Australia’s most influential business newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, has been accused of many things in its 58-year history, but its internal culture of ruthless favouritism and cushy cliques has for the most part escaped scrutiny.

Insiders say Machiavellian editor Glenn Burge, deputy editor Brett Clegg and Clegg’s partner Annabel Hepworth cultivate a curious regime of back scratching and bans worthy of a splash in Clegg’s “anonymous” Prince column. It seems if you cross The Fin‘s inner circle or associate yourself with a “competitor” a funny thing happens — your name stops appearing in key stories.

Exhibit A. Crikey understands editors recently told senior journalists to avoid quoting CommSec analyst Craig James, after James had the temerity to put his name to Peter Switzer’s new online venture Switzer.com.au. James, of course, is a respected pointy head away from his forays into punditry and is regular quoted in other Fairfax outlets. His views on interest rates in particular are highly rated, but apparently not by Burge and Clegg.

Last Wednesday, AFR Rear Window columnist Andrew White went the hack on James, mocking him for a rates pre-prediction on the Sky News Business channel, on which Switzer also appears. James, alongside with nearly every market economist in Australia, had predicted no movement but that didn’t dissuade White, who singled him out for a roasting.

James was also ridiculed in the 7 September edition of Street Talk, where a March prediction of an imminent market dive was dredged up and compared with the “acute sages” from Goldman Sachs who had envisaged an uptick. James was a retrospective dud, Street Talk columnist Jemima Whyte appeared to be saying, which was a bit rich considering the Fin seemed unaware of the Global Financial Crisis right up until the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Switzer told Crikey he wasn’t surprised at the James backlash. He said his personal association with The Weekend Australian, for which he writes a weekend column, could be interpreted as a poisoned chalice.

Exhibit B. In April, leading Sydney spinner John Connolly was taken to task by Clegg in The Prince for an alleged contract to “open doors at the big end of town” on behalf of The Australian. But Connolly’s gig was complete fiction. It appeared Clegg had conflated his weekend motoring column in The Oz for something imminently more nefarious. Crikey understands that months later Connolly, and his high-profile clients, are still subject to an informal Fin fatwa.

Exhibit C. Last Tuesday, AFR readers were treated to yet another curious omission. Burge splashed with a front page story on capital raisings. But the man who has dominated the capital raising debate this year, Crikey founder and former Rear Window columnist Stephen Mayne, went oddly unquoted, apparently on a direct order from Burge underlings. Another report on the ASX AGM noted the flurry of questions asked by Mayne without actually naming him.

Exhibit D. Steve Keen, from the University of Western Sydney, is a widely quoted, world famous economist. It’s true that the avowed Keynesian doesn’t necessarily fit the Fin’s scorched earth world view. But apparent owing to a blog on afr.com rival Business Spectator, Keen is rarely referred to or quoted in articles.

Exhibit E. The war between Business Spectator and the Fin has turned nasty on another front. Last month, Fairfax Business Media chief Michael Gill claimed in The Australian that it had plagiarised slabs of the Fin through the use of its use of Lexis Nexis story extracts, prompting this retort from BS editor Alan Kohler. When Business Spectator was launched media writer Neil Shoebridge told Kohler the words “Business Spectator” would never appear in the paper “either now or ever”.

Exhibit F. Journalists have apparently been told to steer clear from retail king Gerry Harvey and KPMG demographer Bernard Salt because, according to editors, they’re “overexposed”.

So what’s going on?

“The problem with Burge is it has always been about the Sydney investment banking and corporate lawyer set, rather than a broader constituency”, one influential insider told Crikey. “It’s a complete cult, a weird way to run a newspaper and it’s out of step with every other financial daily. [Burge and Clegg] should be focusing on the product, rather than what people say about them.”

As the paper’s circulation tumbles, insiders say a siege mentality has engulfed the newsroom. Burge and Clegg are understood to spend little time at the coalface, preferring to shoot the breeze at upmarket Sydney nosheries with the Caliburn investment banking crew, especially Peter Hunt, Ron Malek and Simon Mordant. Subsequent Fin stories quoting industry “friends” are then monitored by the bankers for bragging rights.

Caliburn was ranked as the number 2 investment bank in the most recent AFR Power Magazine, when the firm, according to insiders, should have been placed somewhere in the 20s. Macquarie’s Michael Carapiet was ranked at number 4, which seems curious given his daughter Lisa Carapiet works as a reporter on the paper.

Clegg is the Millionaires’ Factory other mole — he did time there for a couple of years and the Fin‘s loyalty to the Macquarie Model, even as it collapsed, was only notable only for its glaring omissions.

Crikey emailed Glenn Burge twice for comment on this story but we didn’t hear back before deadline.

DECLARATION: Crikey chairman Eric Beecher is also chairman of Business Spectator, which is mentioned in the story above.

Have you or someone you know been banned by The Fin? Email [email protected] with your tales of woe.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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