It is a sad comment on Australia’s political culture that Canberra’s daily newspaper is an affront to the very idea of reputable journalism. The seat of national government deserves and arguably needs a newspaper that provides citizens with fair and fearless information, analysis and opinion on national and local politics and policy.
Instead readers of The Canberra Times are fed a daily diet of public relations puffery crafted to promote vested local interests prepared to advertise in the newspaper. Readers are offered little serious independent investigative reporting on national or local issues apart from the monthly public sector report, which is the newspaper’s only saving grace. Any limited investigative reporting seems to originate in other Fairfax newspapers, notably The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Many book reviews are taken from The Herald these days.
News coverage of local politics is timid, with little deep examination of Canberra’s equally unattractive and provincial government and opposition politicians; the local economy is reported largely from the perspective of the chamber of commerce and the real estate industry; crime coverage seems largely restricted to reporting the scanty information handed to passive reporters by a secretive police force.
But The Canberra Times’ most egregious activities are its sustained efforts, for commercial gain, to break down any distinctions between independent journalism and the promotion of vested interests. It does this by declaring some pages of the newspaper to be an “advertising feature”. Businesses that place a paid advertisement in these “advertising features” pages are rewarded, often on the same page, with an accompanying article setting out in glowing PR marketing clichés the virtues of the business. It debauches the very idea of the separation of editorial from advertising. And in The Canberra Times it is shameless.
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The Canberra Times is especially subservient to its real estate advertisers. It offers a weekly column to the local property council and housing industry association representatives to promote their self-serving views. Reports of weekend property sales are overwhelmingly crafted to create the impression of a strong and buoyant market, even if a simple count of sold and unsold properties tells a different story. The point is not to inform citizen buyers but to promote the interests of industry advertisers. This sort of complicity profoundly undermines the newspaper’s reputation, such as it is. You have to read property reports in The Canberra Times with a high degree of scepticism.
On April 22, the paper took its willingness to publish “advertorial” to a new level. Page eight of the newspaper was labelled “News”. Beneath the words “advertorial feature” was a banner headline — “F-35: The only choice for Australia” — and a huge photograph of two F-35 fighter jets, with a long article praising the aircraft and urging its purchase by the federal government. The bottom half of the page was an advertisement for the F-35 with another photograph and the slogan: “For Security. For Jobs. For Australia.”
Lockheed Martin was of course entitled to buy advertising space to help support its bid to lock Australia fully into the F-35 purchase. But no self-respecting newspaper would so blatantly have agreed to prostitute its editorial independence to support an advertisement so uncritically. The quality of the F-35 is not the issue. The issue is editorial integrity — which The Canberra Times sacrificed.
This unhappy state of affairs might reflect nothing more than the ongoing decline of the House of Fairfax. The Canberra Times has to take its share of the cost-cutting that is reducing the once-great newspaper empire to a shadow of itself. It is essentially now a slave newspaper within the Fairfax group, providing minimal coverage of local events and filling its pages with national and international material from other Fairfax and international papers. The tragedy is it could be so much better if anyone gave a damn. Perhaps societies really do get the media they deserve.
*Geoffrey Barker is a columnist with The Australian Financial Review, former assistant editor at The Age and a former European and Washington correspondent