Few people take any notice of editorials in any newspaper says Paddy McGuinness, but just in case you do …

When I was editor-in-chief of The Australian Financial Review the 1983 federal election loomed. Max Suich, then chief editorial executive of Fairfax (to be pedantic, not editor-in-chief, despite Sally Loane’s repetition of the claim), rang me during the campaign and said that James Fairfax, the chairman of the company, would like to speak to me about the AFR’s position on the elections.

Max and I went up to his office, and James asked me on what side I thought the AFR should come down. I said that the AFR audience was for the most part comprised of intelligent and able people whom we should not attempt to patronise, and therefore I did not propose to recommend either side of politics (Max made no comment). James accepted this without question; and that was that. Later I learned that the Liberals had brought heavy pressure on him to bring the Fairfax papers into line behind them – but he, in his usual diffident, but fundamentally courageous manner, firmly but quietly resisted.

This still seems to me the proper approach for any newspaper which has any respect for its readers. It is especially so in the case of the AFR which, as I once or twice pointed out, has a readership with an average IQ (not to mention income) higher than that of its journalists. If anything, the discrepancy has widened since then. This did not stop the AFR editorial this morning from recommending a vote for the Coalition – as if its analysis is likely to be better informed than that of the majority of its readers. Not only has the IQ discrepancy widened, but these days every major company has its own staff of economists and political analysts who are more expert than virtually all AFR employees.

Not that it matters, since in any case few people take any notice of editorials in any newspaper. It is no longer true, if it ever was, that editorials set the tone or the bias of general news coverage and commentary; indeed it often seems that editors have neither the ability nor the willingness to knock some sense into grossly biased reporting.

It is not at all uncommon for editorial interpretations to be directly contradicted by the half-baked comments of even the most junior journalists. At best leader writers act as amanuenses for editors who do not have the time or sometimes even the knowledge, brains and ability to write them themselves.

This is certainly true of the Sydney Morning Herald. After six weeks of hosting a storm of biased and lying abuse of the government, the SMH pusillanimously opted to sit on the fence officially, and announced grandiosely in Friday’s editorial that it is “Our decision to no longer endorse one party or another at election time …”.

It’s a pity that it cannot persuade its allegedly fair-minded reporting and subediting staff likewise. However, perhaps this fence-sitting on the part of the SMH has not totally emasculated that paper by comparison with The Age, which has despite the virtually unanimous disapproval of its journalistic staff (those unbiased non-partisan supporters of the Labor Left and the Greens) plumped for re-election of the Howard government.

There is little doubt that this was on the instructions of Mark Scott, the supremo of both the SMH and The Age; surprisingly Robert Whitehead of the SMH seems to have had the guts to at least resist this. The Age’s outgoing editor, Michael Gawenda, has never been noted for his courage. (The editor-designate had the sense to keep out of the argument.) Scott is relatively unbiased but has close, almost hereditary, connections with the Liberal Party.

The Australian has in general given the fairest coverage of the election campaign. This is not the opinion of most opinionated journalists, who resent any material in “their” papers that does not accord with the progressive consensus. Columnists are employed to deploy their own analysis and well-informed and considered opinions, and the more independent, forceful, well argued and, last but not least, well-expressed their writing the better. Whether they are considered Right or Left is neither here nor there.

Opinion aside, there has been far less biased reportage of the campaign in The Australian than in any other paper, and even stupid and irrational commentators (like Philip Adams) opposed to the government were given plenty of space. It is a fiction that Rupert Murdoch issues detailed riding orders to his editors – though he is never hesitant in expressing his opinions to them, and few editors would have the courage to resist him. There was far more influence exercised over The Australian by Ken Cowley, his local satrap, when he was on the job. He admired Keating, and this is partly why The Australian supported that politician. I doubt whether Rupert took much interest – and in any case is far too busy to interfere continually in all outposts of his empire, preferring to concentrate on products which have much more real influence, like Fox News.

So the fact that The Australian’s editorial today endorses the return of the Howard government need not be ascribed to the evil influence of the Great Satan in New York – it is certainly the considered opinion of both Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell and Editor Michael Stutchbury, as well as that of Imre Saluszinsky who wrote it. The fact that many, probably the majority, of its journalistic staff would have preferred to endorse Labor and Latham is neither here nor there – newspapers are not and should never be run as editorial collectives.

As for the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the various other Murdoch tabloids, their editorial opinions are of no significance. None of their readers would bother even reading the editorials, and few politicians and government ministers would be naïve enough to take any notice of them. When the Daily Telegraph, for example, wants to favour a position or party it does not bother disguising it, trumpeting its bias all over its front page and throughout the paper, without worrying in the least about fairness or truth.