Is Andrew Jaspan the Jonathan Shier of The Age? It’s time to ask the question.

Yesterday’s unanimous motion and meeting by Age staff is unprecedented. The motion was, in effect, one of no confidence in the editor. The atmosphere was one of anger mixed with contempt. Senior journalists are saying they have never seen anything like it before. The editor is left irredeemably wounded, an embarrassment to all.

Yet yesterday’s events did not come as a surprise to anyone who has been talking to Age journalists in recent months. Something of the kind had become almost inevitable.

The fact that things were allowed to deteriorate to this stage is evidence of spectacularly poor management not only by Jaspan but by his superiors – Victorian Chief Executive Don Churchill, Fairfax CEO David Kirk and the Fairfax Board. Together they have damaged The Age. Did they not know what was going on, or did they not care?

Two separate issues have come together in a particularly toxic mix. First there is the blurring of the line between commercial and editorial. This is an issue at all media organisations, although arguably there is nowhere where the line is under such aggressive assault as at Fairfax.

The second issue is that the Board and senior management have knowingly allowed a man to remain as editor who has not got, and is incapable of getting, the respect or confidence of his staff.

Nor does management respect Jaspan. Relations between Churchill and Jaspan are poor. Hardly anyone within the organisation has a good word to say about him, and yet he remains. This is a sad measure of management’s understanding and respect for the reasons people read the newspaper – its editorial content.

The list of issues presented to the meeting yesterday is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who talks to Age journalists can tell you a welter of Jaspan anecdotes. Crikey could publish almost one a day if we were so minded. All of them leak. This alone is an indicator of the desperation among senior staff that is behind yesterday’s angry meeting.

So what now?

In the case of Shier, the former and unlamented Managing Director of the ABC, it was the concerns and actions of senior staff about his increasingly political interference and erratic behaviour that eventually forced a reluctant Board to remove him.

Will Fairfax Media take the same approach, or will the actions of journalists have cemented the editor in his position because nobody will want to be seen to respond to their pressure?

Sadly, the prospects are not good. It is likely that Jaspan will go – not immediately. His position was in any case vulnerable, but unless he resigns he will be allowed to put a decent interval between his departure and yesterday’s events.

Yet this will not usher in a golden age. Out of sight of journalists, Jaspan has been fighting cost cutting. Many notions of his, such as turning Insight into a magazine, have been frustrated. It is his struggles over these issues that are the reasons for his unpopularity with senior management – not concerns about editorial independence.

If Jaspan moves this may well be used by Fairfax’s newspaper chief Brian McCarthy as part of sweeping changes at both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, with more cost cutting and perhaps a de facto vengeance on the journalists. Changes to editorial management can be expected at both mastheads.

Within Fairfax management there have even been suggestions floated about cutting the number of pages and editions to save costs – echoes of the very moves Kerry Stokes has been criticising at the West Australian.

What a turn around from the 1980s when the main threat to the mastheads’ independence was to do with Conrad Black buying a share. In those days Age editors Creighton Burns and Mike Smith were in the forefront of moves to protect rally the staff and the readers around independence issues.

Smith helped to draft the Charter of Editorial Independence which Jaspan is now accused of breaching. The document placed faith in the editor as chief protector of the values of the masthead.

Now, according to Age staff, the editor is one of the enemies of editorial independence.

The threat is no longer external or to do mainly with ownership. It has moved to the heart of the organisation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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