An extraordinary attack on popular Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman by The Courier-Mail
has exposed the bullying tactics and simmering tensions between politics and an incestuous media environment in the one-paper town.
The newspaper used its editorial
on Monday to deplore the Liberal mayor’s “increased arrogance” and “Napoleonic tendencies” in trying to manage an announcement on the opening of the city’s landmark cross-city road tunnels. But a leading academic and political staffers at all levels of government told Crikey
it goes to the paper’s dominance and arrogance in the market.
According to The Courier Mail
, the Mayor’s media office demanded front-page treatment for a story on when the tunnel would be open. Quotes from the Mayor had to be included, opposition comment excluded, and any “negative connotations” within the story had to be verified.
But the mayor’s media office -- led by former Courier Mail
journo Michael Corkill -- told Crikey
it was editor David Fagan who personally offered the exclusive over coffee with staff. The demands amounted to “our understanding of these offers”.
The Courier Mail
went to the tunnel proponent to get news of the opening -- which council agreed to release -- and reneged on its demands for an exclusive. “We made it clear that if we were to be cut from our own announcement we would release the information that night before the 6pm news,” Corkill said. The paper published the news on its website, killing its own exclusive, at 5:20pm.
The relationship is now at a nadir, though tensions have simmered for years (as Media Watch detailed
in 2008). Both sides seem to be in agreement on the biggest problem: as The Courier Mail
wrote on Campbell, “he wants things all his way or not at all”. Political staffers say the same applies to working with the paper.
One reporter told Crikey
how much of a “pleasure” it was working on state government stories because the council -- the largest in Australia -- is so difficult to deal with. They claim councillors are shielded from the media, requests for comment are ignored (yet journalists are berated for not including a response) and advisors set about killing stories at first glance. (Other journalists, however, claim to have a productive relationship with the office.)
But the complaints are numerous against the The Courier Mail
. One political staffer points to an increasing “paranoia” over losing stories to Fairfax’s Brisbane Times
website, particularly now Fairfax owns Brisbane’s only commercial talk radio station 4BC. Another insider highlights the exodus of dozens of seasoned reporters from the paper -- many moving across the corridor to The Australian
bureau -- leaving The Courier Mail
with younger, less experienced reporters.
“There’s been situations in the past where they’ve made it overtly obvious they better not read it anywhere else,” said one political adviser.
A state government flack says the paper has threatened “three-page spreads” of negative coverage if it doesn’t get the scoop. “If they want something they get something,” they said. They believe the Courier
took it upon themselves to oppose premier Peter Beattie’s reign because the Nationals-led coalition was so weak. While much of the balance has been restored in parliament, “that mindset continues.”
And then there’s the man at the top. According to one insider, Fagan favours his friends in awarding promotions: “They call them FODs -- Friends Of David.”
Fagan has been at the helm of the Courier
for more than seven years -- a lengthy period compared to other News Limited editors. One former staffer says rumours point to his end being nigh: “My mail is he’ll be out of there by the end of the year.”
Fagan and his wife, former News Limited journalist turned ABC Radio presenter Madonna King, form a “media bloc” in the city, says one insider. Crikey
understands problems between the Courier
and the council started during the last election when King gave the Labor candidate half-hour of airtime but denied Campbell the right to respond.
It’s understood the council has previously lodged a formal complaint against King with the ABC but the matter was dismissed after review. Asked to answer the complaints, Fagan said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to respond to Crikey
University of Queensland journalism professor Michael Bromley says the state’s monopolistic environment -- dominated at local council level by the country’s most powerful mayor, and News titles including the Gold Coast Bulletin
, Townsville Bulletin
and a slew of local freebies -- breeds bullies.
“It’s a state of ones, it’s a state of a lack of competition,” he told Crikey
. “It’s intrinsic that when you have a lack of competition, a lack of alternative voices, a lack of diversity, the temptation is always to push your weight around. It would be an exceptional editor to reign in that situation.”
That culture is rife at News Limited, Bromley believes. Editors are selected -- “not necessarily on a rational basis” -- and remain in the job because they share the ethos and deliver results. “If Rupert Murdoch was running The Courier Mail
I don’t think it would be run much differently,” he said.
And, perhaps most worryingly, “not many Queenslanders baulk at it”.