Feb 12, 2014

Did Fairfax help kill the car industry? A victory of sorts for the AFR

The government did little to save the automotive manufacturing industry, knowing the media would have its back. Economist and former Financial Review reporter Jason Murphy reckons his former editor played his part.

Toyota is going. And yet the government is barely sweating. They stand at the dockside, waving their hankies, thinking of something else. Not even a crocodile tear in their eyes. This, in an environment of rising unemployment, is politically shocking. How has it happened that the populace apparently no longer wants this key industry saved? The answer is not that the Australian people have suddenly swallowed an Economics 101 textbook. It is just in the "national mood". And that mood is still shaped by the media. One could trace the beginning of the end of support for Australian car manufacturing to 2011. The economics editor of The Australian newspaper was a man called Michael Stutchbury. A man with ambition. Fiery and with salt-and-pepper sideburns, "Stutch" put his hand up for a new job that was going across town. He wanted to be handed the editorship of The Australian Financial Review -- Australia’s only business daily -- a paper loved and feared in decision-making circles. The top echelons of Fairfax considered the CV of the man. He had strong views, sure, and the Fin had floundered under middle-of-the-road helmsmanship -- perhaps that was not just desirable, but necessary. Stutchbury arrived at the Fin amid a surge of excitement, armed with a two-word slogan: agenda-setting. "I think we can turn it into a growth story by reinvigorating the journalism, concentrating on news breaking, going back to setting the agenda," he told ABC business reporter Ticky Fullerton at the time of his appointment. The move to agenda-setting came with an advertising campaign, too, which made the odd choice of appropriating some classic communist propaganda tropes. The newspaper proceeded to take a far sterner line in deciding what was and wasn’t news. But it went a step further than that -- the paper made some things into big news. Stutch’s sharp news sense, formed at the AFR but forged in the right-wing foundries of The Australian, combined with his purist views of the government’s role in the economy, meant the car industry was a prime topic. I personally spent hours camped out front of Toyota’s Altona factory getting soundbites from workers, hours trawling through the car statistics to find an Australian manufacturing angle, hours looking into the history of government assistance to the industry. I even interviewed motor racing legend Dick Johnson about the possible end of the Falcon, a story idea I was told came from the very top. (Johnson said: "Australians have an affinity with a front-engine, rear-drive car [and] a medium to large body size ... But it may only be my generation that sees that." The paper printed the story and a picture.) Anything with a car industry assistance angle was easy to get past the mid-level editors and into the paper, because they knew Stutch would love it; he didn’t have to personally demand every single story the Fin published. The car industry was hot, and everyone knew it. Not long after Stutch got the job, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced cuts to car subsidies. Would the government keep this risky promise? The issue remained firmly on the agenda. I wrote at least 10 stories on the topic, and I was perhaps only the fourth reporter in line to write car stories, behind Mark Skulley, Peter Roberts, and Lucille Keen (three of the four no longer work at the Fin). But once set, the agenda doesn’t stay inside just one newspaper. If the Fin is in a lather about the car industry, then The Age gets a bit of froth on it too, as do The Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun and The Advertiser. The tone of coverage nationwide took a subtle turn. Now, newspapers can push barrows without getting anywhere. What gave the AFR barrowload so much momentum was the political gradient. Labor was clearly sliding out by 2013, and the Coalition was ascendent. Stutch’s steadfast campaign was given legs because it coincided with a Productivity Commission report and a bright new political day (not to mention political capital in the shape of dozens of one-term backbenchers). Newspaper editors are powerful people. The Abbott government is emboldened to make the decisions it is making -- decisions its predecessors were unwilling or unable to make -- because the prevailing climate is one in which they can expect some media support for the decision. Neither national paper is going to crush the government for cutting the funding that kept car manufacturing here. I can’t help wondering how Stutch feels today, with the end of Australian automotive manufacturing a reality. Perhaps I am naive, but I can’t quite imagine champagne corks popping. I prefer to imagine him slightly frightened. As in, "jeez, I can’t believe I just did that!". Like the start of a superhero movie. As many have always said, with great power comes great responsibility. *This article was originally published at Jason Murphy's blog Thomas the Think Engine

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12 thoughts on “Did Fairfax help kill the car industry? A victory of sorts for the AFR

  1. klewso

    My money says there’s a mourning after pill?

  2. Simon Mansfield

    Probably so, and a bit like how BK here at Crikey did his level best to sink the original CPRS. And look where we ended up with that. A carbon/sin tax that will soon be history. Yes great power comes great responsibility and that is something BK should think long and hard on. But I doubt he will as, just like Bob and Chrissy and the rest of the Green Five, he feels might sure that he and they were ever so right to run the CPRS into ground and destroy a centrist progressive government.

  3. shepherdmarilyn

    Stutch also declared that the BER had wasted $7 billion before one contract had even been granted.


    The AFR is just a bulletin board of the Institute of Public Affairs. God knows who would be stupid enough to waste $3 on it.

  5. Scott

    It’s $3.30 and there are lots of people prepared to pay it. You know why? It makes them rich. Maybe it’s more stupid not to read it.

  6. CML

    Scott = Why don’t you pi+s off and write your increasingly annoying rubbish in Ltd News publications?
    It may come as a shock to you, but some of us are more interested in the fate of our country, and what happens to our people, than just pursuing wealth for its own sake!
    I have zero interest in ANYTHING Stutchbury has to say. Just another ex-Ltd News lackey, running yet another biased newspaper for someone else. Who cares??!!

  7. Kevin_T

    So, how many billions of dollars should we give to foreign based multi-national corporations to pay wages to some of our workers?

  8. Peter Roberts

    With due respect to Justin, some of us former AFR’erss see more complexity than this.
    I wrote on manufacturing and automotive for AFR for 27 years until 2013, and am known for my support of automotive as a building block of industry. Today I run the high-level Australian Manufacturing forum group on Linkedin where you will find deep debate on the issues.
    Mike’s views on industry protection since we worked together in the 1980s have been consistent and strong.
    It is not surprising he saw this as a great story when he arrived in 2011, but he did not just invent something.
    He tapped into a strong vein of public opinion, now with the ear of Canberra. And it was at a time when things really were falling apart for local car sales.
    There was a crisis in business and policy and not to have gone hard on auto would have been absurd.
    Since 2011 it is true auto was one way to get a story in the paper and the stories were often couched in the protectionist debate. But auto is the last tariff-protected sectors from the age of protectionism, which we are well rid of.
    The real issue is not the AFR and its reporting, but that Australian economic debate has not moved on from the 1980s.
    Economists give too little credence to ideas like innovation and design thinking as economic drivers, rather than the tired old tariffs, unions and costs.
    And we need to start recognising the new protectionism with banks survival totally guaranteed, trillions flowing to the super sector because of government law, and minerals enjoying diesel fuel rebates.
    Sure, Mike made big of auto protection. But he did not ever exclude a good story supported by evidence when it was pitched forcefully.
    I wrote most if not all of the big auto feature articles that appeared in AFR over decades and since 2011. These gave all sides of the story and there was no policy of cutting views unpalatable to the paper. So much so that leading anti-auto campaigners refuse to talk to be as some sort of auto fellow-traveller.
    Life and journalism is complicated and Mike is a convenient target.
    Finally AFR was a tiny part of the global competitive forces that have killed manufacturing. Mike certainly did not ‘just do that’ and you can be sure, he is not gloating today

  9. Liamj

    The comment from Peter Roberts suggests yes, klewso, there is a ‘mourning after’ pill.

    Sure its complicated yadda yadda, but there is no need for ‘cutting views unpalatable..’ when those views come from similar people all keen to keep their jobs under an ideological dictatorship; theres an abundance of hungry journo’s, why hire people who’s views need censoring.
    Not that the AFR should be slated with complete responsibility, its not solely their fault that Oz’s policy talent pool is the memory of a puddle.

  10. Hamis Hill

    And car industry aside, is it entirely co-incidental that the The AFR turned to crap after the “disease” arrived from News Ltd?
    That fish certainly rotted from the head down.
    Where does business get its garbage free information now?

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