Your reporting last week of the departure of Andrew Jaspan as editor-in-chief of The Age was off-key, and inaccurate. It is wrong to link his sacking with the deeper malaise at Fairfax. Management has simply used the occasion of its controversial restructuring — and job cuts — to rid itself of a man who showed himself to be unreliable, indiscreet and self-obsessed, and, frankly, not very good.
His ”success” was illusory, built on heavily discounted sales and give-aways, a massive increase in marketing spend and a dumbed down approach to story selection. His gift to journalism was a combination of screaming headlines, puffed up design and a proliferation of ”exclusive” tags applied far too liberally and often without merit.
Despite the heroic tag being bestowed upon him by some sections of the media, he showed little if any inclination to fight cuts to editorial resources. People close to the action say he gave every indication last Tuesday that he was ready to sign up to the latest round of editorial cost-cutting.
His prevailing attitude to his staff since his arrival in 2004 was one of contempt, claiming that most were lazy and overpaid. He was particularly dismissive of anyone over the age of 45, and when addressing staff during a round of redundancies in 2005 he urged those older journos to ”move aside and give the younger guys a go”.
His style, generally, was that of a marketing manager, more interested in song and dance and razzamataz than he was in getting the story right. More often than not he came to work with little awareness of what had been published in his own paper that morning. On occasions, he would even order up stories in morning news conference that had been published in that day’s edition. Occasionally, they had even led the paper!
His famous remark to news editors, on learning of the acquittal of Mick Gatto over the killing of underworld figure Benji Veniamin (”If Gatto didn’t do it, then who did?”), was typical — his attention to detail was minimal, and he rarely followed the news closely. Rarely would he make difficult calls — on news judgment and on ethical issues — preferring to abdicate this responsibility to others down the chain. The following morning (after he had glanced at the competitors), he would bag the decisions made by his lieutenants.
Often, after an “off-the-record” meeting with a political figure or powerful business person, Jaspan would return to the office and divulge the contents of his discussions openly to his editors and reporters.
He rarely backed staff should powerful interests complain about a story: he readily accepted the complainant’s version, agreeing to correct the contentious information before addressing the reporter concerned.
He sought to do deals with powerful groups and took sides in controversial stories based on the views of individual interests rather than on the carefully-weighed merits of the story.
His modus operandi was exposed at a meeting of staff earlier this year. That meeting (and its aftermath, reported over several days by Crikey) was the result of the increasing anxiety of staff over the manner in which the editor-in-chief was seemingly flouting the newspaper’s own ethical codes and the masthead’s cherished tenets of fearless and independent reporting.
Many staff could share experiences where Andrew Jaspan ”verballed” them. He loved to play people off against each other, criticising even his most loyal deputies behind each other’s back. He was often openly contemptuous of senior management in both Melbourne and Sydney, at one point in news conference describing Fairfax as the worst run media company he had known.
Fairfax is obviously facing tough times — what big media company in the world isn’t? — but, please, don’t apotheosise Andrew Jaspan. He had strengths, sure, but a well-honed journalistic instinct and strong commitment to lively analysis and engaging story-telling, were not among them.