Not much has happened over the past few days to inspire confidence in the future — or for that matter present — of Australian newspaper journalism.

First off we had Fairfax director and major shareholder John B. Fairfax musing enigmatically at the Melbourne Press Club awards last Friday night. Quality journalism, according to this steward of a once proud family publishing tradition, was either a piece of meat, a well executed backhand or a pavlova. At no stage in Mr Fairfax’s metaphor-strewn oration (read it here) did he mention anything approaching a constructive approach to new media, or respond convincingly to how his newspapers might effectively prosecute their charge of providing quality content while being stripped of every conceivable resource including, most important, their staff.

Mr Fairfax concluded:

…as you no doubt have perceived, the effort to define quality in journalism is a challenge. Quality is endless. Writing and reading are endless processes of looking and weighing but never concluding. We need to apply gumption. It is not unlike Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, who, when ruling in a p-rnography case, famously wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced … but I know when I see it”.

Presumably Mr Fairfax may not readily recognize quality journalism, but he will know it when he has removed its resources and separated its egg whites.

Today we have News Limited Chief John Hartigan addressing the Right To Know conference in Sydney. Addressing media professionals and interested related parties on the subject of the press and privacy must have been a unique challenge for Mr Hartigan this week, coming as it does on the heels of revelations from the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Herald Sun and others that the photos they so triumphantly brandished one Sunday ago were not Pauline Hanson nude, or for that matter Pauline Hanson at all. This bold foray into the furthermost reaches of the journalistic gutter hardly made a compelling argument for continued journalistic self regulation in privacy matters.

Mr Hartigan however, was unbowed: “The freedom we are asking for carries enormous responsibilities,” he said this morning. “The media does make mistakes and, in fact, some of our newspapers did last week. There will be mistakes in the future, but my 40-odd years working as a journalist, I can say with conviction that most mistakes happen because journalists are fallible like everyone else and very rarely do these mistakes come about because of malice, or an arrogant disregard by the media.”

Rarely is right. And it would be a bold media baron indeed who suggested that the events of the past fortnight did not neatly match all those criteria.

Peter Fray

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