Today Sydney Morning Herald editor Alan Oakley is expected to address his staff over a dispute that blew up last Thursday afternoon, when with little notice sub-editors were asked to process a four page wraparound to Friday’s paper advertising Singapore Airlines and the arrival of the Airbus A380 in Sydney.

The wraparound blurred the line between advertising and editorial. The front page showed the normal masthead and blurbs, plus a legit news story on the soldier who died in Afghanistan. Below that was a news story by the travel reporter on the Airbus, and the rest of the wrap was advertisements, stories about the arrival, floor plans of the plane, blah blah blah.

Inside the wrap was another front page and masthead, with the rest of the real news.

The background to this, as reported in the Herald’s own travel section last month, is that Fairfax Media won a battle with News Limited for the online and print advertising surrounding the Airbus launch. Singapore Airlines spends $6 million a year on marketing in Australia, most of which goes in main media advertising, and the Airbus activity was reportedly expected to exceed that.

So what did Fairfax promise to win its share of the dosh? (And, as an aside, does this deal also explain why News Limited papers have been happy to publicise the dispute at the Herald?)

Singapore Airlines’ manager of passenger marketing, Dale Woodhouse, told Crikey this morning that the airline had bought a “package of advertising” but he was inexplicably coy about whether the “package” included an understanding that there would be a wraparound.

“This is a good story, but editorial decisions are up to the editor,” he said many times. “We purchased advertising.”

Surely he wasn’t suggesting that Alan Oakley chose off his own bat to run the wraparound? “We purchased advertising. Editorial decisions…”

Yes, we heard that already.

It is clearly past ridiculous to suggest that the decision to run four pages of wrap around was based on news value alone, yet this seems to be exactly what Oakley himself is saying, having told AAP “I made the judgment that it be placed on page one and that the wrap go ahead – a decision based on news value.” (Oakley did not return Crikey’s calls before deadline this morning).

What on earth is an editor doing deciding on the form of advertising?

The arrival of the Airbus was a legitimate news story, certainly, although different and less puff-piece angles could have been taken – such as the delays and cost overruns that have plagued the project and the battle between Singapore Airlines and Qantas over rights to fly the US route, together with suggestions last year that the two airlines merge.

Compare the ABC’s coverage of the Airbus arrival with the Sydney Morning Herald’s worth every penny” gush.

But is this the first time that the line has been blurred in the interests of the lucrative Singapore Airlines contract? Perhaps not. Earlier this year, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald launched a merged travel section, to run in both newspapers. At the time there were strong rumours – which I was not able to confirm — that the lines of editorial control for the new section ran through marketing, rather than to the editors of the papers.

And now a quick search over the last few months confirms that Singapore Airlines has been getting an extraordinarily good run. The so-called News Blog has also been giving the airline a plug. But as SMH House Committee co-chair Ruth Pollard said this morning, this is a new low and a shock to editorial staff, particularly when management has always claimed it would not compromise the integrity of the masthead. Staff have passed a resolution condemning the move.

A couple of years ago the board of Fairfax took some legal advice about the Charter of Editorial Independence that has been on the books since the independence campaigns of the 1980s. Did it have any legal force, the board wanted to know? The answer came back that its only force was moral, and since then the reality is that Charter has stood only until it became too much of a liability.

That day may have arrived.

Sadly, unless journalists can prevent it, there is probably more of a similar nature to come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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