They have no shame at The Australian Financial Review. A missive went out to subscribers from the paper’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury defending his paper’s offshoring of jobs to New Zealand and similar moves by other companies (guilt by association?) and complaining about Australia’s “high cost base”. This from the man in charge of a paper that has consistently lifted its cover price to the current record of $3.30 each day.

According to Stutchbury, these high costs are behind the problems in our car industry. And while complaining about high cost bases and the actions of the federal Labor government and unions, Sutchbury lauded the AFR‘s “bespoke” function at Sydney’s Opera House

“The Australian Financial Review Magazine held a spectacular Bespoke luxury fashion summit at the Sydney Opera House, featuring fashion industry leaders from around the world and an audience of more than 1000 people. It really highlighted the luxury brand value of our flagship monthly magazine.”

It’s interesting Stutchbury sees AFR publications as a “luxury brand” — a high-cost positional good appealing only to a narrow stratum of society. Logically, that means ignoring the wider public interest in favour of the interests of an elite. Which sums up the AFR‘s approach to business coverage — it’s no longer a newspaper about business, but a media release service for business — and big business at that — at the ultimate expense of investors and the national interest. And all, ironically, when its political journalists are producing the best coverage the paper has produced in years.

Like many another complainant about high costs in Australia, Stutchbury skips the bit where Australian businesses are responsible for high costs — especially in sectors where competition has been curbed or even eliminated in favour of oligopolies and cosy cartels. Just look at how the Reserve Bank this week pointed out the banks have lifted business fees to make up for lower revenue from fees charged to individual customers (who, inconveniently, vote). No mention of this sort of behaviour in the editor’s missive. Fee gouging by the big end of town on small and medium business doesn’t rate as an issue when you are busy sucking up to the big end as a “luxury brand”.

Nor does big business malfeasance or management incompetence get a nod from Stutchbury. The AFR once had a long and honourable history as the go-to source for exposes on the shonks and spivs of the corporate sector, the place where investors could get a reality check on the relentless self-promotion of the business world. These days, unless it’s trade union corruption or mismanagement, the AFR seems to be uninterested, preferring instead to run the latest “exclusive” media release from a business exec, or run yet another kid-glove interview with James Packer. Even when companies like Rio Tinto make multi-billion dollar misjudgments here and offshore, the AFR is content to run the standard line that it’s all about how Australian workers are too expensive and there’s too much regulation.

That’s the AFR brand, then: lower wages for workers, ignorance for investors and bespoke luxury for a small number of industry leaders.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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