What are we to make of the poisonous battle between the West Australian newspaper and the State Government? There is a long and disreputable history of politicians trying to bully newspaper managements. It’s usually a nasty game.

We should hope that it is also counterproductive. Any newspaper management worth its salt will stand behind an editor or journalist under attack from the government of the day — even if they had reservations about the person beforehand.

Unfortunately, not all newspaper managements are worth their salt. Ask Bruce Guthrie, who is generally believed to have suffered from, to put it mildly, a lack of board support when he was giving the Victorian Kennett government a hard time as editor of The Age.

The West Australian row takes the game to new levels, with the WA Government publicly calling for the editor of the West Australian, Paul Armstrong, to be sacked. Normally the profession would be leaping to his defence — but in this case there has been a rather deafening silence. The truth is that most journalists would not want to die in a ditch in defence of the conduct of the West Australian.

The row started last week when Attorney-General and Health Minister Jim McGinty said the State Government would not support shield laws for journalists and their sources because The West Australian didn’t deserve them under its present editor, Paul Armstrong. This was followed by Premier Alan Carpenter describing Armstrong as:

[A]n immature, dishonest, unethical person who should not be in that position … He is an embarrassment to [The West Australian management], he’s an embarrassment to the newspaper. He’s an embarrassment to the state of Western Australia, that’s the fact. He’s not the person for the job.

For some time, the colourful editor has had a reputation of being, well, edgy — the problem being that he too often falls off the edge. Running an entertaining tabloid is largely about pushing boundaries. The difference between Armstrong and his east coast colleagues is that whereas David Penberthy of the Daily Telegraph, for example, only steps over the line about 10% of the time, Armstrong seems to trample it regularly.

Witness these Press Council adjudications here and here, and the most shocking case here. See also this Media Watch report. The most recent story causing friction was simply wrong — which, of course, means it is almost impossible to defend. Not that that has stopped the West.

On 24 January the paper published a front-page photo of a patient lying across three seats in a casualty waiting room. The headline and caption proclaimed that the patient was elderly, suffering from a neurological condition and was lying across the seats because no beds or trolleys were available. The editorial went to town. “The picture we publish is not from Zimbabwe or some other Third-World hellhole”, the West fulminated.

But the story was wrong, wrong, wrong. The patient came forward and identified herself, and was interviewed on radio. She was not elderly, but only 46. She was suffering from eczema, not a neurological condition. She had been offered a trolley, but chose to sit up and then to “stretch out” for a few minutes on the seats. She was happy with her care, and outraged by what the newspaper had done. A nurse had been nearby when the photo was taken but had been cropped out of the picture published by the West.

Bad enough — but in the days afterwards the West did not admit error, but rather continued to beat the Government around the head, saying that instead of admitting the poor state of the health system:

Health Minister Jim McGinty set about trying to create a media fog, laying red herrings, blaming the newspaper … anything rather than acknowledging the serious problems in the hospital system for which he is ultimately accountable, or should be.

Anything rather than acknowledging the serious problems with the article! This episode is now the subject of yet another complaint to the press council.

So does Armstrong deserve the profession’s support?

The problem with the Government’s attack is that it is now almost impossible for either side to back down. Management can’t move against Armstrong, even if they wanted to do so, because that would be giving in to pressure from a Government that is not lily-white and, whatever the rights and wrongs in this case, has done plenty to deserve tough media scrutiny.

Now neither side can move, and in a one-newspaper town that leaves the citizens of Perth and Western Australia significantly the poorer.