Beware the parliamentary sketch writer. Annabel Crabb, the Sydney Morning Herald’s political sketch writer (a breed of journalist who take a slightly off centre view of events in Canberra but regularly manage to inform far better than their supposedly less humorous colleagues), is among the nominees in the Commentary, Analysis, Opinion and Critique section of this year’s Walkley journalism awards. The chosen contribution from a host of stories written during the last year is the column in which she dubbed the then-opposition leader a Ruddbot. Now that the man is Prime Minister the description looks more apt than ever.

As if to celebrate the nomination, Ms Crabb this morning provides another wonderful insight into the character of the national leader describing him as now speaking “with the clipped air of a military tactician.” Kevin Rudd’s new enemy is that strange beast he calls “extreme capitalism” which, as the author notes, is not defined but, much like the term “militant Islam”, extreme capitalism “coalesces our feelings of anger and condemnation, without offending anyone actually in earshot.”

The rubbishing of the Prime Ministerial rhetoric goes on in wonderful fashion.

The danger for Mr Rudd is not that people will have one quick chuckle while reading the Herald but that pointing out all his meaningless references to strategies for action agendas will persuade people that he really is on the verge of becoming a somewhat pompous figure of fun.

Fairfax and News have one similarity — going down together. Fairfax chief executive officer David Kirk has one characteristic of the journalists he rules over: he is happy enough for his papers to hand it out but thin skinned when it comes to taking it. I’m not sure what it is that makes those in the media quite so hypocritical on this matter of criticism but it is something I have noticed many times during my 49 years in the profession and sometimes been guilty of myself. David Kirk might himself be a bean counter rather than a journalist but his recent speech to the Sydney Institute showed him very touchy indeed about having his work questioned.

Singled out for a special display of petulance was Eric Beecher, a former editor of the Fairfax owned Sydney Morning Herald and the current proprietor of a range of news websites including Crikey for which I regularly write. Mr Kirk said:

But I must say it is galling to have to listen to the self-appointed experts prattle from the sidelines. Some people think we should give up the fight. Eric Beecher has been a poisonous critic of our company, for reasons best known to him. He was asked about our future on Lateline in August, and this is what he said:

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Eric Beecher, what would you do with Fairfax if you got your hands on it tomorrow?

ERIC BEECHER: Well, the first option would be to sell it or break it up and sell it. That’s what I would do.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: You wouldn’t bother with trying to stick with this behemoth?

ERIC BEECHER: Well, the problem is, if you owned 100 per cent of it and there wasn’t a share market to deal with, yeah, you could do lots of things with it. You could actually say, as the New York Times does and to some extent the Washington Post, the journalism is the centre of the fabric of what we do and that comes first and we’ll deal with the profits separately in some way, but whilst you’ve got a share register which is just open like there’s, no I don’t think there’s anything you can do.

So there you go, a self-proclaimed champion of the cause of quality journalism in Australia, and publisher of that quality online site, Crikey, telling us to roll over and die. We won’t be throwing in the towel.

CEO Kirk was keen to elaborate on this theme mentioned by proprietor Beecher of the restraints imposed on quality journalism by the public company structure of Fairfax without the benefit of a capital structure that separates voting shares from ordinary shares (which is the type of structure in place for The New York Times, the Washington Post and News Corporation, among others). He said at one point:

Some critics of Fairfax Media point to News Corporation as an example of what should be done to continue to promote quality journalism. I am an admirer of Mr Murdoch and News for all their achievements. But it is critical to recognise that News Corp’s publishing business, because of its corporate structure, scale and voting stock, is simply not subject to the same market requirements for performance as is Fairfax Media.

What Mr Kirk did not refer to is the very similar treatment that the stock market has given to the two media companies despite their different structures. This graph shows the relative performances over the last year for both of them. It is not a pretty sight for either.

A sticky business. In these days of tightened advertising budgets an election campaign can be a godsend for the media and so it has been in Canberra this last week. There has been an absolute bombardment of commercials on the tele and I can even remember that some of them have had something negative to say about someone or other. And then this morning a great effort by the Fairfax owned Canberra Times to get its sticky fingers on a little extra of the political party loot. This morning’s edition came equipped with one of those sticky backed bits of paper pasted slap bang over the masthead.

“Don’t risk it” read the sticker which, on examining the small print, I discovered was what the Labor Party had been saying about the local Liberals in one of those negative commercials I vaguely remembered. “Liberals – divided and desperate” was the message.

A once great newspaper must be desperate for a dollar was what occurred to me although the paper’s editor Peter Fray was quickly on the local radio to say the paper had not “nailed its political colours to the mast”. It was just a commercial decision sold at the normal advertising rate. Anything, it appears, can be attached to the Canberra Times masthead. “From our point of view it could have been David Jones or Myer just as it could have been the Liberal Party or Labor or the Greens,” is how he put it.

Peter Fray

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