Farewell to the editorial

Former editor of the Australian Financial Review (1988-1992) Gerard Noonan writes: Re. “Crikey says it isn’t time to speak with one voice” (Friday). Some years ago, when I was editor of the Australian Financial Review, I was struck late one morning by the same bolt of common sense that jagged from the sky on Crikey‘s editor on Friday.

How was it sensible that an institution like a newspaper with (in those days) 140 journalist staff, an ownership in receivership and a 35 year long history behind it could possibly have a ‘view’ on anything? Whose view? Who was going to draft it? What did it mean anyway? Whom were we trying to influence?

With these thoughts in mind, I told the chief sub that tomorrow we were going to run, in the 1200-word space reserved for such indulgences, a simple message which said simply that the AFR had no views about anything at all today.

The production staff were used to my slight eccentricities. For example, they had hyperventilated when I drafted an earlier editorial urging the Olympics movement to face reality and run three sorts of games: the first purely amateur for the do-gooders, the second a contest for ‘professionals’ with anything goes, including performance-enhancing drugs, and a third in an oxygen-filled dome for really, really faster and longer and higher performances. It was the inclusion of the ‘snuff games’ reference that made the chief sub wary of my occasional whimsy.

So of course the afternoon was spent in sulky passive resistance. The chief sub secretly commissioned the deputy editor to draft up something that could be slotted in at the last minute without causing offence. Naturally the chief sub won. I blinked and in went the familiar fare, with much shaking of heads and murmuring that they were there to save me from myself etc etc. But I’ve thought, in the decades since, that I should have pressed on, just to make a point.

Editorials (or ‘leaders’ as they’re pompously called) are a quaint fantasy. Nevertheless they have enjoyed a long and tempestuous history. Newspapers over the past two centuries have been full of opinionated ramblings. Daily, proprietors and editors flayed their enemies with over-the-top prose. Don’t believe commentators who bemoan the loss of the golden era of newspapers when they were ‘papers of record’. A quick glance at the archives of earlier editions of the AFR, the SMH, The Age, The Australian, Courier Mail, even the Melbourne Herald quickly establishes that they all brimmed with tirades and purple writing.

One final point: at the AFR, we once polled how many of the 80,000 buyers (ah, they were the days!) actually read the editorial.

It turned out it was roughly 1000 readers who got to the end of the thing, but not the same ones each day. We always calculated that even though the numbers were small, they almost certainly represented the 1000 people in Australian with an intense interest in whatever arcane topic we were traversing, and thus who almost certainly knew more about the topic than any journalist, however specialised. Anyone for tariff reform, or a dose of international accounting protocols? Thus we took care to make the arguments as cogent as possible.

Perhaps a few more than 1000 read a general political rave. In those days the AFR was far less part of the business establishment and (God forbid) even ran editorials actually praising organised labour, whose officials were patently smarter and more interested in national development than organised capital, through organisations like the Business Council of Australia, which notably is still pushing its own narrow barrow.

So Vale to the editorials in Crikey. You go, with this ex-editor’s (mixed) blessings.