"They slowly lost their way editorially, evolving into a quasi-alliance partner with the Coalition …"“The readership isn’t huge, but it’s clustered at the top of the socio-economic grouping,” he said. “It includes a lot of people who are involved in the shaping of policy.” The paper's reporting of things other papers largely ignore, like Aboriginal affairs, Armstrong says, makes it a must-read for those who write policy in those areas. “Over time, exposure to that content has influence.” Another factor in The Australian's influence is its consistency, he continues. Unlike the Fairfax papers, for example, whose commitment to Canberra has ebbed and flowed over time, The Australian has always prioritised the goings-on in the nation's capital. This continues online, Armstrong says. The Australian's website is very similar in tone and focus to the paper, unlike the websites of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. But in former Labor leader Mark Latham’s view, The Australian’s influence on political parties has declined in recent years. “I think it did have influence when I first got to Canberra,” he told Crikey. “It was seen as an objective paper then. But it’s moved a long, long way to the Right, most notably under [current editor-in-chief Chris] Mitchell. As such, I don't think you'll find any Labor politician who thinks it’s viable to keep it on side … For anyone but the Coalition, it's a lost cause.” And for the Coalition, Latham continues, it’s convenient to have a friendly outlet to drop to -- but that’s not the same thing as that outlet having influence. A senior staffer to the previous Labor government says media follow-through is the ultimate measure of influence for an outlet. He recalls that after the 2007 election, whatever was on the front page of The Australian would be splashed on the television news that night. This caused huge problems for the government, ensuring wide coverage for scandals such as the pink batts roll-out and the Building the Education Revolution scheme. “If you can keep a story alive from the breakfast shows to Laurie Oakes at night, you’re pretty much won,” he said. But the Oz’s ability to set the agenda, the staffer notes, becomes weaker with every passing year. “They slowly lost their way editorially, evolving into a quasi-alliance partner with the Coalition … So the broadcasters started to view the coverage pretty cynically. They were often ignored altogether by Laurie Oakes and Mark Riley at 6pm. At the end of the day, those two remain the most crucial gallery journalists as far as most voters are concerned." Perhaps part of the reason other sections of the media began to look sceptically at The Australian is because of its tendency to pursue issues fiercely and uncompromisingly. The Oz is a campaigning newspaper. “It doesn’t drop off a story,” as Armstrong said. From the AWB scandal, which The Australian blew wide open, to the ongoing crusade against Clive Palmer, the Oz will sink its journalists for month after month on a story, keeping it top of mind among its readership. But sometimes its campaigns don't stand up to scrutiny particularly well. For example, after Media Watch host Paul Barry failed to give The Australian a chance to comment on its financial figures, the paper responded, in part, by analyzing his Twitter feed for anti-News Corp bias. It’s no wonder most journalists, those at Crikey included, weren’t impressed, even if they thought the Oz had cause to be miffed about Barry’s original infraction. Lately, The Australian has been unhappy that other media outlets have not been following up its angles. Last week it published an article haranguing the ABC, Fairfax and The Guardian, as well as the TV networks, for their failure to “prominently cover court proceedings involving Clive Palmer’s alleged use of siphoned Chinese cash in his election campaign”. Latham says this is one measure of its lack of clout in Canberra. “Look at the inordinate amount of time it spends criticising others for not following its lead,” he says. “If it was influential, it wouldn’t need to do that.” Most of the people Crikey spoke to agreed that who's anyone in Canberra reads The Australian, so there's influence in that. But as to whether it can change policy and unseat or crown governments, that depends on whether it convinces other outlets to follow its lead. When it's onto a good thing, the Oz's reach combines with its dogged, unyielding focus to make governments quake in their boots. But if the rest of the press gallery picks it up and shrugs, its scoops don't make it to the broader public to force politicians to react. The Oz is the most influential newspaper in Canberra, but now as ever, it cannot affect change alone.
‘A lost cause’: is The Australian really Canberra’s most influential paper?
Anyone who's anyone in Canberra reads The Australian. But that doesn't mean the paper is as influential as it says it is.