Anniversaries are a good time to celebrate achievements and reflect on mistakes. For its 50th anniversary today, The Australian is awash with the former and starved of the latter.
The “50 years in 50 days” series the newspaper has been publishing daily leading up to today’s anniversary date has recounted, among many topics, the boldness of Rupert Murdoch’s original decision to launch The Australian, the forging of a national approach to covering news and culture and the long struggles to make the newspaper financially viable.
There is undoubtedly a great deal to celebrate in the newspaper’s history; just as The Australian claims the right to scrutinise society rigorously, however, so it too should be scrutinised.
The problem is that in recent years The Australian has proved itself extraordinarily thin-skinned in dealing with criticism. The newspaper devoted close to twice as many words excoriating Robert Manne as he had written in his 2011 Quarterly Essay “Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation”.
The newspaper deploys four main weapons against critics: first, it unleashes a torrent of articles contesting even of the tiniest points, so as to wipe the critic’s original point from everyone’s mind; second, it attacks the critic personally and pitilessly; third — somewhat paradoxically — it ignores the critic; and fourth, when all else fails, it simply continues asserting something as true as if no one has ever shown it was false.
In the latest issue of The Monthly, Margaret Simons, the director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, urged media commentators to stop talking about The Australian because that only feeds what she terms its narcissistic impulses. She swiftly earned herself schoolyard sarcasm from the newspaper’s Cut and Paste section and finger-wagging from Gerard Henderson in The Weekend Australian.
The Australian’s influential role in national affairs continues to merit discussion, but her point carries some weight. Has there ever been another Australian media outlet whose editor-in-chief, with a daily leader article and the services of hundreds of journalists at his disposal, feels the need to be quoted so frequently in his own newspaper?
We compared the number of times Chris Mitchell’s name was mentioned in The Australian over the past two years to July 5 with the number of mentions of The Age’s editor, Andrew Holden, in his paper. It was not surprising to find that Mitchell was mentioned almost three times more often. And this was before yesterday’s Media section interview, which was accompanied by five photographs of Mitchell.
Rupert Murdoch looks over the first edition of The Australian, July 15 1964
At a Centre for Media History conference last week at Macquarie University, speakers came from The Australian and from the academy, but to date the newspaper has reported only about its own speakers’ papers.
On July 9 in an article headlined “Conspiracy Debunked”, editor-at-large Paul Kelly pooh-poohed the picture of Rupert Murdoch as an interventionist proprietor of a “cult beloved of media polemicists and populist politicians”. The mass of evidence, in former editors’ and associates’ memoirs, in government reports, in academic studies and in biographies of Murdoch, was ignored, as was a diplomatic telegram recently unearthed from the United States national archives reporting a confidential instruction in 1975 from Murdoch to his editors to “Kill Whitlam”, then Australian prime minister.
The instruction was not meant literally, of course, according to Philip Dorling’s report in Fairfax Media newspapers on June 28. It was just a particularly graphic example of a pattern of proprietorial behaviour long associated with Murdoch.
In a paper delivered at the conference we examined the history of the newspaper’s Media supplement between its launch in 1999 and today. Here are its main conclusions:
First, the Media supplement’s early mission was to serve audiences by raising levels of understanding about the media industry. It covered media with integrity and curiosity and had a measure of freedom to report on a wide range of topics — although it never had licence to freely analyse the newspaper itself or its parent company.
The 32-page tabloid stand-alone section performed a watchdog function by questioning how and why things were done across the industry. Its greatest value was the space it gave to topics and the seriousness with which it treated them. Reporters were given latitude to cover the paper’s competitors freely and fairly, and the Media section enjoyed a reputation as a serious and fair publication.
But the Media section today is significantly smaller (it usually runs to only three broadsheet pages) and is primarily focused on media business matters, industry news and gossip. It is racy, partisan, sometimes floridly so, and, to paraphrase The Simpsons, nuance is not its friend.
It does provide straight coverage for many stories, but, equally, others appear ideologically charged or driven by corporate animus. It is more likely to attack individuals and to adopt a sneering tone. It tends to pillory those who criticise News Corp, often regardless of the merits of the original criticism, and if the target of the attack responds, the newspaper floods the zone with increasingly tendentious nit-picking until even the most interested reader has lost sight of the original point of the debate.
The reputation for integrity of the Media section, then, has dissolved or, at the least, is dissolving. The number of stories that could be fairly described as the work of a watchdog is far outnumbered by those that are the work of a lapdog, and especially, an attack dog.
Just how The Australian might report these conclusions is anyone’s guess, but if you’ve read this far at least you have some clues.
*Matthew Ricketson is a former journalist at The Australian, Time Australia and the Sunday Herald and is now the inaugural professor journalism at the University of Canberra. He assisted Ray Finkelstein as the QC prepared the Finkelstein review into Australian media regulation in 2012. Andrew Dodd is the journalism program director at Swinburne University, and before that worked for the ABC. He was a media and business writer at The Australian for five years, and the founding host of ABC’s The Media Report.