Being right is almost always a saving grace, and very few independent observers would argue with Kerry Stokes’ central points in his sledge of editorial management at The West Australian newspaper.

With his speech on Tuesday, Stokes’ move on The West has turned from being only a business story to also being a story about editorial quality and the relationship of a newspaper to its community. It is also a story about editorial independence.

No newspaper Board could be comfortable with a situation in which circulation is falling, and the elite of a city  turns on the newspaper that serves it.

It seems most of those who care want Stokes to win and rebuild the paper. Given the rabid and unreliable track record of The West , as illustrated by the several Press Council findings against it, this is hardly surprising. The present Board has failed to act on editorial quality issues and Stokes is the only solution on the horizon.

But how and to what extent should the Board have intervened? And to what extent should Stokes, if he gets his seats on the Board, interfere in editorial management? As Harold Mitchell says in his piece in The Australian today, “If I was the editor of The West Australian , I think I’d be packing my bags.”

No problem with that. It is the job of the Board to appoint the editor, and the incumbent’s track record speaks for itself. But most conventions and charters of editorial independence – such as those in place at Fairfax newspapers — then state that once the editor is in place, he or she should be left to manage staff and decide the editorial line without constant second guessing and without having to heed commercial, personal and political interests of the company, its shareholders or the Board.

Sadly, charters of editorial independence don’t work. They are a product of more naïve times. Under the Fairfax charters, editorial independence absolutely relies on the editor being independent, strong and trustworthy. One of the faults revealed in recent times is that they contain no mechanism for dealing with situations  in which the editor himself is part of the problem . The charters may lend moral force to the objections of editorial staff, but at Fairfax for some time they have stood only until they are seriously tested.

The truth is that there is no way to guarantee editorial independence if the proprietors of a company are not committed to the principle. This is why virtually all inquiries (not only those by hard line lefties) that have looked at the matter have concluded that legislation to ensure diversity of media ownership is justified in the public interest.

Perth represents a microcosm of this national issue. The West Australian is the dominant print media outlet in Western Australia. Stokes’ Channel Seven is the dominant television station. True, Fairfax’s imminent launch of a news website provides a promise of some diversity, but there are still real concerns about one man controlling both the dominant news outlets in the state. Before the changes in media ownership legislation last year, this would not have been allowed.

This is not about whether Stokes is a good or bad proprietor. I happen to think he is a comparatively good one – shrewd, strong, and not intervening much in editorial decisions. There is nevertheless an issue here about concentration of power.

Among all the questions Stokes will have to answer about business issues, someone should at the very least ask him about principles of editorial independence.

The people of Perth should be thinking about whether they are really happy for one man – any man – to hold so much power in their city, and what might be done to develop some diversity and some alternatives.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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