The one comforting aspect of the silly, extended spat between The Australian and the Australian Press Council (APC) over the appointment of GetUp deputy chair Carla McGrath as a public member of the APC is that it is much ado about very little at all.
The only people who take any notice of Press Council adjudications are newspaper editors and the council itself. It is a fundamental truth of self-regulation in the media that it makes not a jot of difference in the real world.
But what a gloriously demeaning shemozzle this latest outbreak of APC/News Corp fisticuffs has become! Both sides are covering themselves in the ordure of their own overreach or incompetence.
The Australian takes increasingly wild air swings every morning, drawing yet another tenuously long bow in its campaign to undermine the McGrath appointment and anyone who supported it. The Press Council then returns fire with a duck-and-cover media release, ending with a sniffy statement that the council will be making no further comment. Until the next one.
It seems remarkable that the Oz, a newspaper that returns eight-figure losses annually, can nevertheless afford to assign two or three reporters every day for more than a week to file laborious beat-ups on a subject that is clearly a non-story everywhere else in the media.
They finally ran out of puff this morning but were still hard at it yesterday, with both Mitchell Bingemann and Chris Merritt chasing any faint lead that might devalue McGrath, GetUp, APC chairman David Weisbrot and anyone who might have voted for McGrath’s appointment.
Not unexpectedly, former Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell also waded in with a lumbering, over-written comment piece in which he claimed credit for uncovering the slender basis for the newspaper’s latest “exclusives”. And what an ace sleuth Mitchell shows himself to be! “I began trawling through the internet”, he reported, and “after tracking all this down” claims to have actually rung someone (not that they are directly quoted anywhere in his 1400 words). Walkey-winning stuff.
At least Mitchell leaves us in no doubt about his position on the issue. “Imagine a board member from the Melbourne-based right wing Institute of Public Affairs being appointed to the Press Council”, he says. “The ABC, the Guardian, Crikey and Fairfax would blow up deluxe.”
The former E-i-C clearly doesn’t read his own paper. As a letter-writer to the Oz pointed out last Thursday (disclosure: ’twas me), a senior fellow of the IPA, Ron Brunton, was appointed a director of the ABC for a five-year term by the Howard government. Did The Australian, under Mitchell’s editorship, “blow up deluxe” about that blatantly partisan appointment at the time? Er, no.
Elsewhere in his muddled ramble, Mitchell cannot resist taking his habitual swipe at “mediocre journalists now working as journalism academics”. Yet this disdain for anyone who doesn’t get around with a notebook in their pocket or sneak a drink between editions at The Aurora Hotel apparently isn’t shared by his former reporters. On the same page, Chris Merritt approvingly quotes “journalism academic Peter Fray”, and “Joseph Fernandez, who heads the journalism school at Curtin University”. Consistency has never been a strong point at The Australian.
More worrying for the Press Council, though, should be the implied threat that comes at the end of Mitchell’s column.
We can reasonably assume that he is speaking for News Corp when he says the “furore” over McGrath’s appointment might “shake off the confidence of publishers in the Press Council”. That is immediately followed by the useful confirmation that the Murdoch papers tip in around $1 million a year as their contribution to the APC’s costs.
The message is clear: get rid of McGrath or we’ll pull out of the Press Council and starve you of funds. They’ve done it before. That’s why they’re known as the Holt Street Mafia, and why the APC should really be known as the Press Proprietor’s Council.