Age national political editor Michael Gordon has revealed he was not told about a controversial front-page editorial published in his own paper calling on former prime minister Julia Gillard to sack herself.

The Walkley Award-winning press gallery veteran told an audience at the University of Melbourne last night that he only knew about the splash 12 hours before it was published after a conversation with the soon-to-be-dumped PM.

The Saturday Age treatise, published on June 22 in the week prior to Kevin Rudd’s re-ascension, was titled “For the sake of the nation, Ms Gillard should stand aside”, and prompted Age editor Andrew Holden to a record a justificatory video message after outpourings of outrage on social media. The issue of front-page editorials and media bias has exploded in recent weeks after The Daily Telegraph and The Australian Financial Review published damning assessments of Rudd.

Responding to a suggestion from fellow panellist Kerry-Anne Walsh that it was “extraordinary” to call on a sitting PM to stand down without an election in sight, Gordon set the record straight: “I was not consulted about that decision, the editorial is written by a group of three leader writers who have a conference with the editor each day and on that week … the editor-in-chief came to this decision, the leader was written and the first I knew about it was midday on Friday after having had a conversation with the Prime Minister.”

Gordon said that while “on one level” the division between the editorial line and reporters covering politics was healthy, Holden had subsequently acknowledged it would have been better to have “a roundtable conversation with the senior political people where we give our view”, a process that will now take place before the paper decides who to endorse on September 7.  He said the decision “shocked a lot of Age readers and it shocked a number of people on the editorial floor … but that’s the way it was done”.

Last night’s panel — “Media Puzzle: Is Politics More Than a Two Horse Race?” — featured Gordon, Walsh, Melbourne Uni media academic Sally Young, Australian Victorian political editor John Ferguson and ABC News Breakfast host Michael Rowland.

Commenting on the nature of the modern political campaign, one major change noted by the journos was the pressing expectation to file analysis and opinion pieces throughout the day when previously they had hours to give their considered take.

“The pressure now is to have instant opinion, if you’ve got six hours before deadline you really want to use that six hours, and the expectation now is that that’s gone,” Gordon said. The Oz‘s Ferguson concurred. “It does creep in and it’s all over the shop. It’s almost a big characteristic of Australian journalism now. It’s everywhere. I’ve commented too much in news, absolutely; it’s like being in AA sitting up here isn’t it?” he said to mass belly-laughs.

Gordon said that because The Age’s hard copy had scrapped its second edition he was forced to file all analysis and news by 8pm. For example, Wednesday’s night’s Sky News leaders’ debate concluded at 7.30pm, with just half-an-hour to work up the resulting analysis piece.

The forum was pockmarked by torturous “questions” from Whitlam-era Phillip Adams-wannabes that often took over three minutes to get to the point, drawing justified opprobrium from Rowland. Many took the opportunity to sledge Rupert Murdoch. But Ferguson was having none of it, responding in feisty fashion to suggestions Murdoch controlled his Australian papers’ editorial lines from New York. Allegations of a poisonous News Corporation culture were “rubbish”, he said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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