Letter to Don Churchill
Victorian Chief Executive and Publisher
Fairfax Media
18 April 2008

Dear Mr Churchill,

It’s been quite a week. At the end of it, I am hearing things about what’s going on in your office that make me think I should write to you.

I hear that you have managed to convince yourself that last week’s extraordinary meeting, in which 235 journalists voted unanimously to condemn the undermining of editorial independence at the Age, is a union tactic to do with the forthcoming Enterprise Bargaining negotiations.

It really is extraordinary that you can believe this. You are absolutely wrong.

The union isn’t driving this. How could it? In the history of The Age, there has never been a unanimous vote on a union matter.

No, what you are dealing with is something much more dangerous, crazy and wonderful than the pursuit of self interest. You are dealing with a last ditch defence of an ideal. Editorial independence.

On the floors beneath your feet, you have journalists who are dedicated to the journalism on which the credibility of The Age depends. So dedicated are they that they have put their necks and their jobs on the line to defend it. Some call them foolish. They are at least brave.

Sad to think how a different management might have harnessed this idealism. If an editor, and a management, could convince the journalists that they too believed in and understood this ideal, then they would have the most loyal and hardworking journalistic staff in the country.

As it is, you have a staff in near revolt while you blame the union and, sometimes, Crikey proprietor Eric Beecher. (For the record, I am not Beecher in drag. Haven’t spoken to the man in weeks, and when I did it wasn’t about Fairfax. When Beecher wants to say something, he does it under his own byline.)

Perhaps The Age Independence Committee would have been strategically well advised to have tried to talk to you quietly, or to the Board, about their concerns before pulling on last Thursday’s meeting. On the other hand, everything that has happened over the last year suggests that they would have been wasting their time. Who is there on the board, or in management, who has ears to hear or the ability to understand?

You seem to have been taken by surprise by last Thursday’s events. You really shouldn’t have been.

Do you know the history of your own organisation? The history of The Age Independence Committee? Could you not see the events of the last week coming?

I don’t know if you are a Crikey subscriber. Probably not, on principle. If you had been you would have been reading reports for the last year warning of trouble to come, from Andrew Jaspan nearly stuffing up the budget coverage almost a year ago, to this one just a month ago using Titanic metaphors to ask how much longer it could be before the ship made contact with an iceberg.

I gather you don’t talk to journalists, so you wouldn’t have heard about the anguished lunchtime meetings leading up to last Thursday. Nor, before that, the frustrations emanating from news conference as day after day good stories were squeezed out of the paper because of the latest pap from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, or Earth Hour, or any of the other “partnerships”. Nor the anguish over the failure to cover significant Melbourne events, like Run for the Kids, merely because they were being sponsored by your competitors. The six documented instances of breaches of editorial independence are merely the best documented, and the tip of the iceberg.

Nor would you have felt the fury as young reporters were intimidated, or told not to contact sources that were pro-dredging. Nor would you have heard the grumbles from more senior journalists who have had to work with the editor hanging over their shoulder, channelling either Ron Walker or, until a short while ago, Peter Costello.

How much credibility do you think your denial of the problem has with the people who have lived and worked through all this over the last few years? You have been annoyed with Jaspan for fighting the bean counters. You have missed the bigger picture.

Since you can’t seem to see where you are now, it is unlikely you can see where things are headed. Let me outline some scenarios.

If you continue to refuse to engage over the drafting of a protocol governing the paper’s commercial arrangements, then the journalists will take further action.

Probably they will draft their own protocol, and try to get you to discuss it. If you refuse, then they will apply it as best they can whether or not you and Jaspan agree.

You can easily see how something that is not yet a major industrial dispute can turn into one. How it might spread to Sydney. To Rural Press. How pitched and bloody and nasty it could get.

This battle is not about ending the newspaper’s commercial arrangements, as you seem to suggest in your earlier letter to staff. It is about managing them. Sadly, so far you seem to not get it.

History will tell whether this was a brave but ultimately futile and naive last stand by journalists to hold the line for editorial independence, or whether it was the beginning of a new tide, in which the best of the old values of Fairfax were carried through into the new media age.

I think a few more interesting weeks lie ahead of us.

Yours Margaret Simons,
Crikey Media Commentator

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