Where to now for staff at The Age following last week’s unprecedented meeting with its de facto vote of no confidence in the editor in chief, Andrew Jaspan?

This morning in The Age newsroom the initial euphoria following the venting of long standing frustrations and anxieties was subsiding. People on all sides are asking – what next?

Management are said to be deeply shocked at events last Thursday, but nobody seems to know how the motion passed at the meeting has been received by the people who really matter – the Board and Sydney management, where there are in any cases deep tensions between “old Fairfax” personnel and the Rural Press part of the company.

The issue can hardly go away. The ABC Media Watch program, which last Monday was the spark in the tinder box of Age newsroom discontent, is expected to return to the issue tonight. There must surely be a limit to how much bad publicity the company is prepared to take before making a realistic attempt to grapple with the issues.

Among Age editorial staff opinions are divided on whether it would now be best to let things settle, in the hope of giving the Board breathing space, or to keep up the momentum.

Many among the editorial staff and in middle management see it as significant that the Chair of Fairfax Media, Ron Walker, gave The Australian a “no comment” when asked if he still backed Jaspan. Mr Walker did not return calls from Crikey asking for comment before deadline this morning.

There are a number of possible scenarios, including a bitter and ugly industrial fight – particularly since Fairfax’s Melbourne management seemed to have left no room for compromise, peace making, or even acknowledgement of staff concerns.

In a letter to journalists last Friday the Victorian Chief Executive and publisher Don Churchill declared that he was “completely satisfied” that editor Andrew Jaspan had not contravened the “fundamental values of independent journalism”.

Churchill’s backing of Jaspan was inevitable. He could hardly do otherwise. But he did not offer any olive branches – not even agreeing to discuss the journalists’ demand for a protocol governing the paper’s commercial relationships.

Churchill seemed in part to miss the point when he wrote that the newspaper’s commercial arrangements and sponsorships would continue. The motion by staff recognised that – but objected to documented instances in which they had been allowed to undermine editorial independence, and asked for a protocol to govern their management.

As it is, and in the absence of any other process being offered, it is likely there will be industrial action the next time an editorial independence issue arises, or if management moves against any of the staff involved in last Thursday’s meeting.

A new Enterprise Bargaining round is about to begin. The atmosphere for negotiations could hardly be worse.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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