Attendees to Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ Melbourne talk last night were probably expecting a few broadsides at News Corp and Rupert Murdoch. But they got a bonus — a scathing assessment of Fairfax delivered by one of Britain’s most celebrated journalists, who used to work there.

Earlier on in his Wheeler Centre talk, Davies — the man who’d exposed phone hacking at News of the World and a host of other red tops– had brushed aside an invitation to reflect on the power of Murdoch and News Corp in Australia, saying he wasn’t really qualified to comment. But on The Age, which Davies worked for in the 1990s, he was far more forthcoming. He’d picked up The Age as soon as he got to Melbourne and had been disappointed. “I pick up that newspaper, and I can see, you can see, that that paper is breathless, exhausted. It doesn’t have the staff to do the job properly. It isn’t doing its job properly.”

Later, a young journalist asked Davies for advice on how to do proper journalism in an age of churn. Davies advised a mentor and advocate to help steer a young journo away from the pointless work. Except, that is, if one worked at Fairfax. “If you have management as bad as Fairfax, who are clearly destroying your city newspaper, you should get another job. Really, in fairness, I reckon they couldn’t run water down a hill. The lack of strategy in that newspaper is staggering.”

Asked about the comments this morning, Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden told Crikey it was certainly “exhausting” to continually “[set] the agenda”.

“I have the deepest respect for Nick, and have recommended his book to all Age journalists. It was a superb piece of investigative journalism,” Holden said.

“Contrary to his criticism, The Age is also home to some of the best journalism in this country. It’s why we are seeing a fundamental overhaul of the financial-advice industry — thanks to the reporting of Adele Ferguson — and we only have a royal commission into union corruption because of the work of Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders. The current IBAC inquiry into corruption within the Victorian Education Department comes on the back of Age reporting.

“It is exhausting setting the agenda, but it’s why The Age won more Walkleys last year than any other masthead, and won half of the awards at the recent Melbourne Press Club Quill awards (14 of 28).”

It’s worth bearing in mind that Davies’ employer, The Guardian, competes with The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald for the same liberal, wealthy urban audience in Australia. But there was a time the two publishers got along well. In 1995, Davies came out to Australia on an exchange program between The Age and The Guardian. He was only in Melbourne for four months, but made quite an impact, quickly landing a front-page Age scoop that featured seven doctors who sent a letter to the Attorney General implicitly stating they’d all helped patients end their lives.

Since then, the Fairfax press has given his books, speeches and talks plenty of coverage, in stark contrast to the 180 global Murdoch papers, which, Davies remarked last night, had all declined to review his book. The Fairfax coverage hasn’t been unfailing positive — former Age editor Michael Gawenda, for example, has accused Davies of committing the many sins he accused the press of in Flat Earth News, including, while at The Age, personally drafting the letter the doctors sent to the Attorney General — but it generally has been thoughtful and comprehensive.

Davies is best known as the journalist who over five years was pivotal to exposing the extent of illegal activity at Britain’s News Corp papers, but last night he seemed as concerned about the decline in traditional journalistic business models as he was the outright illegal behaviour and untouchable nature of Murdoch’s interests in the UK.

“My profession is corrupted,” Davies said. The phone hacking and the exhaustion, he said, went together in a way. As newspaper budgets shrink, “we cease to be able to perform the essential functions of our professions. We cease being able to go out and find stories. We cease to be able to check the information we have. What we do instead is we sit chained to our keyboards, recycling second-hand material, with large chunks of it from the PR industry.

“PR material occasionally is lies, [but] most PR material is the truth. But it’s selected to serve the interests of political and commercial organisations who pay for it. Insofar as newspapers rely on PR material, they are allowing those people to choose what we say. Reporters doing five, six stories a shift have no chance.

“Our structural weakness and phone hacking overlap in a sense. Journalists at the dark end of our profession around the developed world have a bad reputation. That reputation is the reputation of all journalists. So as our profession goes into decline, the opinion out there is, ‘who cares’. But that’s a terrible mistake. If it were to come about that over the next 20 or 30 years that we die off as a profession, this’ll sound like a joke, but you’ll be sorry when we’re gone.”

Davies was highly pessimistic about citizen journalism, and its ability to fill the gap. “Ever since the Industrial Revolution you could buy news that suits your preferences. Now, you can not only consume that news, but generate it. What you’re seeing is information chaos. Racists produce racist news to be consumed by racists. Communists produce communist news to be consumed by communists. There’s nothing merry or bright or clever about most citizen journalism.

“At its best, citizen journalism is great. At its worst, it’s very bad. I’d rather read graffiti on a toilet.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey