Rupert Murdoch’s national newspaper, The Australian, is
reportedly going through troubled times under editor-in-chief, Chris
Mitchell. Much like The Age’s editor, Andrew Jaspan, Mitchell is said
to be dealing with a battle on several fronts as he tries to juggle a
difficult financial position coupled with low staff morale – a
situation for which he seemingly has only himself to blame.
Under Mitchell The Oz has gone from a relatively well-balanced
operation to a top-heavy newspaper dominated by a large number of
senior journalists on six-figure sums – many of whom were hired by the
editor-in-chief from his former paper, Queensland’s Courier Mail. Some
of the staff hired by Mitchell – led by the over-zealous and widely
unpopular national chief-of-staff and former Courier Mail hack, Paul
Whittaker – have helped contribute to the current financial strain.
By conforming to Mitchell’s modus operandi, where considered judgment
is often thrown out the window and replaced by controversial and
unnecessary story angles, Whittaker has proven a dab hand at sparking
The Oz has been beset by an influx of libel suits from a number of
quarters, led by ASX heavyweight Macquarie Bank. The reasons behind the
mounting queue of defamation suits are twofold: the first is a legacy
of the paper’s former maverick finance hack Mark Westfield and the
second is the laissez faire approach to running stories by Mitchell and
his protégé Whittaker, who is now referred to by members of the Sydney
newsroom as “mini me”.
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The Oz now dedicates enormous resources to the coverage of grubby
stories – staking out un-convicted white-collar criminals, alleged
paedophiles, judges, and any number of ‘alleged’ terrorists.
Whittaker’s tabloid instincts have seen resources gradually diverted
away from the paper’s more cerebral issues to trashy stories featuring
celebrities, Big Brother television personalities and grubby,
ACA-style, foot-in-the-door journalism.
Whittaker is said to possess a limited ability to determine where to
draw the line when it comes to carrying out the demands of
Mitchell – whose approach is to sail as close to the wind as possible.
The paper’s deepening financial strain apparently has Mitchell
feverishly scratching his head for ways to remedy the situation.
Modest pay rises have been reserved for a very select group and staff
expenses are being heavily scrutinised. Staff apparently require the
consent of Deborah Jones – Mitchell’s deeply unpopular ‘executive
editor’ (read bad news messenger) – just to shout a meal or coffee
during meetings with important contacts.
Joining the millionaire’s factory in the defamation queue is a very
strange bed-fellow indeed – a man by the name of Mamdouh Habib, whom
many Crikey readers will recall was effectively painted as a terrorist
by the national broadsheet, despite having never been convicted of a
criminal act. By loudly supporting the Howard Government’s agenda on Guantanamo Bay
detainees – that is, jumping to conclusions about the Australians
locked up there – The Oz could help Habib add a large home to the money
he has already claimed from 60 Minutes.
But Habib’s claim is said to pale in comparison to the settlement
Macquarie is seeking – a figure which is reportedly so large it could
shake the financial foundations of the paper. The Oz has recently lost several actions, including one brought by an
accused terrorist. (The paper is said to be preparing to appeal several
cases, including the aforementioned.)
The Murdochs are reported to be highly unimpressed by the financial
pressure on the paper as a result of the stream of litigation.
Apparently, some of the cases are not covered by insurance, and Rupert
has gone as far as making a directive that the paper he started 40
years ago will fork out for the defamation suits out of its own
editorial budget, rather than being bailed out by the News Ltd group.
Word around the traps is that the total bill could reach $20
million when all is said and done.
But it isn’t just defamation suits putting financial pressure on The
Oz. In a bruising case of humble pie, Mitchell reportedly had to face
the ignominy of paying out his ex-wife, Deborah Cassrels, who left the
paper after he took up with journalist, Christine Jackman. Cassrels was reportedly given a ‘significant financial settlement’
after Mitchell released her from a plum Oz Magazine job with an equally
satisfactory salary. (In a classic Machiavellian move, Mitchell had
slotted Jackman on to the magazine while Cassrels was still on its
Mitchell has certainly stamped his imprint on The Oz since his arrival
at the paper in 2002. There’s no doubt he has given it brighter look
and a bolder feel. He’s not afraid to run forceful campaigns and hold
fast to a strong editorial line, but his penchant for pushing the
boundaries and playing funny buggers with staff could ultimately prove