Journalists at The Age are faced with the choice of escalating or retreating in their battle with management after another uncompromising letter from Fairfax’s Victorian CEO Don Churchill.

The letter was apparently not only unyielding, but also insulting. Yet at the same time, editor Andrew Jaspan has been calling small groups of staff into his office and making conciliatory noises.

Nothing definite has come out of this, but Jaspan has told staff he is willing to talk about the issues at the heart of the dispute – the impact of the newspaper’s commercial arrangements on editorial independence.

Thus management seems to be having it both ways – denying there is an issue in public, and trying to settle everything down behind the scenes. Either that, or Jaspan and Churchill are not on the same wavelength, which seems equally likely.

The next full meeting of the journalists’ Age Independence Committee will be on Wednesday. A decision on what kind of action the journalists will take can be expected after that.

Churchill’s letter, received by the committee on Friday, described the Age Independence Committee as “self appointed” and referred once again to what wags with long memories are calling the new Age tapes affair – that is, the leaking to Crikey of audio files of the crucial meeting at which Jaspan addressed staff, who then went on to unanimously pass a motion accusing him of undermining the paper’s independence.

(As Churchill would know, if he had read Crikey, the Age Independence Committee had nothing to do with the leaking of the audio files. The committee was dismayed to know we had them, tried to persuade us not to publish them, and objected after we did).

The Age Independence Committee has also written a letter to Fairfax CEO David Kirk, which is expected to be posted here later today.

The choice confronting the journalists in the face of the mixed messages is what kind of action to take. It was a tense and miserable weekend for many, who believe the only choice in the face of management’s public stance is to escalate the dispute, or face retribution.

There were a few forums at which the awkwardness at The Age played itself out over the weekend. Churchill was at the Quill Awards at Crown Casino on Friday night, and was apparently given a frosty reception from the journalists’ table.

The Age did well in the awards, as usual. John Silvester deservedly won the Graham Perkin Award. (See the complete list of winners here).

This put management in the awkward position of boasting about the journalists’ achievements on the one hand, and being in conflict with them on the other.

Jaspan was at the 2020 summit hobnobbing with his Canberra-based staff. He was meant to be an observer, rather than a participant, having changed his status after controversy about the appropriateness of an editor taking part in the process.

Yet according to the Herald-Sun’s Roger Franklin, he was still in evidence as more than an observer. Franklin wrote: “Why was besieged Age editor Andrew Jaspan, who withdrew as a delegate, scuttling about the floor, where the press was banned?”

Meanwhile the fuss at The Age is getting international attention. The Guardian newspaper’s respected media commentator Roy Greenslade included it on his blog last week. The comments from readers – some of whom know Jaspan of old – come down both for and against the man, and make for interesting reading.

Greenslade is visiting Australian shortly. (I will be interviewing him at the Future of Journalism summit in Sydney in a couple of weeks’ time.) He wrote on his blog that he hoped to see Jaspan while he was here.

“I sincerely hope he agrees to see me during my forthcoming Australian trip. Anyone wish to pass on messages?”

So far, nobody has asked him to.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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