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

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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