The Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell claims Julia Gillard has praised the paper’s “fair and balanced coverage”, dismissing renewed criticism from Bob Brown and press gallery veterans over its editorial agenda.

Crikey contacted Mitchell for a response to the Australian Financial Review‘s Laura Tingle who, in her column today, wrote of The Australian‘s “anti-government position” and “ferocious and apparently continuing campaign” against the government’s legitimacy.

Mitchell told Crikey Tingle was the biased one during the campaign, dismissing her as a “Ruddite”. But Tingle says even journalists from within the News Limited bunker have congratulated her for the stance.

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The Australian — a “centre-right” paper as Mitchell once branded it — backed Tony Abbott‘s campaign pre-election and has run a fervent line in many sections against what editor-at-large Paul Kelly called Labor’s “rainbow alliance”.

On Tuesday it devoted its front page to a number of negative stories against the government: ‘Greens alliance threatens Aboriginal wellbeing: Pearson‘; ‘Coalition counts cost of Treasury’s ‘political game’‘; ‘Gillard mine tax ‘to deliver $8bn less than forecast’‘; ‘Smugglers feared Abbott victory‘.

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As Tingle recites, Greens leader Bob Brown was angered by the coverage: “[The paper] sees itself as a determinant of democracy in Australia. It believes it has replaced the people and it’s time to bell the cat. It’s stepped out of the role of the fourth estate to think it’s the determinant of who has seats in the parliament, and it needs to be taken on.”

In response, The Australian delivered an extraordinary spray via its editorial yesterday:

“We believe tax reform equals lower taxes, but we are not sure Labor agrees now that it has to answer to high-taxing Greens and rent-seeking regional independents. Greens leader Bob Brown has accused The Australian of trying to wreck the alliance between the Greens and Labor. We wear Senator Brown’s criticism with pride. We believe he and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box. The Greens voted against Mr Rudd’s emissions trading scheme because they wanted a tougher regime, then used the lack of action on climate change to damage Labor at the election. Their flakey economics should have no place in the national debate. We are particularly tired of Greens senator Christine Milne arguing that “green jobs need a real green economy to grow in”. What on earth can she mean?”

Crikey asked Mitchell to clarify the paper’s call to arms. He responded via email this morning: “I think the editorial refers to them being destroyed ‘at the ballot box’ at some future election. We did not run an editorial on the Greens. We ran a very long editorial on the Labor Party and the Coalition with a couple of pars about the Greens.”

Further, Mitchell claims Gillard had no issue with its coverage:

“The truth is Julia Gillard rang me twice in the last week of the campaign and both times thanked me for our fair and balanced coverage. Check with her office. She did the same in her final interview with Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan.”

Crikey went to Gillard’s office but was told they couldn’t comment on any private conversation.

In her ‘Canberra observed’ column today (locked to subscribers), Tingle highlights a breakdown in the relationship between Mitchell and Kevin Rudd. “As it became clear it [The Australian] would not be put on the drip, Rudd believed, the coverage became more strident,” she writes.

Mitchell told Crikey his relationship with Rudd is “cordial”. “I saw Kevin Rudd several times at Kirribilli House this year in the lead-up to his sacking and have spoken to him, at his call, since he lost the prime ministership,” he said.

“Laura is a Ruddite … I defy you to find one person in the Coalition to describe Laura’s election performance as fair and balanced.”

Tingle laughed when Crikey put the quote to her. She points to a piece she wrote in March exposing the dysfunctional Rudd ‘kitchen cabinet’ — shortlisted for this year’s John Button Prize — as an example of her “dishing it out to both sides”.

“I’d invite anyone to look at my coverage,” she said.

Tingle says many journalists — including some from inside The Australian — have praised her column today. As for whether Gillard’s office has been happy with the coverage from Mitchell’s team: “That’s not what anybody in the government has said to me.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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