More pure than we were, and more pure than our Sydney sister. That is what The Age will be if a draft set of principles and procedures on journalistic independence presently being circulated among editorial staff is accepted.
Things have been relatively quiet in The Age newsroom since the open revolt of 10 April in which a meeting of journalists unanimously passed a motion accusing editor Andrew Jaspan of undermining their ability to report without fear or favour.
But behind the scenes there has been a process of détente, brokered by senior editors. As we reported in May , those around Jaspan have been preparing principles and procedures for use of the masthead and sponsorships, without ever acknowledging that there has been a problem, or that it is being done in response to the demands of editorial staff.
The draft principles and procedures now being circulated tick-off on most of the issues that caused the unprecedented effective vote of no-confidence in editorial leadership. Despite formally refusing to talk to the editorial Independence Committee, management seems to have implicitly acknowledged the validity of its concerns.
One of the most noteworthy things about the draft principles is that The Age rules out doing what the Sydney Morning Herald did last October when it comprehensively blurred the line between advertising and editorial by running a four-page wraparound to the paper sponsored by Singapore airlines , yet containing the normal masthead, blurbs and legitimate news story on a soldier who died in Afghanistan.
At the time Fairfax management claimed there wasn’t a problem with this. But the draft guidelines say that advertising wraparounds in The Age will not be accepted for the front of the paper or for the magazine section A2 , since the latter is also sold as a separate newsstand section.
“When a wraparound is approved, it must be on the basis that there is a clear delineation between editorial and advertising,” say the guidelines.
As for the newspaper’s marketing-inspired partnerships and sponsorships, all such agreements will include clauses explicitly stating that they do not bring the right to dictate or exert influence on the content and scope of editorial coverage.
In other words, embarrassments such as having the paper’s line on Earth Hour being dictated by spin doctors should be a thing of the past. This is exactly what the journalists demanded.
The principles also specify how the masthead can be used in the various different kinds of supplementary sections delivered with the newspaper. Editorial products where content is produced independently of an outside agency can be branded with the masthead but must include a form of words that make it clear that the relationship exists. For example, “Your 2008 Melbourne Food And Wine Festival Guide is presented by The Age in conjunction with Melbourne Food And Wine Festival.”
But sections in which editorial content is commissioned by the advertiser or outside party will not be branded with The Age masthead but will be identified as an advertising feature and branded as the work of Fairfax Custom Publishing. Custom publishing publications must not use fonts or designs similar to those applied to editorial magazines or supplements.
As for “strategic publications” such as supplements on food, wine, sport, racing, fashion, home and lifestyle and the arts, they must have “editorial credibility and integrity” and the staff at work on them will be part of the editorial department and bound by the usual editorial standards.
If these principles are put into effect conscientiously, a great deal of the blurring and trashing of the credibility of the masthead that has taken place in recent years should cease.
There are also new proposed guidelines on letters to the editor that would make the infamous “R Walker” missive of last February a thing of the past. Back then a letter from the Fairfax chairman and former Liberal Party Treasurer attacking Malcolm Fraser was published over the name “R. Walker, Melbourne” but without declaration of Walker’s association with either Fairfax or with the Liberal Party.
“Where pertinent, we will list the writer’s affiliation,” the new draft principles say.
This, of course, has been longstanding policy. The problem was not a lack of policy, but that the paper’s editor, Andrew Jaspan, failed to act in accordance with that policy.
So what happens now? I understand that the plan is to post the guidelines on the Age intranet this week at which point they will be official – complete with their implicit criticism of past practice both at The Age and more notably at the Sydney Morning Herald.
And so it seems that the Age editorial staff and the Independence Committee have achieved their immediate objectives. Making sure the guidelines are adhered to may be a bigger and longer battle, particularly given that all the signs suggest that Fairfax management is preparing for a head-to-head confrontation with staff over the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, presently under negotiation.
The conventional wisdom in the industry is that it is impossible to protect editorial independence in the long term unless the proprietor of a media organisation understands that it is important and is committed to it.
Given that those in charge of Fairfax have shown almost no understanding of what journalism is actually about, and are on deeper levels antagonistic towards editorial staff, I remain sceptical about whether this scheme can work.
Nevertheless, The Age staff have shown that they do not lie down without a big fight. There are several people on the editorial floor who are waiting in trepidation for vengeance to fall, but at the moment their brave stand would appear to have been worthwhile.
The editorial Independence Committee, it should be noted, includes some of the company’s most respected and able journalists. They have been prepared to put their jobs on the line for their principles and although officially the company has ignored them, behind the scenes their stand has gained them considerable respect from senior editors, and many in management.
As for the brewing industrial battle, watch this space.