When Fairfax’s main two mastheads started printing smaller editions in early 2013, its editors swore black and blue The Age and Sydney Morning Herald were becoming “compact”, not “tabloid”. But a vast jump in adverse Press Council adjudications and looming defamation actions suggest perhaps function follows form.

In July, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald lost part of an expensive defamation case brought by then-treasurer Joe Hockey. More actions are coming. Articles pumping the Coalition’s successes in denial of the facts are appearing frequently.

Last month, the Australian Press Council (APC) castigated Fairfax’s WA Today for an article that falsely accused a schoolteacher of drug and other offences. Great story — nudity, drugs, Catholic schoolgirls. Just not true.

But those are anecdotes. Is there actual evidence? Perhaps, yes. Press Council adjudications bolster these observations. Compare all the adverse APC findings over the last three years with the three years prior. Fairfax newspapers accounted for 18, or 24.3%, of the 74 serious violations of media standards in the three years from 2010 to 2012. News Corp copped the majority of spankings in that period, with 38 complaints fully or partly upheld — a total of 51.4%. The smaller newspaper groups and independents accounted for the remaining 24.3%. With News Corp publishing more newspapers, this should not surprise.

The reversal over the next three years is a surprise, however. From 2013 to 2015, Fairfax accounted for 34 of 75 naughty notes. That almost doubles the previous rate to 45.3%. News Corp’s violations fell to 30, and its share fell to 40%. It should be noted, however, that measuring adjudications is not a perfect measure of a newspaper’s performance, as many complaints are resolved without adjudication.

The main offenders were The Sydney Morning Herald — up from six adverse findings between 2010 and 2013 to 12 in the three years since — and The Age, up from four to nine. The Australian Financial Review also copped three negative rulings in the last two years, yet none in the previous four. Most failures related to inaccuracy and distortion.

But does Fairfax have an answer to Andrew Bolt — the columnist billed as Australia’s most widely read and influential who has built his career on denigrating academics, maligning racial minorities in general and Aborigines in particular, attacking refugees in general and Muslims in particular, and at all times castigating Labor and the Greens?

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald currently deploy Paul Sheehan to do strikingly similar work — although with considerably more literary flair.

Sheehan’s column last Sunday targets universities, noting they “have become havens for intolerance, orthodoxy and unscholarly distortion”. Not some unis or any specific one. Just “universities”.

His last column before Christmas dismissed Bill Shorten as “a political zombie” who is “wallowing at death-march approval ratings”. Crossbench senators are “an incoherent, self-absorbed collection of one-term fluke artists” holding the government hostage.

In a hymn to Tony Abbott that would make Greg Sheridan blush, Sheehan asserts:

“He broke two Labor prime ministers. He stopped the hated people smuggling trade and the mass internment of asylum seekers. He sought to break the Labor-Greens cycle of debt and deficit growth. He repealed the carbon tax. He did all the major things he promised to do, and did them quickly.”

That must come close to a record in the English-speaking world for the number of assertions contradicted by the facts in one paragraph. The evidence suggests the Labor PMs broke each other, internment of refugees continues and the duration of children in detention has significantly increased. Former diplomat John Menadue has shown people smuggling ended well before the last election. The data proves conclusively that net debt has blown out by 60.5% and deficits more than doubled over Labor’s levels. According to every fact checker and promise counter, the list of promises broken is longer than those fulfilled.

So is this new Fairfax strategy working? It appears so. According to Roy Morgan, the majority of capital city newspapers have declining readership. Only four recorded an increase from September 2014 to 2015. News Corp scored slight lifts with the Weekend Australian and the Mercury in Hobart. Fairfax recorded rises with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review.

Profitability is easier to measure — from annual reports and sharemarket data. For the last two months of 2012, Fairfax shares fluctuated between 38 and 52 cents per share. For the last two months of 2015, the price fluctuated between 83 and 94 cents per share. With earnings now up to 6 cents per share and dividends at 4 cents, the yield is a satisfactory 5% with sound dividend stability at 94%.

Fairfax Media denies any deliberate policy shift and disagrees with “the methodology, the findings and conclusions” of this analysis. A spokesperson told Crikey:

 “The standard of our hard-hitting quality journalism is better than ever. We see no discernible issue or appreciable increase in the number of complaints and adverse findings against us by the Australian Press Council. Numbers vary from publication to publication and from year to year — and arbitrarily focusing on three years of data provides little meaningful insight.”

Peter Fray

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