News Limited glitter strip flagship the Gold Coast Bulletin is in turmoil after lobbyist-turned-pundit Graham Staerk’s column failed to appear last Friday, apparently over a litany of undeclared conflicts of interest unveiled by Crikey.

Crikey understands that following our exposé two weeks ago on Staerk’s repeated references to current and future clients in his column ‘Staerk Reality’, Bulletin editor and good friend Dean Gould decided to pull the piece under pressure from News Limited headquarters.

To add insult to injury, Staerk’s column, which forensically analysed the direction of the Gold Coast City Council, was temporarily replaced by an opinion piece by Gold Coast Mayor and long-time sparring partner Ron Clarke (not online). Staerk had relentlessly pilloried Clarke since his debut in the Bulletin in February 2008, with some observers sheeting home the vitriol to Clarke’s refusal to hire Staerk after he worked on his successful election bid in 2004.

Clarke’s office said they submitted last week’s piece unsolicited to the Bulletin, and were surprised when it appeared prominently on page 17. But they believed the temporary stop-gap wouldn’t become a regular feature.

According to well-placed News insiders, the decision to offload the column came after a series of high-level interventions by representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s local lieutenant John Hartigan.

After Crikey conducted inquiries into Staerk’s clients mentioned on the Queensland government’s lobbyist register, a disclaimer appeared at the bottom of his last column on June 4 stating: “Graham Staerk is a corporate consultant and registered lobbyist.”

The move will increase pressure on Gould to reverse the paper’s fortunes after a dramatic 3.5% drop in Monday-Friday circulation since December 2008. An expensive redesign in March, focused on making the paper “more contemporary and connected with the community”, has so-far failed to result in a promised turnaround. The paper is believed to have spend around $300,000 on the light and fluffy revamp.

After the fresh masthead was launched, Staerk had his column moved from Saturday to Friday in an attempt to tilt the top-selling weekend edition towards lifestyle concerns, with a special focus on the thousands of new permanent residents that call the coast home each year.

The exodus of a number of veteran staff has also led to several fresh reporters being assigned to important beats.

Acrimony in the one-paper town was flowing freely this morning with one well-placed Council insider claiming “no single agency or individual who does more to diminishing the image of the Gold Coast than the Bulletin“. The source, who did not want to be named, cited a pre-occupation with no-holds-barred sensationalism as working against the interests of citizens and business.

Gould was elevated into the editor’s chair last year following the departure of editor-in-chief Bob Gordon, who had overseen the paper for the previous 13 years after 50 years in journalism. Gould was apparently keen to continue on Gordon’s knockabout history at the paper, capped in his final few weeks as editor-in-chief by a famous front page depicting two bikini models wearing swine flu masks as a warning to readers to cover up.

News Limited is said to have commenced a review of operations in Queensland, with judgment day likely to come during the group’s editors’ conference next month. Gould, Staerk and News Limited spokesperson Greg Baxter did not respond to Crikey‘s queries this morning.

Peter Fray

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