All hell seems to be breaking loose in the media precinct of the Wild West as WA’s two biggest papers mire themselves in an increasingly grubby war of words.

The first big shock came two weeks ago when former West Australian editor Paul Murray abruptly quit his Radio 6PR morning shock jock slot, claiming station owners Southern Cross Broadcasters wouldn’t give him a pay rise.

“Mooner”, who had just matched rival ABC Morning Show host Liam Bartlett’s ratings after six years of barely-concealed mutual animosity, revealed on the weekend he wouldn’t renew his reputed $240,000-a-year contract, leaving Monday’s talk-back show stranded.

The second shock came this week when The Australian‘s WA Editor, Karen Brown – herself a former West Deputy Editor until two years ago – suddenly also pulled the pin amid rumours that Mooner was sniffing after her job.

However, it’s hard to believe Murray would settle for being just another interstate lackey on the end of a telephone line to Sydney after a decade of ruling WA’s biggest-selling daily newspaper with an iron fist.

The trifecta came with last week’s West announcement that New Zealand APN boss Ken Steinke would be its new managing director, replacing former Rural Press regional CEO Ian Law, who defected last November to James Packer’s ACP magazines division in Sydney.

Meanwhile, the constant sniping between the West and The Sunday Times claimed its first victim this week when West “Inside Cover”
columnist Melissa Kent was viciously rumbled by the “Slimes” – ABC Media Watch-style – for pinching large slabs of a Big Brother sleaze yarn from a Miranda Devine SMH column.

Overnight, the West cancelled Kent’s highly-prized transfer to Melbourne to replace bureau chief Nick Miller (who has joined The Age) and gave it to senior reporter Steve Pennells instead. This opens the intriguing possibility that Murray might return to the West – if the price is right.

Pennells vacates a Paul McGeough-style “editor-at-large” West role that sent him to Bali and Iraq without the need to file daily copy – a job that might appeal to the long-lunching Murray. Murray already writes a weekly opinion column for the West, reportedly for big dollars.

He also wrote a recent West byline story attacking a Sunday Times demand that the West apologise for targeting WA Police Minister John D’Orazio over a graft investigation.

It’s been like that for weeks, and one can only wonder what readers and advertisers think about what has degenerated into a childish tit-for-tat slanging match in print.

Meanwhile, West editor Paul Armstrong might be looking over his shoulder and wondering where the next dominoes will fall. Last year’s annual report listed him as by far the company’s worst-performing senior executive after he achieved only 40% of his management performance targets. Everyone else scored mid to high 90s (except for a print boss who got 73% for less than a year’s work).

That might explain why Law, who made the controversial decision to appoint Armstrong in 2003, renewed his editor’s contract last September for only a further 12 months. With two former West heavyweights looking for new jobs and a new CEO on the way, anything could happen.

Peter Fray

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