the Australian people.”

The Age, Crikey and election editorials

The Age’s leader John Watson also followed up with the following this afternoon:

Hello. As you chose to name and quote me in your report, not particularly accurately either, I want to correct a couple of crucial claims that were made, and I quote: ”Fairfax’s Sydney-based management has over-ruled The Age’s editorial team and ordered them to editorialise in favour of the Coalition being returned.” and ”The local heavies, led by acting editor Simon Mann and outgoing editor-in-chief Michael Gawenda, accepted John Watson’s argument and didn’t think this fence-sitting was sustainable, so a decision was taken to call for a change of government. That decision was then overturned by Mark Scott, Fairfax’s head of metropolitan newspapers.”

First, there was an extensive discussion, but no decision was made at the meeting. It is true I voiced concern about editorial consistency, but the meeting certainly did not take a decision to call for a change of government. What it did agree on was to reject fence-sitting because there were big differences between the parties, a real choice, and opting out of a decision was an unsatisfactory response. When the meeting broke up, the editor had not announced what he described as a very difficult decision on endorsement.

Regards
John Watson
chief leader writer
The Age

Michael Gawenda also took a strong line when contacted by The Australian’s Strewth columnist Nick Leys who produced this item in today’s paper which is not online because it only ran in the second edition:

It’s the Age of discontent

Thing are getting bolshie at the Spencer Street Soviet, aka The Age. An alleged sequence of events over today’s election-eve editorial has pushed morale through the basement floor – well, that’s according to crikey.com.au. The wildfire rumour said The Age’s leader writers sat down to nut out who to back, and after examining the list of Coalition failures the hacks decided to support Labor, as they did in 2001.

Enter head prefect Mark Scott, who overturned the decision due to “commercial interests of the company” and commissioned outgoing editor-in-chief Michael Gawenda to pen a pro-Coalition editorial instead. “Total nonsense,” says Gawenda. “I wasn’t overruled, no-one was … There were negatives on either side, but we decided we would support the Coalition.”

Scott was just as dismissive -“it’s very disappointing this kind of article appears with such inaccuracies and with no attempt to check the facts with those concerned”.

Today’s Crikey with editorial responses should be good.

The Crikey response

Crikey was contacted on three separate occasions by Age insiders yesterday and all had the same message which was reflected in our story. Given that the whole saga played out in a private meeting between five or six people, any of the key players were obviously going to deny it. This sort of things happens in newspapers. I can well remember Daily Telegraph editor Col Allan pulling the story about James Packer and Kate Fischer separating after an order from the Murdochs. Col then went on radio and pretended it was his decision and that it was old news. Any self-respecting editor has to toe the party line and stand behind the final decision, so it was absolutely predictable what Gawenda, Simon Mann and Mark Scott would have said if contacted.

We did speak on the phone to a senior editorial figures on The Age yesterday afternoon and this confirmed what was being said in other emails and phone calls. Whatever the truth is, Crikey reported the version of events that swept the newsroom floor yesterday.

At the end of the day you can only look at what has happened. The Age has a new management heavy based in Sydney who used to work for the Liberal Party and he came down to Melbourne to attend the editorial meeting and the final decision was to change horses.

Not surprisingly, the letters are now pouring in to The Age. Here are two that were copied to Crikey:

Dear Sir,

Vote one Mammon; stuff truth, ethics, decency and democracy. And I bet you don’t print this after Friday’s editorial.

Vincent O’Donnell
Ascot Vale

Michael Gawenda got this one direct:

Your decision to support Howard is pathetic.

John Kotsopoulos
Soon-to-be ex Age subscriber