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Jun 22, 2011

Mitchell and The Oz (part II): 'it's now war' with the government

Several people close to The Australian say the paper is looking strident on many fronts. And as government tensions escalate one declares "it's now war". Crikey continues its profile of the national broadsheet under editor Chris Mitchell.


Blood pressure was boiling at The Australian last month. Respected Melbourne reporter Cameron Stewart was sitting on a scoop about problems with Australia’s largest defence contract and the time had come to put some tough questions to the government. But Canberra wasn’t playing the game.

Instead of dutifully responding to the questions in person, Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s office opted to reveal the problems direct to the parliament in question time, thereby ruining the paper’s “exclusive” planned for the following day. According to one insider, some of the senior editorial team inside the paper’s Sydney headquarters were “livid”.

But while they ranted about the injustice, others quietly noted the paper had it coming. As one person close to the action told Crikey: “They have only themselves to blame. After all, it’s now war.”

Yesterday, Crikey revealed how Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been attempting his own fight back. Despite claims from the paper that peace reigns, Conroy has reserved the right to repeat the tactic of publicly revealing his answers to questions from The Oz to the entire press gallery if he thinks it is pursuing a story that isn’t legitimate.

The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell told Crikey the Defence Minister apologised to Stewart, although it’s understood this was closer to an expression of regret from a ministerial adviser than a grovelling mea culpa from the government. Crikey also understands the decision to answer Stewart’s questions in parliament involved other MPs and not just Smith, and that the minister’s office was taken aback by the level of paranoia at The Australian following the incident.

Several people close to The Australian say the paper is looking strident. Some regret the way good stories become tainted by political agendas underpinning the coverage. Others are annoyed that strong stories lose traction because they’re perceived to be ideological.

The strategy from Mitchell to carve out a distinctive voice has been deliberate; he’s publicly declared a “centre-right” position, partly as a result of the left-wing ground he believes Fairfax papers pursue. But insiders say, over time, the editorial line has taken over so that it now drives at least some of the actual news content.

“It became a reflexive way of doing business to run news stories from the editorial line so that a strategy that once made some sense has become corrupted,” they say, pointing out “stories that are commissioned that are not really news stories”. Instead of people being instructed to go and find a story, they’re told what the story is that they’ll be writing.

Several members of the leadership group around Mitchell have been together for a long time. This group sets the tone, the source says, and tends to echo itself so that it is rarely challenged by different opinions.

Another insider, who has taken part in the paper’s daily news conferences, has likened the participants to the dogs you see in the back of cars that incessantly wobble their heads — everyone is busy agreeing with the prevailing view. “No one sticks their head up and vigorously argues for a softer position,” they said.

Others point out that readers find it hard to identify genuine stories when the paper is perceived to be driven by vendettas. An example: the many recent stories about the ructions in the Victorian Police Force have often covered important ground, but they can rarely be read on face value. Credibility was damaged when Mitchell made an extraordinary threat last year to “use every journalistic and legal measure available” against Victoria’s Office of Police Integrity (OPI) and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity because it didn’t get its way on an inquiry into the paper’s coverage of a terror raid.

At the time Police Commissioner Simon Overland was highly critical of The Oz’s coverage because he believed it jeopardised the safety of his officers. Despite all this history — or perhaps because of it — senior writer Hedley Thomas entered the arena with a story attacking Overland by rehashing allegations made many months earlier in The Age. The coverage looked tawdry and self-serving.

Mitchell also has his supporters. The paper’s former chief correspondent in Canberra, Steve Lewis, is one of them. He says Mitchell has done “an outstanding job with the national broadsheet”. He disagrees with the view, expressed by others, that the paper has become increasingly zealous in spruiking Tony Abbott at the expense of Labor. Lewis cites occasions when The Australian used to rile the Howard government, too.  The only direction he was ever given as a reporter was to “break stories”, Lewis told Crikey — in five years he says he was never told to take a certain line on a particular story.

“He’s one of the outstanding editors in Australia,” Lewis said. “He really wanted The Australian to stand for something.”

Mitchell has taken a stand on many things. But for intensity, no topic compares to climate change.

An example: on May 17  The Australian published a story under the heading “Summer of disaster ‘not climate change‘”, which strongly suggested the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, had ruled out any link between human-induced climate change and Queensland’s recent floods and cyclones. But a quick read of the story reveals Pachauri actually said it was very difficult to prove or disprove a connection, based on data from one or two seasons. He certainly hadn’t discounted the possibility of a link and made the point there is an “aggregate impact of climate change on all these events, which are taking place at much higher frequency and intensity all over the world”. Was this just over-zealous headline writing by an eager subeditor or something more deliberate?

Greens leader Bob Brown describes The Australian’s misreporting as “extraordinary” but believes this kind of “verballing” is not uncommon. In fact, he’s been keeping a dossier on the topic. In January he requested the parliamentary library investigate how many times the paper had mentioned the Greens or himself in editorials over the previous decade and how many of these mentions were favourable, neutral or negative. The findings are revealing.

There were 252 editorials over that period. Of these, 188 were negative, 59 were neutral (because they expressed no opinion) and only five — or 2% — were positive. The report stipulated the positive editorials were “not glowing endorsements, but rather simple agreement with a statement that they [the Greens] had made”.

In an editorial on September 9 last year, The Australian even went so far as to say the Greens should be destroyed:

“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 editorial preceded a statement by The Australian’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who told a conference in October the Greens were a threat to national prosperity. “Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up,” he said.

Brown says of the paper: “I think they editorialise from the front page back to the letters column.” Others have quipped that the paper’s editorial line even extends to the sports pages now. It certainly seemed that way during the Melbourne Storm fiasco last year, when all the News Limited newspapers were reporting on a club and a football league owned by their own proprietor.

So now Brown is fighting back too. He has labelled The Oz part of the “hate media” and has taken to throwing questions about News Limited’s editorial standards back at the company’s reporters. He has also noticed changes in the way journalists from The Australian’s press gallery operate.

He says there are always three or four reporters from The Oz at his press conferences and believes “there’s a bit of teamwork there”: “So they may or may not be under instruction from Chris Mitchell but there’s certainly a strategy being worked out within their office in the way they approach those press conferences. On occasion they are half of the contingent at a press conference.”

Curiously, Brown says the reporters sometimes tell him that Mitchell wants to see him: “On each occasion I’ve said that I would very much like to see him. You have my phone number and my door is open but I never hear another thing. I don’t know whether the presumption is that he’s waiting for me to request an interview, but if that’s the case, it will be a long wait. I am free and open to everybody but I’m not in pursuit of a fair go by The Australian, because I’ve long since got past that.”

In response, Mitchell told Crikey: “On the Greens, The Oz covered the Greens seriously and fairly throughout last year’s election campaign. We gave Greens policies an airing that was not reflected in other papers and I believe Senator Brown would acknowledge that. We also publish several Greens on the op-ed page on a semi-regular basis.”

The Australian under Mitchell’s editorship is reminiscent of the Herald Sun in the 1990s when it was under the control of Piers Akerman. Back then the Melbourne tabloid became so ideologically driven that a campaign was born, based on the slogan “Is that the truth, or did you read it in the Herald Sun?”.

It’s telling that protests about The Australian don’t have the same intensity. This isn’t because its editorial stance is less virulent. Instead it reflects the fact the coverage is not just aimed at one state government but spread across so many targets. Also, it indicates the relatively tiny circulation of the national broadsheet compared to the biggest-selling tabloid in the country.

*Read part one of Andrew Dodd’s profile on Chris Mitchell and The Australian here


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41 thoughts on “Mitchell and The Oz (part II): ‘it’s now war’ with the government

  1. Pete from Sydney

    There was a strong suspicion that campaign… “Is that the truth, or did you read it in the Herald Sun?” was born down at Spencer Street…

  2. Michael Harvey

    An apology from the Australian to our only politician with balls and integrity, Bob Brown, would be a first step in admitting that the editor in chief is wrong about climate change, in particular the role of CO2 in the acidification of the oceans and the impact on the food chain. What a disgrace this newspaper is.

  3. david

    [The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell told Crikey the Defence Minister apologised to Stewart, ]

    In your dreams Mitchell. There is no way on Gods earth Minister Smith would stoop to apologise to your rag. He has too much integrity and honesty to say or do anything that would require an apology to the likes of you and most of your unprofessional yobo jurnos

  4. Mort

    The Australian is just the Liberal party’s newsletter these days.

  5. Moz

    Steve Lewis on integrity. It can only be a matter of time before he reveals the Julia Gillard Order of Lenin.

  6. klewso

    I think this government’s got a damned cheek – after all isn’t the country run on “Murdoch Time”?

  7. deconst

    The bias of the Australian is well-documented. What isn’t strongly analysed is how the Australian claims they are only applying “scrutiny” and thus their biased reporting of the Greens should be welcomed. I’d like some good reporting showing how empty such claims of “scrutiny” are.

  8. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    “He’s one of the outstanding editors in Australia,” Lewis said. “He really wanted The Australian to stand for something.”

    Here’s a thought for the geniuses at the Oz. How about The Australian stands for truth, justice and (for the heck of it) the Australian Way – rather than placating Chris Mitchell’s personal demons? That’s what the readers expect, don’t they? To be precise, that’s what the remaining readers expect.

    Seriously, his vendetta against Bob Brown, and Manning Clark before that, is as obsessive as any UFOlogist camping outside Area 51 with a Geiger counter in his hand.

    By the way, that Herald Sun line’s now become “Is that the truth, or is your News Limited?”

  9. klewso

    Where was Steve Lewis when he was giving that glowing character reference? Sitting in the back of a ute?

  10. klewso

    There’s “scrutiny” and then there’s “screwtiny”.

  11. rossco

    I wonder what will happen with the Australian when Rupert departs the scene, either through retirement or death. He is 80 now so surely he can’t go on forever. Rupert is prepared to keep it going as it was his creation and supposedly gives him influence on the national stage what for the future? Will a new management regime be willing to maintain a low circulation, loss making newspaper or write it off?
    Given the general malaise with the traditional form of newspaper it is hard to see a long term future for the Australian. Putting it behind a paywall won’t solve the problem.

    Maybe Mitchell et al have also thought about their future and this is why they are so strident and appear bitter and twisted.

  12. Peter

    Is that “the” Steve Lewis? Never heard of him.

  13. shepherdmarilyn

    Over the past 4 years the OO has written more about a tiny number of refugees arriving by sea than a couple of hundred books could have but almost none of it reflects facts.

    They have written numerous editorials about pushing them away, sending them anywhere but here and Steve Lewis has been at the forefront of the hate campaign in the Terror.

    Now our generosity has been shown to be the biggest load of old cobblers – .2% of refugees and 46th on world scale – maybe the punters might demand some truth.

  14. wayne robinson

    I used to read the Australian. Eventually its bias got too much for me and I cancelled my subscription. They refuse to publish critical comments even on its website, preferring instead to publish innumerable illiterate supportive comments, in particular anything to do with denying climate change. The Sunday Times, also a Murdoch paper, doesn’t have quite the same bias and is happy to publish critical comments.

  15. Delerious

    I don’t like newspapers who have a front page of opinions with very little news. The last time I was in a country where I actually enjoyed every newspaper I picked up was in New Zealand. It was like a breath of fresh air after years of Murdoch’s opinion ramming.

  16. Michael

    THE AUSTRALIAN is the finest tabloid in the land.
    Thank goodness for this precious messenger.
    Always objective, always interesting, always relevant.
    Andrew Dodd’s problem is that the Oz would never employ him – can’t spell, can’t write.

  17. Richard Pennycuick

    I read The Oz from when it started (1964, I think). About a month ago, I finally became so fed up with its blatant Liberal proselytising that I stopped buying it. I miss the cartoons but other than that, I’m happy to do without it. It used to be a great paper. Sad, really.

  18. Peter

    I tried to get the Australian app the other day – to save on paper. Despite the ads in the paper, the people at subscriptions put me through to the IT department! There they told me that they were embarrassed with their app and to give them a few more months to improve it.
    It must be really tough on people such as Mark Day. They must wonder why they are there. As they say “the company you keep”. The disgusting and biased Overland reporting which I suspect was spread between journalists to cover the relentless hounding, has done nothing other than to convince me that he is as pure as the driven snow. Just let’s see the editorial staff bury/ignore the eventual findings. I swear the only involvement I have with the paper is as a reader. I have no personal axe to grind. Sure I can stop buying the paper and I probably will. I just like it for a couple of sections/people. I am almost there. It’s made all the more ludicrous with the Murdoch attacks on the ABC.

  19. brett.gaskin

    This is from “Jack the Insider”, one of the few reasonable journos at the Australian, talking in relation to the dire state of our political arena – “There are no precedents for this in democracies anywhere on earth. Here we are a resource-rich country, an economy the envy of the world but with plenty of challenges that require public policy attention and yet the national interest is continually subverted by partisan politics and laughable attempts at point-scoring that often blow up in the face of those trying to win a few cheap points”.

    Somewhat hilarious that someone from the Australian actually states – “the national interest is continually subverted by partisan politics”. I did leave a comment asking Jack if the media had any responsiblity for the current state of affairs, and in particular his own masthead.

  20. Brendan

    why would anyone waste the effort to comment on such a one eyed, bigoted propagandist for the Libs – Abbotts mouthpiece on behalf of Rupert isn’t worth the intellectual effort

  21. Kevin Herbert

    Down & Out of Saigon:

    Your “Is that the truth, or is your News Limited?” is a corker.

    I altered the Fox News slogan of:

    ‘We report – You decide’


    ‘We distort – you deride’.

  22. Peter Evans

    The Australian’s position, echoing Murdoch’s has been for a long time: “men of means run business, and men of means should run government.” Any number of gormless journalists can be seduced into going along with that by showing them a little “big man” attention. The paper just abhors the idea that government could be run for any other reason than to funnel money into the coffers of the wealthy. Ironically, now that all government is 95% catering to the expectations of big business, the paper need not worry itself!

  23. rubiginosa

    Under Chris Mitchell’s tenure, The Australian has emerged as a relentlessly partisan; innumerate and anti-science; anti-inner city, progressive, (you know the rest); fractious culture warrior. Any loon can get an op-ed published if it attacks climate science or The Greens (Monckton, Nova, Melleuish, Moore), but mainstream scientists are ignored. It has a surprising amount of time and energy to indulge its obsessions with Simon Overland, Larissa Behrendt, Bob Brown, Manning Clark, Deborah Cameron, Stephen Conroy, Barrie Cassidy, Grogs Gamut — to name but a few — and of course its obsession with itself.

    The Glass Jaw of the Nation.

  24. The_roth

    I’ve blacklisted News limited product and have done for 2 years – result a life unsullied by limited News and huge agenda.

    To claim that Fairfax is left leaning is laughable, it smell distinctly like the Fox v so called liberal media in the states, I suppose Rupert likes to syndicate everything from his Empire.

  25. Robin

    Did you see in the Media section of the Daily Filth (the Australian) today the article praising media watch for pointing out the the Fairfax papers seem to editorialise about climate change in their news articles, unlike them who don’t “allow our editorial stance to infect news coverage would be to cross the line from journalism to advocacy.” Hypocrisy, cant and humbug in spades.

  26. joe2

    Andrew, I congratulate you for these two brave articles and hope to hear more from you on the subject. Indeed, it is just the kind of thing Crikey should do more of, as we are surely not about to see it anywhere else with such an incestuous little bunch of ‘media insiders’ calling the political shots.

    “Is that the truth, or is your News Limited?” Where can I buy the bumper sticker?

  27. AR

    A government apologising to a newspaper would be grasping the wrong end of a faecal stick – I wouldn’t approve no matter how mild the regret.
    News is what someone doesn’t want published, everything else is advertising.
    Not only should Brown not approach Mudorc’s minions but when, not ‘if’, the finally come grovelling to his office he should ensure that every recording device known to technology is running. I’d volunteer to be there with stone tablets & a chisel if necessary to avoid any misremembering.

  28. Tom

    Read Tanner’s ‘Sideshow’, it explains beautifully why and for whom they do as they do.

  29. Kevin Herbert


    I’m with you.

    Where can we buy that bumper sticker????

  30. mikeb

    Ah yes – Piers Akerman and the Herald Sun “Is that the truth, or did you read it in the Herald Sun?”.

    This hack still “contibutes” to my local daily rag & I used to read his column for a laugh, but the bile that makes it’s way to print has proven too much for me. He makes Bolt look like a fair and reasoned commentator.

    The Oz used to be my paper of choice but I’m sick of the bias in repporting and cannot rely on what is news and what is opinion. It is meant to be a NEWSpaper after all.

  31. Michael

    A lot of Fairfax hacks on Crikey, yes?
    There’s a common theme developing on this thread and it ain’t pretty.
    The fact is that most of you would give your right testicle or left tit to work at News Ltd but you just ain’t got the ability or the class.
    Let’s see what you all say when Gina buys Fairfax and throws you all out the door.

  32. Woody

    The “ability or the class” to work at News Limited????

    Oh, Michael. That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. Thank you.

  33. Kevin Herbert

    Sorry AR, I meant JOE 2 when asking hwere can I buy that bumper sticker.

    Note to all: remember, Chris Mitchell will read these posts & will put into his bomb site target for future reference, any person he can identify.

    Apparently his sensitivity to any criticism of his tenure borders on the hysterical.

  34. gtpfb13

    Herald Sun – Stories Start Here.
    (Because we make them up)

  35. Brendan

    Did anyone notice that the Daily TelaLie didn’t mention a word about Fielding pulling the rug from under Abbotts stunt (or Baldrick like devilishly cunning plan) on the plebescite despite the previous days pontifications regarding thwe right of the people to have their say. I don’t recall their protestations regarding right to have a say on Work Choices.
    Also brilliant to see Abbotts confusion when questioned on whether he would abide by an outcome in support of a Carbon tax.
    Obviously the hypocrite partners, Mitchell and Abbott are as one on the intelligence scale i.e. if brains were dynamite, they could’nt blow their nose.
    And as usual with typical bullies, both are too gutless to front serious quetioning from non friendly serious journo’s as opposed to the a*** licking bigots employed by Mitchell

  36. B.Tolputt

    “Let’s see what you all say when Gina buys Fairfax and throws you all out the door.”

    Yes, because that’ll prove they must have been biased. The woman behind Bolt getting his own televised “two minutes of hate”… some people don’t even read their comments before posting.

  37. Michael

    Beautifully written BRENDAN – you’re from Fairfax?

  38. Chris Graham

    The assault on Larissa Behrendt… say no more.

  39. Eric Sykes

    Mitchell is a extreme far rightist, he has always been thus. He views himself in the tradition of the Fleet Street far right – Beaverbrook particularly. He is a real serious threat to anything remotely like open professional journalism in Australia, he has pretty much destroyed it already. He does not actually need Murdoch to do this, he needs no help or pushing from the boss, in fact I would go as far to say his views, particularly on social welfare and race are further right than the boss. Nothing like decent jopurnalsim will exist anywhere near The Australian until he leaves or retires.

  40. CliffG

    Are there still people prepared to read the plethora of distorted pro Coalition rubbish in “The Australian”? Can’t be many. And why isn’t it named after the nationality of its proprietor, who sold off his Australian citizenship for a world empire?

  41. FunkyJ

    Is yesterday’s article behind the paywall?

    All I get when I click on the link is half the story, BUT it doesn’t tell me I need to subscribe or get a free trial or anything…

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