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Part One

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Oct 19, 2017

Australian journalism’s freak show: how a serious newspaper deals with its enemies

Journalism is in crisis, we’re told constantly.

But there’s another journalism crisis that has been disrupting and polluting the Australian media for more than a decade, a crisis that has nothing to do with broken business models, Facebook or the rise of so-called fake news.

This is the crisis of how a serious national newspaper has, for at least a decade, waged vicious, personal, biased editorial Holy Wars against its ideological, political and commercial enemies in the name of “news”, “journalism” and “professional reporting”.

And not just once or occasionally, but often and serially.

The behaviour of the “national broadsheet” towards its enemies is no dirty little secret. Almost all the players in politics, government, academia, science, media and policy are aware of how it works. And every month or two they see it unfold, embarrassed, like watching a public flogging where you turn your head away.

Of course the technique of journalism Holy Wars — as we’re calling it in a 13-part series that starts today in Crikey — is as old as journalism itself. It was the red meat of William Randolph Hearst’s media empire that was captured so viscerally in the movie Citizen Kane, and it’s a device that has been practised with ruthless amorality by British tabloids for a century and by Fox News for two decades.

But the crucial difference between other global attack-dog media and The Australian is that it purports to be a quality newspaper — one described by then-prime minister Tony Abbott at its 50th birthday dinner in 2014 as “one of the world’s very best newspapers … no think-tank, no institution, no university has so consistently and so successfully captured and refined the way we think about ourselves”.

The Australian Holy Wars may appear to some people like an internecine media attack by one publication taking cheap ideological potshots at another. We beg to disagree.

Over the next two weeks, Crikey will catalogue one of the ugliest and most insidious features of Australian public life: the permanent spectacle of one of the country’s handful of serious daily news operations abusing its power to conduct personalised vindictive editorial warfare dressed up as objective reporting.

The behaviour of the “national broadsheet” towards its enemies is no dirty little secret. Almost all the players in politics, government, academia, science, media and policy know how it works. And every month or two they see it unfold, embarrassed, like watching a public flogging where you turn your head away. “Like a true narcissist, it lets its own interests, agendas and catfights affect the quality of the journalism in its pages,” says journalism professor Mark Pearson, who worked for the paper as a young journalist in the 1980s.

But there’s a reason insiders rarely comment or complain about Australian journalism’s most distasteful freak show. They know that any of us could be next. Everyone in the Australian public space is on notice: if you cross us, or our proprietor, his family, our worldview or our business interests, you could become the next victim of an Australian Holy War.

TOMORROW: The targets-in-chief

Part Two

Oct 20, 2017

The targets-in-chief: elites, academics, social reformers, media enemies, leftists and pussy feminists

Academic and journalist Margaret Simons

How does The Australian select targets for its holy wars? It’s not exactly complicated, says journalist and former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes — the paper attacks “anyone whom it perceives to be a critic”. It’s about “whether you are on the Left or the Right and whether you fit with its commercial objectives or stand in their way,” says journalism professor Mark Pearson. “Like a true narcissist, it lets its own interests, agendas and catfights affect the quality of the journalism in its pages.”

These are The Australian‘s public enemies #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6:

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Part Three

Oct 23, 2017

Rules of engagement: the tactics that inflict maximum damage and embarrassment

How does The Australian inflict damage on its enemies? There are four main weapons, say media academics Matthew Ricketson and Andrew Dodd: “First, it unleashes a torrent of articles contesting even of the tiniest points, so as to wipe the critic’s original point from everyone’s mind; second, it attacks the critic personally and pitilessly; third — somewhat paradoxically — it ignores the critic; and fourth, when all else fails, it simply continues asserting something as true as if no one has ever shown it was false.”

The paper’s Holy Wars are quasi-military campaigns: strategic, tactical and psychological. They are unrelenting and take no prisoners. Here’s how it works:

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Part Four

Oct 24, 2017

The war against sandal-wearing greenie climate alarmist Tim Flannery

On Australia Day 2007, scientist Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year at a ceremony on the lawns of Parliament House. “He has encouraged Australians into new ways of thinking about our environmental history and future ecological challenges,” declared then-prime minister John Howard as he presented Flannery with the award.

For The Australian, this was too much to take. In its news story, the Oz reported Howard as having “embraced his inner greenie”, and in its editorial said the decision would be “a controversial choice for some”.

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Part Five

Oct 25, 2017

The man behind the Holy Wars: it's about 'values', not ideology

The architect of The Australian Holy Wars is a bluntly spoken, highly intelligent, intuitive newspaperman who adores Rupert Murdoch, despises the soft-left pretentiousness of rivals Fairfax and the ABC, and loves ink on paper.

In 2002, when he became The Australian‘s editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell harnessed all those passions to create what he describes as a “campaigning” newspaper — and, in the process, changed the ethical framework of Australian journalism forever.

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Chapter Six

Oct 26, 2017

How to undermine a partisan public servant drunk on power

On a Sunday morning, soon after The Australian first launched what would become a five-year personal vendetta of almost 30,000 words against her, Gillian Triggs got a call from her son living in Paris. Why, he wanted to know, was she trending on Twitter ahead of pop megastar Taylor Swift?

Triggs was appointed as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012, and was previously dean of the Faculty of Law and challis professor of international law at the University of Sydney. The long-running campaign against Triggs flared up regularly during her tenure — especially during Senate estimates, but also in relation to The Australian‘s prolific writings on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

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Chapter Seven

Oct 27, 2017

Yes, the Oz is capable of important investigative journalism (when it's not trashing its enemies)

It was The Australian‘s classic investigative journalism that revealed war criminal and former Australian army reservist Dragan Vasiljkovic had changed his name and was working and living in Perth in 2005. He has just been sentenced to 15 years in jail in Croatia for his war crimes. And the Oz‘s recent pursuit of GetUp board member Carla McGrath, after her appointment to the Australian Press Council created an obvious conflict of interest, was supported by respected figures in journalism from all quarters.

That’s right. The Australian’s campaigns are not always irrational beat-ups or vicious personal attacks against ideological enemies. Often they’re genuine news stories that do the important work of civic journalism.

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Chapter Eight

Oct 30, 2017

The war against the leading inner-city, anti-Murdoch media critic wanker (AKA Paul Barry)

“Writing about Rupert Murdoch and his family is perhaps not a great career move, given that they have such power and patronage in the media in Australia, the UK, the US and rest of the world.” When Paul Barry wrote those words, in his 2013 book Breaking News: Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession, he was prophetically charting his own fate at the hands of the the Murdoch family and their editorial retainers. Since then, Barry has become one of the highest-ranking public enemies on News Corp’s wanted list.

In many ways Barry is the prototypical target for The Australian:

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Chapter Nine

Oct 31, 2017

Is the Oz the Wile E. Coyote of Australian journalism?

It’s a frustrating beast, The Australian. It’s got some great must-read journalism. And then there are its official dispatches from the front line of the culture wars.

Giving a name and putting a face on the enemy is central to how the paper reports the war. It gives a focus to the thousands of words thundering in an unending barrage, paragraph after paragraph. The faces say: “See! See! This is what we’re talking about!”

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Chapter Ten

Nov 01, 2017

The war against Julian Disney

It all started so nicely for Julian Disney, the seriously spoken, studious-looking former law professor, when he was appointed chair of the Australian Press Council in late 2009.

“Professor Disney,” noted News Corp in its formal submission to the federal government’s Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation in 2011, “has brought a fresh set of eyes and really focused on what the council has needed to do in its priorities … in him our industry has the calibre of its leadership that was sorely lacking.”

Two years later The Australian’s current editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker (then-editor of The Daily Telegraph) wrote: “Since Professor Disney’s appointment the Press Council’s role has been strengthened significantly and this newspaper is committed to fully abiding by it”.

Fast forward to August 2014. In a chest-beating editorial under the headline “Press Council off the rails”, The Australian declared that “this newspaper has lost confidence in APC chairman Julian Disney and deplores the direction in which he has taken the council”. The APC, thundered the editorial, “has become erratic in its rulings, unmoored from its foundations, ponderous and serpentine in its procedures, sidetracked by its chairman’s peculiar tastes and political predilections and ineffective as a body that promotes good practice”. The roots of Disney’s poor stewardship, it concluded, “are found in his biases and ideological activism”.

So how it did all turn so sour for the professor, and the newspaper that immodestly called itself the Heart of The Nation? How could a relationship that started so warmly end with more than 20,000 words of sledging, criticism and often personal attacks that described Disney as left-wing and anti-free speech.

The Holy War against Disney was tied up in another Oz campaign — one against media reforms that would strengthen the Australian Press Council. The push was in the wake of the 2012 Finkelstein review, and while Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was under increasing scrutiny following the phone hacking scandal in the UK.

In 2013 and 2014, in particular, the council frequently responded to articles in The Australian that they said were inaccurate or misrepresented the council’s position, often without success in getting the record corrected. In an introduction to the 2013-14 annual report of the Press Council, Disney said there had been “serious misrepresentations of council adjudications or other processes” in News Corp publications over the previous few years, “sometimes accompanied by extravagant criticism”.

TOMORROW: How it feels to be a Holy War casualty

Chapter Eleven

Nov 02, 2017

'Black is white, up is down … it is nutso': how it feels to be a Holy War casualty

“When it first started to happen to me I was in dread of what was said on Insiders, on The Drum,” said one victim of an Australian Holy War. “I could spend half a weekend in agony over the latest piece on Saturday in The Australian. I don’t read a lot of it now. After a while I just took it as a daily battering.”

Roz Ward says she suffered real physical effects from the stress of the campaign against her. “One of the things that you don’t expect is the persistence of it, the longevity,” she said. As reported in Crikey, in a single month — from February 10 until March 11 — this year The Australian published 27 articles about the Safe Schools program: 18 news articles, three opinion pieces, two editorials and three editions of Cut and Paste. And it quoted more than twice the number of people attacking the program as defending it, led by conservative education academic Kevin Donnelly and senators Cory Bernardi and George Christensen.

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Chapter Twelve

Nov 03, 2017

The war against the female Muslim agitator Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Yassmin Abdel-Magied describes herself as the “most publicly-hated Muslim in Australia” — thanks in no small part to a Holy War conducted against her by The Australian.

For someone who is a casual ABC presenter, engineer, writer, and activist, the paper’s coverage of her every move has been frenetic.

The first round of attacks was prompted by a comment from Abdel-Magied on the ABC’s Q&A in February saying that Islam was the most feminist religion. The Australian took offence, and turned Abdel-Magied into a fresh target. So, when she posted a statement on Facebook on Anzac Day saying: “Lest we forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)” (which she quickly deleted and apologised for) The Australian was off and running — almost 12,000 words have been written about her in the paper since that post.

The paper hounded the ABC about whether she would be sacked, covered her talk to students at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event, and launched a barrage of criticism against her July op-ed in Guardian Australia about her experience in the public eye.

As the Holy War against Abdel-Magied ramped up, it included a page-three story she had posted on Facebook about a discount code on glasses, and stories about a “taxpayer-funded” trip to the Middle East and her role on the Arab-Australia Council. Then came a front-page pointer when she announced she was moving to London. And, in early August, there was another page-three story dedicated to her quitting as chair of the Arab-Australia Council — reported as “losing her place” — because she was moving overseas. Most recently, yesterday, the Oz reloaded the guns, censuring Abdel-Magied, and dubbing her the “Queen of Bad Timing”, for comments she made on Twitter about the recent terror attack in New York.

“Whether or not one agrees with me isn’t really the point,” wrote Abdel-Magied in the Guardian Australia piece. “The reality is the visceral nature of the fury — almost every time I share a perspective or make a statement in any forum — is more about who I am than about what is said. We should be beyond that but we are not. Many, post-Anzac [Day this year], said the response wasn’t about me but about what I represent. Whether or not that is true, it has affected my life, deeply and personally.”

ON MONDAY, THE FINAL CHAPTER: How The Australian influences politics

Chapter Thirteen

Nov 06, 2017

How The Australian echo chamber influences politics

With its small, elderly, highly conservative readership, The Australian lacks direct influence on the electorate. This is all the more so as staff cuts at the loss-making broadsheet, and a greater focus on campaigning journalism, have resulted in less investigative reporting and news-breaking (there remain plenty of “exclusive” drops, but few actual scoops).

That doesn’t mean the paper lacks clout. It still retains the ability to influence other outlets, especially in the morning news cycle, particularly at ABC Radio, with its wide regional reach, where many producers take their cue from what has appeared in the national broadsheet that morning in determining what issues to discuss. It may not have a large readership, but most journalists, editors and producers read it, ensuring its campaigns are noticed and, often, echo around the country.

Campaigns also displace actual news or other political narratives, making it more difficult for political parties to push out messages. There’s only so much media real estate to go round, and a five-article-a-day vendetta in the national broadsheet crowds out messages from government and opposition alike.

With enough of an echo, unreality can take on its own weight and heft.

The Australian‘s confected campaign against Julia Gillard for alleged improprieties by her at the Australian Workers’ Union in the early 1990s dominated news coverage for weeks at a time during her period as prime minister. That was despite The Australian being repeatedly forced to apologise for errors in its reporting, and despite Gillard giving not one but two extended media conferences, in which journalists were invited to fire their best shots at her — before ultimately running out of questions, having been unable to leave a mark. As the non-scandal dominated political coverage for periods in 2012, it sucked oxygen away from matters of substance, and added to an atmosphere of instability that benefited Kevin Rudd’s campaign of treachery and destabilisation against her.

The paper is also read, naturally, by politicians. It’s influential among some (in the words of a Labor politician) “weak minded” ALP MPs, but most Labor MPs accept the partisan opposition of the paper as part of the political landscape, and most have sufficient experience to not be concerned about being attacked by it. But plainly it wields a far greater influence among conservative politicians, for whom it provides a valuable resource when they share targets (Gillian Triggs, for example), enabling a feedback loop in which politicians ask questions about articles in the paper, which then produce more articles.

This can magnify the impact of campaigns, but isn’t necessarily a positive, because it can distort perceptions of reality. For example, a number of Liberal champions of the abolition of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were actually convinced — and still are — that 18C was of huge importance to the electorate. This is partly because the issue is of interest to the membership base of the Liberal Party (which, being elderly, white and reactionary, means they are the prime demographic of The Australian). It is also because the paper never stopped talking about it, creating the illusion that people outside the political bubble, News Corp and the far right supported reform — or even understood the issue.

With enough of an echo, unreality can take on its own weight and heft.

Comments

92 comments

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92 thoughts on “Holy Wars – How The Australian targets and attacks its enemies

  1. Thanks for this series.

    It’s incredible the power Murdoch has over our polity. Do we have to wait until he is dead before a credible democracy can evolve from the neoliberal ashes?

    1. How it gets away with using ‘Australian’ I don’t understand. It’s owned by a US citizen that dumped Australia and dumps on the values that most Australian support. It should be renamed the ‘Fox’ – it’s feral and just doesn’t belong with the balanced press.

      1. Cowardly politicians who should have told him to sell when he renounced his citizenship, but changed the rules for him is how.

      2. And should have a Bounty on its head. A foreign Feral import.

    2. Sadly yes. As do the British and the Americans.

    3. Apparently you’ll wait in vain, Geo. The son groomed to take over is reportedly even more right wing reactionary than the old man. Hard to believe that’s possible, hey?

  2. Scary as all buggery but nowt new under the Sunking. The mystery is why do so many frogs keep believing this scorpion won’t inevitably sting them, no matter how supportive they have been of its interests.

  3. Surely The Ozz is liitle more than a vanity piece? a “Woirld According to Rupert”?

    1. This block to comments”?

  4. The principal newspaper (some may disagree) is “The Australian” and has been so since its inception in 1964. From its beginning to circa 1981 I think it is fair to say that the paper prided itself on its objective reporting. Indeed from t the late 70s to the early 80s the paper presented a two or three page informative article on historical personalities from J.M. Keynes to Percy Granger. Such an initiative was a wonderful “gift” for those undertaking year 11 & year 12 English. The attendant example of good writing was all too evident.

    As for contrast writers such as (the late) Max Harris had a column. Harris possessed a conviction for indecency because he sold a copy of Lady Chatterley’s to an undercover policeman who was masquerading as a consenting adult wishing to purchase the novel.

    Nowadays “contrast” is conspicuously absent from the pages of “The Australian”. We have all manner of articles concerning safe schools etc. but it was Harris (circa June or July 1980) who pointed out that to the best of his knowledge no associate of his was the worse, emotionally, for having had the hands of the Headmaster over his buttocks. As an aside it would be worth ascertaining, if only for vapid curiosity, just what percentage of the population from age 15 to 30 is familiar with the novels of D.H. Once upon a time one could not leave senior high school without an appreciation of Lawrence. Standards anyone ?

    As pointed out in a previous post on this matter, “Fox” might be a more accurate name for the paper; having regard to its ownership at least. Over the career of its history it hasn’t published anything that would offend a President of the USA but across its pages, nowadays, there isn’t a pretense of impartial reporting much less the conceding of an alternative view by any given reporter. One can anticipate the content of an article merely by observing the name of the author.

    To a large extent, all newspapers do (and have over time) endeavour to effect and affect options of the community. The difference is that “The Australian” (and as a newspaper it is by no means alone) considers itself as possessing a mandate to do so.

    As to my friend in correspondence, AR, “The mystery is why do so many frogs keep believing this scorpion won’t inevitably sting them” – well, AR, the answer is because frogs are impervious to the stings of scorpions. Communities, on the other hand, are not so impervious to the #1 mouthpiece of the nation.

    1. Used to be a good paper really I even subscribed a long time ago but when a paper runs ideology over factual, careful, reporting then it ceases to be informative. All stories immediately become suspect because you don’t know what or if there is an agenda. So in the end you just cannot trust it. So I cancelled my subscription.

      1. yep I remember 15? years ago reading the Oz because of its in-depth reporting and serious journalism. I still have an Oz online subscription (which I rarely use), along with the guardian and crikey – because I kinda want to know what they are saying…..but every month I agonise about the fact that I am putting money into their machine……but if there is anything that trump/brexit should have taught us progressives is we run a real risk of existing in an echo chamber where we think everyone agrees with us…how will be know if we don’t occasionally read ‘their’ paper?

      2. It was a good paper and I subscribed for 20 years. I still get the weekend paper to keep an eye on their latest rants. Chris Kenny dies in a ditch on everything for the coalition and has the objectivity of a slug observing an elephant.

  5. Poor Tim, I have noticed for some time that any News Corp climate change attack article, particularly if written by The Bolt will contain an assertion that warming has stopped since 1998 (wrong) and then will go on a diatribe against Flannery and comments he has made in the past about the consequences of global warming and that he bought a house near the sea! No climate facts just personal attacks on our local warmist spokesman. It is astounding that this Shyte can get to print but it does regularly thanks now doubt to The Evil One. Even Clive James wrote about 5000 words for the Oz recently deploying the same illogical dribble. And I thought Clive had a few brain cells but he is a sick man these days.

    1. The Blot has long suffered from Tourette’s re Flannery with the phrase “he claimed the dams would never fill again”.

    2. “It is astounding that this Shyte can get to print…”
      The lack of quality control is feature, not a bug.
      The attacks on Flannery are unvarying in their content, all quote-mined and interspersed with slurs, motivated by rage that anyone could dare doubt the rectitude of our economic course.
      It’s a template, signed off on years ago by Mitchell. Nobody bothers messing with it, it’s the sausage machine of anti-intellectualism, distraction and misinformation. Every one who picks up a cheque from News Corp for ‘climate skepticism’ has identical content.

  6. I suppose any propaganda sheet has some set of “values” …

  7. Oink oink oink, mayday. Flying pigs about to crash land due to lack of airport.

  8. I always get Mitchell mixed up with the dog fucker, but I don’t think the confusion matters.

  9. I was a regular buyer of the Weekend Australian. It has (or had) great columnists and a very good Arts section, as well as that old staple, News. It always slanted right but you take that into account.

    But then it started slanting its news repporting, hardly pretending to hide its bias. It was no longer a journal if record, it was no better than its tabloid stablemates, often acting like the propaganda arm of the Howard Government. Further, it started devoting acres of newsprint to lengthy, turgid articles boosting voodoo climate science. I decided I didn’t need to pay $2 a week (or whatever it was back then) for this crap.

    Chris Mitchell ended up preaching to the converted.

  10. 2002 – the year that The Australian turned to toilet paper.

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