Gerard Henderson: how I was sacked by The Age

Wednesday, 8 June, 2005

We asked Gerard Henderson what he thinks of The Age, and why his weekly op-ed column no longer appears in the paper. Here’s his reply:

I have long held the view that The Age is the most left-wing newspaper in Australia — in a sense, its culture is set by Michael Leunig. I have spent most of my life in Melbourne and I am very familiar with The Age. During the time when left-wing views were more prevalent than they are today, The Age’s ethos worked well enough — in a commercial sense. However, Australia is more conservative than it was in The Age’s heady days in the 1970s and it seems to me that, for its commercial success, the paper needs to be better balanced and less cynical. My current concern is that the appointment of Andrew Jaspan — a man of the left, judged by his performance on The Observer in London and The Sunday Herald in Scotland — has moved The Age even further to the left.

This is evident in The Age’s commentary on the Iraq War (including Leunig’s vicious anti-Americanism), its coverage of the 30th anniversary of the communist victory in South Vietnam and the appointment of new columnists (eg. Sushi Das who, in her inaugural column on Thursday 5 May 2005, depicted Australia as a racist nation — this put-down was based on the evidence of her phone conversations with two estate agents). There are many more such examples – including the fact that The Age ran two articles on its opinion page (by left-wing historian Ross McMullin and by columnist Tony Parkinson) bagging Alexander Downer’s Earle Page Lecture on the Left and foreign policy — but not one article which supported the foreign minister in any way at all.

In my view, turning The Age into “The Guardian on the Yarra” is bad for the political debate in Australia. It is also a counter-productive commercial decision — since contemporary Australia’s capital cities are too small to sustain a left-wing broadsheet like The Guardian – or, indeed, a conservative broadsheet like The Telegraph in London.

The answer to your second question — why did The Age drop my column which had run every Tuesday since late 1992 — is: I don’t know. I have never met, spoken to, or corresponded with Andrew Jaspan. When I was in Houston, Texas, on Thursday 28 April, I received a call in the evening from The Age’s opinion page editor Mark Baker. He informed me that — on the instruction of Mr Jaspan — he was ringing to advise me that The Age would no longer run my weekly column. Mr Baker said that this decision had “nothing to do” with the “quality of the column” or with my “ability as a writer.” He then gave two reasons for the decision — one of which turned out to involve a serious misunderstanding and another which turned out to be manifestly false.

If you want to know why I was dropped from The Age, you should ask Andrew Jaspan. I understand that editors can hire and fire as they please. Even so, I was genuinely surprised by the evident lack of professionalism in the way this matter was handled and by the fact that Mr Jaspan lacked the courage to speak to me directly. It is ironic that some editors — who lecture at large about the need for honesty, transparency, good governance and professionalism — do not practise what they preach in their editorials.

As indicated, I have no particular knowledge why I was dropped by The Age. However, I do have an opinion, which — so far — no-one has challenged. Namely, that Mr Jaspan does not want to publish my views in The Age.

My last three columns published by The Age would seem to have offended Mr Jaspan’s leftist world-view. I wrote, in succession:

  1. That the left’s hero Bert Evatt, not the Catholic conservative Bob Santamaria, was primarily responsible for the Labor Split in 1955.
  2. That Australia’s involvement in World War I was justified in terms of Australia’s national interest — as understood, at the time, by social democrats and conservatives alike. (In this column I criticised the leftist mythology of Eric Bogle — who is much admired by Michael Leunig. Mr Leunig subsequently wrote an article in The Age bagging Australians who had served in all wars and praising Eric Bogle).
  3. That Australia’s commitment in Vietnam was justified, contrary to the claims of such leftists as John Pilger and the late Jim Cairns.

None of the three columns has been placed on The Age’s website archives for columnists.

Previous editors and opinion page editors of The Age consistently praised my contribution to the newspaper. In view of the lack of explanation for the decision to drop my column — during, or following, the evening phone call to Houston — I can only assume that Mr Jaspan considers it inappropriate to publish my opinions. I guess my views do not fit with Andrew Jaspan’s apparent intention to turn The Age into “The Guardian on the Yarra.”

In conclusion, I should state that my weekly column continues to run in both the Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.