The bunfight over board control of Western Australian Newspapers is, in its narrowest sense, a business story. But for people who care about journalism and not just money, this is a zeitgeist story about how people with no background in journalism or media exert increasing influence over the editorial pillar of functional democracy.
Just to recap: WAN owns The West Australian, the powerful monopoly daily newspaper of Australia’s booming western frontierland. WAN is a public company which currently has just four non-executive directors — all of them professional company directors with not one moment of working experience in media or journalism between them. Their board positions are being challenged by WAN’s biggest shareholder, the Seven Network, which wants shareholders to replace them with Seven chairman Kerry Stokes, his colleague Peter Gammell and two other directors. Stokes believes the board has mismanaged both the company and the West’s editorial direction. “This is about bringing a newspaper back to the standard we want it to be in the state,” he says. “It seems (the West’s) editor is in conflict with everybody.”
Few newspapers in recent times — anywhere — have created as much ill-will or controversy among readers as The West Australian. The paper is at war with its state government, its slightly experienced editor Paul Armstrong having been described by WA Premier Alan Carpenter (a former ABC journalist) as an “immature, dishonest, unethical person who should not be in that position … he’s an embarrassment to the newspaper … he’s an embarrassment to the state of Western Australia …”
The paper has an uncomfortably close relationship with disgraced former Premier and lobbyist Brian Burke, gets conspiratorial mentions in secret Crime Commission tapes, takes a large egg-beater to political issues with regularity, has been caned by the Press Council over major stories and is widely regarded by many if not most of Perth’s influential clique as something of a joke — like an embarrassing relative who turns up every day.
Although he rarely comments publicly about anything to anyone, Armstrong apparently regards this kind of criticism as confirmation that he is doing a good job. And he has the support of his current board of industry novices.
A monopoly newspaper in a large city like Perth, where money and power flow like water, has a special responsibility. When it arouses so much condemnation from so many quarters over so much time, and when its editor is demonstrably out his depth, you begin to realise that editorial independence is a concept that only works if it is underpinned by another concept: editorial competence.