Yesterday 235 Age journalists voted unanimously for a motion accusing their editor in chief, Andrew Jaspan, of degrading their ability to produce independent journalism.
The extraordinary meeting, which surely represents one of the most damaging events in the newspaper’s history, was organised and attended by some of the most senior journalists on the paper.
These journalists have grown increasingly angry and desperate over recent months at what they see as an unprecedented erosion of the ideals that have guided the newspaper in the past.
The meeting included open displays of anger with the editor. In one particularly telling exchange the night news editor, Patrick Smithers effectively accused Jaspan of telling an untruth.
Jaspan had claimed that he was surprised by the length of a “clarification” published concerning the affairs of the Grand Prix corporation – which is chaired by Ron Walker, who is also Chair of the Fairfax Board and Jaspan’s chief supporter.
Jaspan claimed he had thought the clarification would be only one sentence, but in this exchange — listen here — Smithers contradicted him, saying that he had personally checked and cleared the clarification with Jaspan because it was so unusual.
In other scenes, a reporter involved with covering Earth Hour said she had been proud of her stories at first, but as increasingly trivial stories had pushed out more worthy material from colleagues, she had grown ashamed.
There were spontaneous interjections, and all the signs of a newsroom in revolt. Several reporters have told Crikey that it was the most extraordinary meeting they had attended in their careers.
And in a harbinger of more trouble to come, the journalists pledged themselves to resist further incursions on editorial independence and to support each other in resisting instructions that breach the spirit of the Charter of Editorial Independence, the Code of Ethics and Press Council principles.
They demanded a protocol governing the newspaper’s many “partnerships” and “sponsorships” to protect editorial independence.
The meeting and the motion are an extraordinary outcome, yet should be no surprise to Crikey readers or those in touch with Age journalists. Yesterday’s events were the culmination of a series of incidents over the last year. In recent months, senior journalists have taken to documenting threats to independence, and the meeting was presented with the resulting list before it voted yesterday.
The calling of the meeting was itself a negotiated outcome following the publication last Monday night on Media Watch of e-mails showing that the paper’s news agenda had been driven by Earth Hour’s promoters.
After negotiations with the union and The Age Independence Committee, it was agreed that Jaspan would address staff and then leave the meeting to allow the journalists to discuss the issue.
The meeting began at 2.30pm and Jaspan was present until about 3.45pm. Click on the links below to hear him respond to the questions put to him by staff on a letter to the editor by Fairfax Chairman Ron Walker, the coverage of Earth Hour and the coverage of the Grand Prix.
The consensus from those who attended the meeting was that Jaspan simply didn’t “get it”.
After Jaspan left, the meeting was presented with the motion moved by senior writer Ray Cassin on behalf of the union House Committee and The Age independence committee.
Over another 45 minutes of discussion there was no dissent, although a few minor changes were made to the wording. The whole motion can be read here.
The meeting was also presented with a ” Statement of Support” which contains some of the background on why Age staff are so angry and concerned.
The statement details six incidents that “can be documented” and together “create the impression that the paper is now willing to court favour with vested interests.”
- Earth Hour – The tone timing, placement and frequency of stories was influenced by the partnership with Earth Hour organisers, and reporters were pressured not to write negative stories.
- Sports coverage – “special relationships” with organisations such as Telstra Dome and the Melbourne Victory Football Club “risk corrupting normal news judgement”.
- 2020 Summit – The decision by Jaspan and his deputy, Paul Ramadge, to attend the summit breaches the journalistic principle that “it is not possible to be both observer and participant without affecting objectivity.”
- The “R Walker” letter – an affair previously reported by Crikey.
- The Grand Prix affair – previously reported by Crikey. This included the pressuring of a reporter for writing a negative story about the Grand Prix, which is chaired by Ron Walker.
- Bay Dredging – Jaspan has an aggressive “undeclared campaign” against the dredging, and reporters have been forced to confuse the role of editorial advocacy and reporting.
After the meeting, Age Media and Communications editor Matthew Ricketson filed a short news report for the next day’s newspaper. Not surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t run.
Meanwhile Jaspan’s boss, Fairfax’s Victorian chief executive Don Churchill, did not return a call asking for comment.
Speak to a room full of journalists and someone will be recording. Well several people actually. Crikey had no shortage of audio file offers, and, for the record, an objection to us running any audio from the paper’s independence committee. Here’s a sample:
- Andrew Jaspan on Earth Hour and The Age’s editorial policies
- Jaspan fielding questions about the “R. Walker” letter affair
- Jaspan fielding questions about the “Grand Prix clarification”