Partly by default and partly by design, The Australian is this country’s best newspaper.
But its great strengths are compromised by many flaws and seriously compromised by one big obsession. The flaws are idiosyncratic, erratic and often harmless. The obsession is fervid and relentless.
The Australian’s great obsession is with itself. It is narcissism of the kind that can’t be found in any other substantial English-language newspaper. Not only is this entrenched narcissism deeply embarrassing, it regularly undermines the paper’s otherwise legitimate credentials as a purveyor of serious journalism.
Almost no publication day passes without The Australian writing about itself, quoting itself, defending itself, congratulating itself, praising its writers, glorifying its proprietor, assailing its competitors or flailing at the shadows of its perceived enemies. On almost any random day it carries more references to itself in its own pages than any other respectable newspaper does in a month.
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Today, for example, it publishes a defence of itself against other media (including Crikey) on its news pages, and a leader defending itself against criticism from ABC broadcaster Jon Faine on the editorial page.
If there is a key to The Australian’s manic self-absorption, it lies in the idea of campaigning. At other newspapers and TV networks, campaigning journalism is one of the highest forms of participating in the disclosure responsibility of the fourth estate. At The Australian, even though many of its campaigns are important and effective, the campaign often seems to be as much a statement about itself as it is about the subject it is covering.
Over recent weeks the paper has been embroiled in a “campaign” to reveal information about the activities of Victoria’s Chief Police Commissioner and to attack the state’s Office of Police Intergrity — a campaign that has coincided with the OPI litigating against The Australian itself. Of course, The Australian denies there is any link or vendetta involved, but this is far from the first occasion in which the newspaper finds itself “reporting” negatively about individuals or organisations with whom it has ideological, legal, personal, political or commercial disputes.
In many cases these “campaigns” last for months or years and create the clear impression that this is a newspaper with an active enemies list that is pursued vigorously under the pretext of objective journalism. And, one might add, pursued by an editor and his loyal reporters and columnists who, when they wind themselves up, act more like members of a cult than members of a journalistic institution.
The Australian’s obsession with itself is sad. Not for the insecurity or pretentiousness it reveals about itself, but because, partly by default and partly by design, The Australian is this country’s best newspaper.