The appointment of Chris Mitchell as The Australian‘s editor-in-chief in July 2002 brought with it the start of a concentrated repositioning of the paper to what Mitchell calls the “centre-right”, partly in a bid to differentiate it from Fairfax’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Mitchell’s realignment of the paper, no surprise to long-time readers or critics, is heavily covered in his memoir, Making Headlines, which was released in early September. Mitchell took his appointment to the top position as an opportunity to significantly change its tone. “The Australian had previously been better known for its analysis and commentary,” he wrote. He set its focus on news.
Two issues were critical to repositioning. In 2002, a year after the Tampa affair, many journalists at The Australian were at odds with then-prime minister John Howard’s position on asylum seekers. Mitchell writes that he thought “the Oz was on the wrong side of the debate and that too many of its reporters were in the pockets of refugee activists”. He stressed to his newsroom the existence of organised, criminal people-smuggling operations and “that there were real queues of asylum-seekers overseas”, some of whom, he wrote, had been waiting 15 years for processing.
Another event, the Bali bombings, was also used to change the tone of the paper’s coverage. Mitchell required reporters at all bureaux to spend weeks seeking out and profiling the families of those killed in the event, a strategy that mirrored how The New York Times reported on the aftermath of September 11. The reporting was controversial internally, as Mitchell writes:
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“At one point in late 2002 I received a delegation from the house committee of the MEAA protesting against my decision to continue to send reporters from all bureaux to pursue the families of those killed and injured in Bali. They did not believe a paper like the Oz should practice that sort of journalism.”
The repositioning was, to a great extent, about assessing then-prime minister John Howard from within the centre-right. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mitchell says many of The Australian‘s commentators, like Greg Sheridan, had absorbed Paul Keating’s criticisms of Howard:
“Howard proved more in touch with mainstream Australian opinion than any political leader since Robert Menzies, as his four election wins and 12 years in power make clear. And The Australian’s realignment post-2002 kept it in touch with that opinion.”
Repositioning the paper, which Mitchell writes was mostly done by 2003, was also key to competing with Fairfax:
“There was one last reason to reposition the paper in editing terms. Not only did I think The Australian was getting the politics of Howard wrong but also I could not understand why it was presenting as a soft Left national alternative to the soft Left Sydney and Melbourne Fairfax titles. So with little news breaking outside Canberra, little product differentiation from our competitors’ broadsheet titles and an editorial world view quite foreign to much of the nation outside the south-east corner, I found it quite hard to see how the paper’s existing positioning could work editorially. And without giving away too many secrets, the numbers showed the strategy was failing, in both profit and circulation terms.”
Former Australian section editor Jim Buckell wrote in The Guardian last year that, for a long time, the Oz’s “knee-jerk conservative ideology” was kept in check by a “a broad pluralism that recognised its readers were best served by a range of views”. This gave way, Buckell said, upon Mitchell’s ascendance.
In 2014, SMH columnist and chief editorial writer Alan Stokes (who left The Australian in 2002) wrote of attending meetings where The Australian‘s conservative direction was set:
“There was a time when The Oz was less extreme. Then the powers that be made a survival decision. I sat at meetings where News Corp executives stressed that The Australian should aim to become a conservative newspaper with story decisions seen through that prism.”