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Jan 22, 2009

How does The Age publish a column ‘in error’? Here’s how

Part of the lesson of the Backman controversy is about the continuing importance of sound sub-editorial judgement, writes Margaret Simons.

Picture The Age newsroom at the end of silly season. To be clear, picture it on the afternoon and evening of Friday 16 January, the day on which the column by Michael Backman made its way in to print resulting, as I reported yesterday, in horror, embarrassment and apology.

Today more details of how the column made its way to print have come to light. The account below has been stitched together from half a dozen sources observing the action, although several of those who know most are not talking.

It’s not putting it too strongly to say they are devastated by the events of the last week.

This is, as newsroom stories so often are, a story of cock-up and not conspiracy.

Here is the scene. Key people are on holiday, including the business editor, Michael Short, who has extended his leave by another week, leaving a hole to be filled. The editor of the paper, Paul Ramadge, is also on holiday.

The staff are in any case depleted and demoralised — hoping for the best for the newspaper, yet reading daily about the demise of the business model that has throughout their careers subsidised their journalism. Just two days before, this report had predicted more dramatic falls in classified advertising. There have been redundancies. More are expected.

In the quest for greater efficiencies, sub editors have been reorganised so that most are subbing across the paper — not only in their areas of speciality. On the business desk, a few senior specialist subs remain acting as a check, but most copy is sent to a common pool.

On Friday there was not time to think about the grim prospects for newspapers, or even to winge, because for the silly season it was a big news day and everyone was flat out. An aeroplane had made a crash landing on the Hudson River in New York.

The one day international cricket match between Australia and South Africa was on at the MCG, and the pressure was on to get the latest possible results in to each edition of the paper.

On the business desk, the big story of the day was the continued unravelling of the Storm financial group — a complicated and sensitive yarn that was taking up the bulk of editorial energy.

Nobody in particular was thinking about the time bomb waiting in the copy queue — the regular column by Michael Backman. He had been controversial in the past, but in this case the sub-editors thought the column was a bit strong, but okay to run.

The evening wore on. It was a big paper. The Backman column was read by senior staff, but did not get close attention.

It was only after some of them had left the pressures of the newsroom that key phrases came back to them, and alarm bells rang.

Very late — after the first edition had hit the streets and moments before the deadline for the second — the Saturday editor of the paper, Michael Gordon, was alerted to the fact that the Backman column might be a problem. In the first edition, already out, it was made worse by an inflammatory headline.

If it had been pulled at that stage there would have been a hole in the paper. There was little that could be done in the time available. The headline was rewritten, and the column marked clearly as opinion.

The edition hit the streets and the almost immediately the brown stuff hit the fan. Ramadge returned from holiday to find the Jewish lobby filling his inbox, his message queue and by Monday afternoon, his office. On Tuesday the paper published its apology.

What can be learned from all this? Evenings like last Friday occur in newsrooms all the time. There is a reason one of the leading textbooks on journalism practice has the title The Daily Miracle – as in it’s a miracle there aren’t more stuff ups.

There are meant to be checks and balances in place to make sure that bad stuff doesn’t get in to print.

One of the crucial checks and balances is the sub editors. This is what non-journalists in management so often fail to understand. In a scenario like this, it is the sub-editors you rely on to save you from embarrassment and worse.

In this case, I hear that the subs on the business desk at The Age are still arguing that the Backman column was all right and the Age had no reason to apologise for running it. As anyone who has read the comments on my blog after yesterday’s post can see, they are not alone in this view.

Yet part of the lesson of the Backman controversy is about the continuing importance of sound sub-editorial judgement. The column should surely have been flagged as needing careful treatment.

Another lesson might be how to choose your columnists. This, apparently, was not the first Backman column that needed firm sub-editorial treatment to make sure it could not be seen as racist.

Finally, the column ran on the business pages, yet this was really a piece of commentary on international politics. It had nothing to do with business.

On the normal op-ed pages of the Age, articles dealing with sensitive issues like what is happening in Gaza are subjected to rigorous scrutiny and discussion. The bar is lower in Business.

So these are the events that the Age tried to sum up by saying the column was published “in error”.

You could say nobody was to blame.

You could say everyone was to blame.

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16 thoughts on “How does The Age publish a column ‘in error’? Here’s how

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    This is an important development: advert in the SMH 22nd Jan 2009 which I’ve copied and posted here given the VIP list of names which is extensive. It’s not friendly to Israel. One wonders if such opinion feeds into the stalling of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State given her allegience to the New York diaspora. Just saying, shalom to peace striving lefty greenie beautiful Jews and Arabs everywhere:

  2. Irfan

    Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia call themselves “Islamic states”. But only a wacko holds Muslims responsible for the actions and policies of these states. Why should Jews be held responsible for Israel, even if it is the world’s only self-declared Jewish state? Some nuance please!

  3. The Colonel

    Al Taylor insults crikey readers-most of the comments accompanying Ms Simon’s piece were critical of Israel which cannot be compared to the rediculous Adelaide Institute which is a Hollocaust denier. Big difference.

    There is no link to Blackman’s supposed racist column so it’s difficult to judge it but it is time to call the various Jewish lobby groups on their continued stiffling of any criticism of the Israel government’s actions in Gaza (or indeed-at any other time)

    One who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is , is the long time British and Jewish MP (and minister in several governments) Sir Gerald Kaufman, who in a speech to the UK parliament has likened Israel’s atacks in Gaza as the “nazi solution” (much to the chagrin of Bernard Keane !).Kaufman-a lifelong Zionist, friend of David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir has slammed Israel’s continued declaration of the democratically elected Hamas as a “terrorist” group and says we may as well say those who bravely fought the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were “terrorists” (after all-the Nazi regime was the elected government).

    The powerful and loud Zionist voices-most who choose not to live in Israel, have used the “racist” tag for too long and to often. If they are not accusing those who criticise Israel as being “anti-Semetic”, they call or imply Kaufman or Antony Lowenstein are “self-hating Jews”. when they dare to knock Israeli government actions. Where can one read Blackman’s column. Yesterday’s Age is as rare as hen’s teeth.

    disclosure: The Colonel is a self loving Jew.

  4. JamesK

    Kevboy aka the Loon will be thrilled to discover that the Israelis lost and it was a failed genocide.

    His “brothers” in Gaza have confirmed this. No need to worry about Backman censorship.

    He can be certain of this because its ABC reporting:

    Hamas declares victory in Gaza

  5. Kevin Charles Herbert

    The Colonel: thanx for a reasoned, balanced argument from a self loving Jew……nice one

  6. lazarus

    Have we not heard enough of this story? Boring!

  7. The Colonel

    In Defence of Blackman:
    (thanks for the link JamesK)

    Is Michael Blackman saying these things are true or stating that these are impressions of Jews ?. Certainly I would agree about bombings in the UK s being a result of Mid East/Jewish policies. That doesn’t mean it’s right or good.

    Is he right about “young Israelis” in Katmandu ?. Never been there so I don’t know but does anyone deny that Jews carry this reputation (for good or bad) ?. Yes they do. Similalry-I’ve spent my life -being blond and blue-eyed -hearing “but you don’/t look Jewish !”. As a youngster with my then blond and green-eyed wife on a beach in Spain we were “accused” of being “a Germans Hitler would have been proud of” by Brits for getting to the beach too early and taking the best spot. These stereotype images abound.

    Just as Australia once had a poltical party that decried the “Aboriginal Industry” and claimed they “got 2 pensions”, “sit down money” and every other bogus nonsense. We even had a PM who covertly promoted these sentiments purely for political gain (I doubt he is actually racist)

    Maybe young Israelis do behave badly. Certainly young Aussies do when abroad. Has anyone beem to Gallpoli before booze was banned ?. It was like the gretaest piss-up of all time. Likewise young British backpackers run riot at Kings Cross and Bondi-but they aren’t really that awful. And have you dealt with young German backpackers ?. They are extremely civil and well behaved-on the whole. National characteristics are not a myth and if young Israelis act arogantly-then it’s just a failure of parental training-not a national disgrace.

    There in a nutshell- is a good example of the over-reaction of Jewish lobby groups-that Jews can never be criticised. Blackman has ennunciated the unthinkable and stimulated debate.
    Margaret Simons is right to draw attention to Blackman’s piece but Gawenda ia a wimp for apologising.

  8. Pamela

    Sorry what am I missing here? Are journalists not allowed to criticise Israel? Is there a fatwa on such opinions?
    I have read worse opinions of Islam.
    Perhaps this piece was”snuck” into the business pages because it would never get up on the Opinion page.
    We do Israel no favours by ignoring their warmongering.
    Maybe it is time to name this country for the Rogue State it has become.

  9. AI Taylor

    “As anyone who has read the comments on my blog after yesterday’s post can see, they are not alone in this view.”

    I read the blog comments, and wondered if I’d walked into a branch meeting of the Adelaide Institute by mistake


    As a 200% certified philo-Semite who admires Israel, wishes we had more Jews in Australia and wouldn’t mind if 50,000 people had been killed in Gaza if there was a good chance that the running sore in the Middle East was likely to be cured, what worries me is the damage done to Israel and its support in the West by the ridiculous reactions of Rubenstein, Leibler and other lobbyists as evidenced by many comments on this blog. Take a cool look at a pretty standard piece of opinion journalism, no more tripe than most, and expressing a point of view with some, if thin, evidence, that many share in large part.

    Israel and its supporters ought to be grateful for the setting out so clearly for them what problems they face in winning the world’s opinions even if they wouldn’t think much of the main point which was to suggest that Israel has made Palestinians greater enemies than they had to be. The anecdotes about young (often recently ex-IDF) Israelis in Nepal? Just a commonplace observation and highly relevant if anyone is seriously interested in why Palestinians might find a lot of Israelis hard to take. (Even our sainted professional soldiers in East Timor were not universally regarded as friendly nurse maids and My Lai and Abu Greib are reminders of what young men – and women – from civilised countries can do).
    The reference to “punishment for killing Jesus” was only a “careless” way of putting his point about Muslims, unlike Christians over comparable long periods, not having a religious problem with Jews/Israel if you factor in the hypersensitivity which means that many Jews and self-censors in the media will find a way of interpreting something that isn’t as clear as a mathematical formula as anti-Jewish. Read it without that starting point and it is just a way of illustrating his point. Continued…,,,