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This article won’t make many friends. But, as a former managing director of David Syme & Co Limited — and for seven years editor-in-chief of The Age — I cannot just sit on my hands any longer.

It’s about the future of the newspaper I ran for more than 19 years and also the state of journalism today. The current shake-up at Fairfax and News does not change my stance.

We all know how the activities of News Corporation have impacted on the status of reporters. Perhaps, though, too little has been made of how it has also built the status and importance of celebrity, and how newscasts, and so-called current affairs have followed. Sanctimonious “tabloid anger” (or feigned indignation) has become normal currency, linked with editorial bullying tactics obvious to those who find themselves out of favour with that particular organisation.

So, the profession of journalism is under the microscope at present with, sadly, too few defenders. Everywhere you look, it seems under threat — and not just because of the excesses of the tabloid newspapers or “tabloid” commercial television coverage.

Indiscriminate cost cutting has reduced the integrity, authority and investigative depth of articles in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (I exempt The Australian Financial Review). With the loss of “institutional memory”, mistakes of editorial judgment are being made daily at Fairfax. This undermines the ability of its so-called “serious” newspapers to provide readers, and those being reported on, with the ultimate requirement of good journalism — fairness.

Balance is not an achievable goal for journalism, and is sometimes a false god. The pro- and the anti- (usually taken to extremes on an important issue) are often “balanced” by articles offered by spin doctors, pressure groups or political opposites. This cost-efficient approach does not allow for realistic discussion. One side is often more rational and informed than the other, to take one example of many, when Holocaust deniers are given equal space to those who can actually prove that the Holocaust did take place.

One problem for me is that I could simply take the view of so many; “a plague on all your houses”. I could just “butt out” of the debate of where newspapers are heading — after all, I had my chance at running David Syme.

However, the situation has become just too serious with the prospect of Gina Rinehart taking board seats on Fairfax Media, and perhaps even gaining control, without respecting, or seemingly understanding, the responsibility inherent in administering newspapers. Particularly those with the history and importance of The SMH, The Age and The AFR, plus their online and other outlets.

It is not that we have not had intrusive proprietors before, but at least then there were more independently owned newspapers with differing editorial stances.

A second problem is that one needs to recognise that for many years now Fairfax has been run with a lack of foresightedness of a level hard to contemplate. Various directors and chairmen seem to have enjoyed their roles without ensuring the No.1 responsibility of boards — a company managed in the interests of the shareholders, with survival and growth as part of the equation. Chief executives have too often failed the basic test of leadership.

For example, the web has for 30 years, and still does, pose a major threat to the classified “rivers of gold”. It seems to me that the loss of them was just accepted as being inevitable, so that spending money promoting their worth, ensuring their results and lessening the loss of revenue, was scarcely attempted.

When did anyone last see or hear an ad spruiking The Age classified columns? Also, what about the advantage of widespread community name recognition of The Age and The SMH as classified carriers? Surely websites could have been established earlier, or investments made, so the ads could have been carried through both mediums?

Then, on the editorial side, what quality of Fairfax news service is the organisation able to sell, if its authority is continually being undercut by reducing the range and quality of its news coverage, with so many excellent journalists leaving?

I know those questions are tough, but boards are paid to plan. Encouraging areas under current CEO Greg Hywood seem to be the success of the Fairfax iPhone and iPad apps and the high (but unpaid) website traffic, but the reduced-revenue projections and circulation figures are causes for real concern.

So, I find myself in the unenviable position of criticising current and past boards and management at Fairfax — which, incidentally, still seems to think Melbourne is little different to Sydney. Further, having strong disquiet about the Murdoch influence on journalists employed at News who have the bully’s belief that “might is right”, coupled with the organisation’s puerile promotion of celebrity.

Reporting what interests the public, or can be made to, is not reporting in the public interest.

Professor Neil Postman of New York University wrote that, “when a population becomes distracted by trivia, when a cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; cultural-death is a clear possibility”. Amusing Ourselves to Death was the name of his prescient 1985 book.

I obviously understand newspapers are facing severe life-threatening problems; that the web and social media are powerful forces, but we do need journalism — informed, fair and professional journalism. We need a variety of news outlets to tell us what is happening, whose task is to gather and present the facts, to provide analysis and to keep the decision makers in the community’s collective “feet to the fire”. The trick for media organisations is to amortise their news-gathering costs and build revenue.

Democracy requires good journalists and better governance will result. My fear is that The Age and The SMH will lose their remaining credibility with Gina Rinehart at the helm, or with her influence on those apparently at the helm.

Obviously something was needed to wake Fairfax out of its steady decline — and just maybe the Gina Bomb threat was what was needed.

That should be defused, but is it all too late?

*Ranald Macdonald was managing director of David Syme and Co from 1964-83, chairman of the Media Council of Australia 1975/80, president of the Newspaper Publishers Association (establishing the Australian Press Council), chairman of the International Press Institute 1978-80, then for six years current affairs presenter on 774/3LO and, after teaching journalism at RMIT, became university professor and chairman of journalism at Boston University 1995/2005.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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