Arts coverage has been heavily targeted for cuts in the latest Fairfax redundancy round. In Melbourne, the local arts community is fighting back, with prominent arts publicist Miranda Brown starting an online petition calling on Age editor-in-chief Mark Forbes to keep veteran arts reporter Philippa Hawker on staff:

The Age is letting go of one of the country’s best arts writers Philippa Hawker. Since 1997 Philippa has been writing on film and the arts for The Age and Fairfax Media. Her detail and depth of knowledge is immense.

“Philippa’s departure will result in a greatly diminished arts scene coverage in Melbourne.”

The petition has garnered 800 signatures in less than a day.

But is it ideal for supporters of Fairfax’s journalists to sign a petition trying to save just one job, when dozens of others are also leaving the company? On Facebook, former long-time Age journo Ray Cassin (he left in 2012 and is now a speechwriter for Labor pollie Kim Carr) signalled his unease:

“I write this post with some trepidation, because I have no wish to offend people whom I hold in high esteem, personally and professionally. I think Philippa Hawker’s writing — on any subject — is wonderful, and I have fond memories of working with her at The Age. Her film criticism, in particular, is beyond compare in Australia and stands out in any international company. And yes, The Age’s willingness to part with her is yet another terribly sad indicator of the decline of a once great masthead.

“But I cannot sign the petition being circulated on Change.org. As a unionist, I ask what doing so would imply about our attitude to the other people who have been made redundant? That they are dispensable? I’m sorry, but if your understanding of solidarity comes down to ‘touch one, touch all’, and mine does, then petitions like this are not the way to go.”

Hawker herself, it’s worth pointing out, hasn’t publicly linked to or mentioned the petition, and she doesn’t appear to be pointing people towards it. The journalism union has been reluctant to give any firm details about the redundancies to the media. This is out of concern for stigmatising those who’ve been tapped for involuntary redundancies over those who’ve left voluntarily, and the union is insisting it is fighting to save all the positions with a “all for one and one for all” mentality.

It’s not just journalists for the chopping block: senior sales staff at The Age have also been been made redundant in the past fortnight including the Victorian entertainment manager and its sport manager.

But arts coverage has been disproportionately cut in the latest round, other staffers told Crikey.

“Sentimentality was thrown in the paper shredder a long time ago,” one said. “Arts is no longer a priority. It’s all about what rates online.” Careful readers of the arts pages note a tendency to the entertainment side of the spectrum (TV, for example, rates better than theatre).

Regular contributors to Fairfax’s arts coverage, meanwhile, have been going public about their declining employment.

On Twitter, regular Fairfax arts contributor Elissa Blake wrote that “regular theatre coverage in the Sun-Herald has been dropped due to Fairfax budget cuts”. Though when Crikey contacted Fairfax to ask about this, a spokesman disagreed with the characterisation:

The Sun-Herald’s S section will be continuing to report on theatre stories — on its cover and in the news pages — and we’ll continue to cover theatre in Sydney and Melbourne in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s news and arts pages, in flagship culture sections such as Spectrum and also in M in the Sunday Age.”

Music journo Michael Dwyer wrote on Facebook that “The Age will discontinue my music column on May 30. My reviews and features will shrink to a trickle at best, after 15 good years.” Freelance arts journo Jane Howard wrote of her “unrelenting sadness” at the declining space and rates given to arts coverage in the media more broadly, noting that Fairfax’s cuts are part of a broader trend. “Arts criticism in Australia is gone. We’re done.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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