So farewell then, Chris Mitchell. The uber-editor and his trademark grey bouffant leaves the Surry Hills bunker for the last time today, after 12 years as editor and editor-in-chief of The Australian. The plaudits lavished on him by his own newspaper, now and in years past, are the sort of thing that would have Kim Jong-un going “guys, guys, come on, dial it down”. Indeed, it’s an object lesson in how Stalinist cultures work: the man at the top doesn’t need to direct that plaudits be written in his name; the minions simply outdo themselves, with no bidding. (Indeed the whole history of the USSR maps neatly onto Mitchell’s era at the Oz, with the renegade Stutchbury, exiled to the Fin, regularly denounced and awaiting the cold steel of the ice pick).
It’s difficult now to remember how dutiful, reasonable and dull the Oz was in the 1990s, before Mitchell came along. Paul Kelly was the editor, producing a paper with solid foreign coverage and a grinding commitment to policy agenda setting. The op-ed pages were a series of dull columnists, with no real freelance presence or variety. There was far more respect for the paper among policymakers at the time, and sales were significantly higher — simply because all newspaper sales were higher — but one picked it up each morning with a sinking heart.
That wasn’t all Kelly’s fault. The paper was in a difficult position for about a decade or longer, as Generalissimo Rupert’s politics were in flux. The Australian had been founded in 1964 during Murdoch’s left-liberal period (which succeeded his pinko — or pinkish — period, at university), but in the late 1970s and 1980s Murdoch had begun to move sharply to the right. But Murdoch was also aware that, in and after the Hawke/Keating era, Australia hadn’t moved into a post-left, post-social democratic space. After a disastrous experiment with a Reaganism Down Under — Frank Devine, former Reader’s Digest editor, proved utterly incompetent as Oz editor and was sacked after a year — the paper came back to the centre-right.
There would have been a way to make the paper more interesting and genuinely pluralist, when Mitchell came to the editor’s chair in 2003. He didn’t take it. Nor did anyone expect him to, on past form. His “triumph” to date had been a disaster that would have ended a career in any other organisation. In 1996, as editor of The Courier-Mail, he had run a huge special accusing the historian Manning Clark of having been an “agent of influence” for the USSR, and receiving The Order of Lenin medal, a high Soviet honour. None of it was true. The “information” had come from right-wing poet Les Murray, then in the midst of a years-long period of depression and paranoia, who had seen Clark wearing a ceremonial bauble given to any official visitor to the USSR at the time. Despite the shaky provenance, Mitchell ran 10 pages on it.
Quite possibly that acted as a career booster when, two years after 9/11, and in the months leading up to the Iraq War, Murdoch decided to make the Oz a campaigning highly partisan paper on the model of American culture war politics. The neocon movement was rising across the Anglosphere, under the aegis of a “War on Terror” — the clash of civilisations allowing the right to enforce the idea that “traditional morality” and “the supremacy of Western civilisation” should be enforced against “cultural relativism”, etc. Moral conservatism partnered with a free-market economic liberalism.
To be fair, there was some pluralism at the start, with Tom Switzer was as op-ed editor around that period, and left-wing writers could get a guernsey for the first time for quite a while. To be fair to Switzer, too, he fought for his writers, against some machinations higher up from more doctrinaire editors. But the “pluralism” was always slanted — left-wing writers were preferred when they were criticising other parts of the left, a pattern we soon observed. The right-wingers roamed free in vast numbers. When Switzer moved on, Nick Cater and Rebecca Weisser, the Sonny and Cher of right-wing commentary, took over, and the pages maintained a spitting fury, but regained much of the tedium of the Kelly years.
Right-wing papers have tended to concentrate their firepower in the opinion pages, while preserving a degree of accuracy and objectivity in the news pages. But under Mitchell’s reign, the Oz broke away from this, and became unashamedly partisan, injecting comment and spin into the slightest of news items. The paper’s news pages were schizoid: world-class investigative journalism, such as the Australian Wheat Board sales-to-Iraq scandal, and unmolested coverage of some parts of urban and rural affairs, alternated with the most absurd and manipulative pseudo-stories. Reading the Oz news pages is like crossing a running river stream via a trail of rocks. You don’t know which are grounded and anchored, and which will give way instantly.
Turning the Oz into that sort of newspaper was a disservice to the country — but it was also, in the longer run, a disaster for the right. The “success” of the Iraq War turned to disaster in two years, and the “intelligence” that had prompted the war was revealed to be based on a single source, “Curveball”, selling fictionalised reports that the neocons wanted to hear, via Ahmed Chalabi, their preferred post-invasion president, a fraudster and carpetbagger. That would have made a great story for a paper with News Corp’s sort of resources. Instead, they decided to be a megaphone for neocon propaganda. The Australian would eventually declare both wars to be a disaster — but only after 2007, when Labor got in, and Afghanistan suddenly became Rudd’s war.
That was old-school warmongering, Hearst/Kane style (“I’ll give you the war,” Hearst had told Teddy Roosevelt, drumming up a jingo enthusiasm for the US invasion of Cuba then the Philippines in the 1890s. The Iraq War was simply a remake). The “booming” global economy was boosted uncritically as the triumph of free-market economics, and a phalanx of writers urged Australia to adopt US-style policies on flexibility, deregulation, etc. This latter enthusiasm dovetailed with the creation of a cult of personality based around John Howard.
Reading back through past editions of the mid-2000s, the Howardolatry pumped through op-ed and news pages of the Oz is hilarious. The paper’s coverage of Latham was desperately unfair — especially once he had had Labor reject the US-Australia free-trade deal — but Latham gave them plenty of raw material to work with. Once he had been seen off in the 2004 election, and the Coalition had the magic 38 majority in the Senate, the drum beat for “reform”, i.e. neoliberalisation, became a concerto of timpani. Howard, against the judgement of some — and with a voice of caution being Tony Abbott (!) — went ahead with the right’s century-long cherished ambition: dismantling what remained of wages and conditions fixing, and restoring the contractual law of master-and-servant as the basis of work in Australia.
WorkChoices did for Howard, and deprived the Coalition of a fifth term. Its implementation was almost wholly based on the myth of Howard, pumped by Mitchell’s Oz, that he represented the soul of the average Australian, against the elites. He didn’t. He was the suburban solicitor they hired/voted in to run things smoothly, in an era of global turbulence. The public were right-shifted on culture and global affairs; they remained centre-left on domestic economic matters. Failure to realise that, occurred because Mitchell’s people, and the wider brains trust at News International, had started to inhale their own product, simply because it had driven all the air out of the room. The delusional quality of their assessment of Australia was evidenced when got behind a Planet Janet Albrechtsen column, urging Howard to go in favour of Costello — not understanding that the public hated Costello even more than they hated Howard.
Quite possibly the paper’s behaviour over the next few years was a result of sheer pique at the public disobeying their orders. For it was in the Rudd years that the last vestiges of news-as-news disappeared. The Oz was the vanguard command for a war against Labor, with the Melbourne and Sydney tabloids providing the heft. Once again, Labor gave plenty of raw material, with disasters such as the pink batts campaign. But the Oz essentially rolled over the coverage of that into everything it did — especially Building the Education Revolution, which, rather than being covered good and bad, assessed as policy, simply became a repository for disaster stories, played up and beaten up.
By this time, there was more than a touch of bitterness and resentment in the paper’s demeanour, which had been lacking before everything had gone against them — the rise of Obama, Bush’s global recession, Howard’s ignominious fall — and which further bent the paper out of shape. The paper had banged on about “the elites” in a faux-populism, without understanding that the rise of a culture/knowledge/expert services economy was building that group into a distinct class, wielding power, and shaping the culture. It had banged on about multiculturalism, without any real critique of the Howard-era policy of high immigration, and its continued support of multicultural “communities” as a political strategy.
By the 2010s, metropolitan society had begun to shift underneath The Australian and News Corp, in ways that people like Mitchell couldn’t understand. This produced its own hilarious period of spitting hatred directed at the Greens, assessed as virtually a fifth column within Australian society, before, after the party took a Liberal hold in Victoria, and a rural seat in NSW, they decided they better assess the party as a real force — sending Chris Kenny into Newtown, like the first reporter into Mogadishu, to discover that, gasp, the “elites” queued for ice cream! By then, campaigns were descending into vendettas; the attacks on commercial rival the ABC were self-parodic; those on people like Australian Human Rights Council president Gillian Triggs unfair; and the sustained assault on Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt was simply an attempt to do her head in. It was one with their batty indigenous politics. Despite some good and forthright stuff, they engaged in the paradoxical act of demanding an end to symbolism in indigenous politics, and then hoiking up Noel Pearson, person and program, as an example of that. When it became clear that Pearson’s programs weren’t delivering much effective change (the Oz‘s fudging on this was expertly dissected by Amy McQuire in New Matilda), Pearson instead became a symbol of the determination to end symbolism. The paper then vanished into the labyrinth of recognition politics, everything it had railed against for a decade — a sure sign Mitchell was losing such compass as he had once possessed.
There was one big result of this indeterminate period: Tony Abbott. The continued batty stoking of climate change denialism, and sundry other matters, had done in Australia what News had done in the US with Fox News: created a bubble, separated from the world, which made reality testing impossible. Murdoch’s organisation, taking on implicitly and explicitly the mix of batty Christian culture politics and free-marketeering of its master — his fully erratic nature now visible to the world through his tweets — simply didn’t want to believe that the neocon future hadn’t worked out. While economies became more concentrated in the hands of capital, social values became more progressive, green, intersectional, “diverse”, etc, etc. Abbott was their neocon champion reborn, and so there was never any real criticism of his approach, until it became impossible not to record the full disaster. But Abbott could only ever have been chosen as leader in the first place by a party working within the right-wing bubble, to which News had greatly contributed.
Under Mitchell and his cohorts, The Australian missed its chance to reconstruct its politics to respond to the new era. But of course it doesn’t matter. As our reports revealed, the place is a money pit, losing a motza, relying on strong Saturday sales, and vast giveaways Monday to Wednesday, its MiniTruth media section boasting about derisory digital uptake. Australian society sails on going in the direction it will. It would be easy to exaggerate News’ influence on that process, and many do. But its influence on right-wing politics has been substantial, and only the disarray of Labor hides the degree to which News’ simplistic approach has undermined the possibility of a successful version of the politics it sought.
That’s on Mitchell. On him too is that, on his watch, the paper has gone from being merely unprofitable to being genuinely precarious. Ironic that the paper urging us all to “reform” and create a labour market red-in-tooth-and-claw has drifted into confusion afresh because it itself has no bottom line; within the News Corp bubble, it’s a protected industry, with the usual results of such. Mitchell leaves a right-wing politics in disarray, and a paper so uneconomic that its continued existence depends on the kindness of strangers. It’s a funny old legacy, and there’s one place you sure won’t read about it. Vale Mitchell, power’s valet.