How much raw power do you wield if you’re the editor of a monopoly daily newspaper in a big, bustling, rich city? Quite a lot — and plenty of fear and loathing as well — if you’re Paul Armstrong, the controversial editor of The West Australian .

Now the open warfare between Armstrong and the WA Labor government has reached new heights, with Premier Alan Carpenter urging West Australians to boycott the paper. Then came beleaguered Education Minister Ljiljanna Ravlich’s comments to Parliament a fortnight ago:

He [Brian Burke] made a number of observations about Mr Armstrong, including that Mr Armstrong thought he was a mover and shaker in Western Australia, what he said determined public opinion and what he says goes in this state. He also made the observation that, although Mr Armstrong held that view of himself, in real terms he was no mover and shaker; in fact, he was quite immature and juvenile, and although he was in his late 30s, he still lived at home with his mother. Mr Burke also made the observation that Mr Armstrong did not like strong women and that he felt that part of the trouble that Hon Alannah MacTiernan and I might have been having was that because we were strong women, we were targets.

“… Ljiljanna’s obviously decided that sort of outburst is what voters want from their MPs and that’s her right,” editor Armstrong emailed Crikey today. “It was riddled with factual errors but I don’t really care enough about it to bother correcting them … We will just stick to the issues we believe matter to readers. Newspapers dish it out and, within reason, have to be able to take it. Journalists can’t be sensitive about that sort of thing, though it’s still their right to feel pity for others.”

The West does indeed “dish it out”, as Armstrong puts it, but a lot of people in Perth have a problem with that approach. They believe The West Australian is soaked with the personality of its editor, who took over the helm in 2003, and suggest that the paper’s attack-dog style, and Armstrong’s method of wielding his power, is irresponsible.

Crikey questioned a number of Perth media, sport, government and local government insiders about Armstrong’s influence. Most of them wouldn’t go on the record.  “There are a lot of critics of Armstrong, but no one wants to go public because The West is so powerful”, one media player told Crikey. “It’s a very big job, and because it’s such an institution, it’s the big swinging d-ck. There’s the paper and there’s parliament and that’s it.”

But here’s what the insiders said off the record about the controversial editor:

Media insider 1: Armstrong sees “everything through the prism of his London tabloid years coupled with his conservative Catholic views….” It’s a strange combination. “There’s too much of his personality is coming through the paper and there’s nobody challenging him, no one big enough to take him on.”

Media insider 2: “He’s a guy of absolutes…And when he has a line on something he relentlessly pursues it. There’s no question that he has a lot of clout in a small town.” But the paper “infuriates people and gets people talking, so in that sense it’s doing its job.”

“I think he’s done a lot of good things. He revved it up, it needed to be revved up, and he made it quite clear that he didn’t want it to be a paper of record anymore. He’d very do well in another five years; he’ll be a Murdoch editor somewhere in London, he’s good enough to do it…But Perth isn’t London.”

“Armstrong is also incredibly… immature… Anyone who’s over 45 is washed up in his view. He’s quite clever but has no intellectual depth. He goes the lowest common denominator…”

The government insider: “Armstrong has p-ssed a lot of people off…people like Kerry Stokes, people with a lot of money and a lot of influence but who are not high profile. He’s made a lot of enemies.”

The sport industry insider: “He’s a dangerous man…. Character assassination is not too strong a way to put it, he goes after people with a determination to bring them down, whether they be government or sporting people…”

But there was one man who was willing to go on the record – the Lord Mayor of Perth.

Dr Peter Nattrass told Crikey that he wasn’t afraid of getting drubbed in The West Australian by speaking publicly about editor Paul Armstrong’s power. “His influence in the paper is supreme, but I would question his influence in the community,” Nattrass told Crikey.

“It’s quite clear that his editorial philosophy is one of conflict, confrontation and controversy and that leads to a total lack of respect from me,” said the Lord Mayor. “I don’t believe in a small town like Perth that his style pays dividends…”

“Armstrong has a court record and press council record that highlights his poor editorial standards. If a businessman had that blight on his career he would be written up in the paper as a disgraced businessman, yet there’s no one to write that up about the editor of the only paper in town…,” said Nattrass.

“Sadly, it means that the status of the newspaper is not anything like what it used to be… it has markedly deteriorated…”

Peter Fray

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