On election eve, The Age distinguished itself by publishing an election leader which failed to lead. Instead of saying which party it preferred to see govern the country, it sat on the fence.

To its credit, the paper then published a selection of letters condemning the fence-sitting, but the barbed wire now seems to be cutting in. Since Monday, the following bollocks has been appearing in the masthead: “Australia’s Independent Newspaper”.

What on earth does this mean?

The Age has a long and proud history of independence.

In 1966, when the paper entered into partnership with the Fairfax company, specific steps were taken to maintain the independence of The Age within the larger Fairfax group by limiting the Fairfax representation on the board of the paper’s parent company, David Syme.

In the 1972 election campaign, The Age supported the election of the Whitlam Government without full reference to the board, which was thought to be opposed to this line. When the editor of the day, Graham Perkin, and the managing director, Ranald Macdonald, did attend the board, they carried their resignations in their pockets.

In 1988, journalists and editors created, and persuaded the Fairfax management to accept, a charter of editorial independence, the first of its kind in Australia and a model followed by others.

This was part of a campaign to protect the paper from a takeover by dreadful people like Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black. Black did succeed in his takeover, and then asked the chairman, Sir Zelman Cowen, to renegotiate the document. It was endorsed by the new owners in 1992.

In recent times the current chairman of Fairfax, Ron Walker, has twice been asked to have the board re-endorse the charter but has each time declined, although he makes all the right noises about editorial independence.

The paper has not previously felt it necessary to proclaim its independence on the masthead, instead allowing its editorial content to speak for itself.

Coming immediately after the weekend fence-sitting, “Australia Independent Newspaper” sounds like an Orwellian sales pitch: we know we are guilty of equivocation but we will call it independence.

This is certainly how it is seen in some quarters of the editorial staff, though it is not the official view, which was sought but not obtained before this article was published.

Independence, as it relates to journalism, means that journalists and editors make decisions on what to publish, free of political, commercial, sectional and personal considerations.

When it works properly it means stories are treated on their merits as news, regardless of whether they are good or bad for the outlet itself, its owners, advertisers, political mates, or the Establishment.

The Age’s record of independence, exemplified by its support for the cause of the Eureka miners against the colonial authorities, does not need weak public relations slogans for sustenance.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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