Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, doesn’t often give speeches. At a rare one yesterday, he touched on why.
“Many people have commented that I don’t do this sort of thing very often,” he said at the Mumbrella360 conference in Sydney, where a panel on The Oz’s 50th anniversary lured him out of the shadows.
“[Fairfax investigative journalist] Neil Chenoweth has referred to me … as a ‘very shy man’. I’m not sure that’s true. But the truth is I’m just a working journalist. I’ve been a working journalist for 41 years. I’m pretty committed to the day’s paper … I feel that much of what I do, I do anonymously, and I’m quite comfortable with that. I don’t seek to have my voice projected out, I try hard to have the paper’s voice [project out].”
A voice-less Chris Mitchell is a strange concept. Australia’s longest-serving editor, he’s been editor-in-chief of The Australian since 2002 and his influence over the paper, former staffers have told Crikey in the past, is “total”. The Oz might have a small readership, but in Canberra, it’s undoubtedly the most influential paper. It’s also the most self-promoting, happy to give up front-page space to puffing itself and trashing its enemies and rivals. Judging by its recent coverage, the current hit-list features Clive Palmer top and centre.
Asked about the paper’s campaigning journalism, Mitchell is unapologetic. “We’re having a bit of a campaign against Clive Palmer at the moment, and that is in the national interest. Clive Palmer … will hold the balance of power in the Senate, and not many Australians know much about Palmer. We’re not campaigning to hurt Clive. We’re trying, through pretty rigorous reporting led by Hedley Thomas, to have a look at Clive’s real business interests and his real dealings.”
That’s all very well, but does The Australian go too far? When asked about this, Mitchell deflects the question. “I play the game hard”, he says, but ultimately, the incredible discipline of putting together a paper every day means he’s usually thinking about tomorrow, he says. The decision to endorse Kevin Rudd over John Howard in 2007 occasionally leads to Mitchell “copping flak” but he believes it was the right decision at the time.
Mitchell got in the usual barbs at his competitors — readers of the Sydney Morning Herald, he says, would have been shocked when former Labor minister Peter Garrett resigned, because their paper hadn’t been covering the events leading up to it. And Fairfax was now “reverse-publishing Twitter”, ditching its traditional wealthy readership in favour of more “youthful” readers with lower incomes, Mitchell claims.
On the topic of Twitter, Mitchell says he uses it but claims he doesn’t have an account himself and has no intention of getting one. Instead, he uses Twitter as a sort of surveillance tool. “I follow the tweets of my own staff. Sometimes I think … they engage in too much banter with opponents, and I discourage that. I like to see Twitter being used to market their stories.”
Mitchell has led The Australian for 11 years, but gives every impression that he’s intending to stick around. “One of the questions when I move on is do I feel my successors are committed [to the paper’s values],” he said. “I would like to hand the paper and the digital businesses over in a good state. I’d like to have clearly defined successors who I felt were ready for it. There’s been a tradition in newspapers generally to put journalists into a job that they’re unprepared for … When I feel that it’s ready, I’ll move on.”