union movement the age
(Image: AAP/Joe Castro)

The resignation of Alex Lavelle, editor of The Age, comes as a mild shock but no great surprise. A week after management and staff of that once great newspaper protested about both de facto control from Sydney over content, and directions to slant news in a rightwards direction, Lavelle has gone. Ahead of being pushed? Because there was no movement on management’s part? We’ll find out, I guess, but it amounts to the same thing. 

Both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are being pushed in a rightward political direction, after the abolition of Fairfax by Greg Hywood, and the folding of the papers into an outfit founded by Frank Packer and currently chaired by Peter Costello. 

The sole aim of this process is to destroy a base of left-liberal, or even liberal-centrist, thought, for political purposes. This process was underway in the final decades of Fairfax. It was steered by no commercial decision.

There was a huge audience base for a pluralist centre-left daily publication in both cities — and especially in Melbourne, Stockholm-on-the-Yarra. The papers were steered towards a centre-right perspective precisely to destroy the power of that social-political formation.

The destruction of The Age, once rated as one of the 10 great newspapers of the world, is a testament to the nihilism of capitalism, and the deep and complacent intellectual mediocrity of many of the people who led Fairfax in past decades, and who lead Nine now. 

Well, look, save what can be saved, and support the staff in their struggle, but as a base for a left-liberal perspective, The Age is gone. It’s simply over. We have to be clear-eyed about this and admit that the entire spectrum of daily newspapers/news sites is controlled by the right.

Those who want a left-liberal daily news centre are going to have to establish one. And realistically, the only body with the clout, cash and audience to do that is the union movement.

Yes, the ACTU needs to establish a daily newspaper. This is something the union movement should have done many decades ago, but the need now is urgent. They need to put very serious money into a daily that has both an online publication, and a tabloid paper publication.

They need to create a paper/site that can be read by anyone with an average high school education, that has good comprehensive coverage of news, sport, celeb stuff, without being dominated by it, but with a core section on politics, economics and social and global affairs that gives a range of left and centre-left views on the issues of that day.

We need a large-scale, hugely backed paper/site that can attack head on the de facto right-wing way in which all industrial relations is discussed currently — as to how much union “power” should be restrained — the bias towards privatisation, market solutions, an export culture which has seen us destroy our national manufacturing plant as a sacrifice to the gods of ideology, and much much more.

Would there be difficulties with this? You bet. The stab at a daily backed by super funds, The New Daily, appears to have lost some of its leftist zeal. But this is once again a case of the wider movement not seeing how much needs to be sunk in to such a thing, and how essential it has now become (something quite different to, and complementary of, the mission of this excellent publication, I should add).

How is it that a movement with millions of members and billions under command in super funds, is content to have no large-scale media of its own? That has a long history. For decades the union movement could rely on its role as a quasi-state apparatus to maintain its power, and the close communal relations of the working-class to form networks of political transmission. City-based tabloids weren’t right-wing pamphlets, because they had a left-wing working-class audience they didn’t want to alienate. Indeed, until the 1960s, the main enemies were The Age and the SMH, the Liberal party’s ideological wing.

That all switched pretty fast, as society changed its composition. From the ’60s onwards both broadsheets became reliably left-liberal, and even if the middle-class more than the working-class read them, they were a crucial place to argue left political and economic policies toe-to-toe with the right. That reliance encouraged complacency, and now, here we are. 

So, if we can’t get an alternative voice, and I don’t see who else can provide its core (even if a few liberal multimilli/billionaires are added on the top), then we’re finished. Presumably, with today’s announcement on higher education, that point becomes obvious. It’s going to be onslaught after onslaught from here on, with no large-scale base from which to mount a sustained alternative argument to a broad audience.

This country is then just Alabama on the Pacific, in which the left, even the centre-left, is a permanent oppositional presence, nothing more, and quietly abandons any notion of winning power, or even setting an agenda, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The leadership of the union movement needs to shake itself out of its modest expectations, its long-learnt petitioning, protesting role, its cultivated lack of audacity, its narcissistic pursuit of internal divisions, and acquire the ambition to set the agenda, and become a full countervailing force to what is now a large-scale right totality. 

Like many people raised on The Age, I’ll still glance at it in the morning. It still does great stuff investigation-wise. I still trust its core journos and editors to stand up to undisguised political heavying. But if management wants to go a certain way, it will eventually get its way. As something that it was, The Age and the SMH are gone. Mourn them and move on. Or stick around for the next funeral, which is ours.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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