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.”
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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