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

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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.

The paper applies the same breathless “gotcha” aggression and accusatory headline treatment to leftists, social campaigners, academics and totally trivial issues as it does towards sleazy businessmen, politicians and corrupt governments.

Take the paper’s revelations about Clive Palmer, a long-running campaign steered relentlessly by previous editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, that challenged the former MP for Fairfax’s claims to be a multi-millionaire, to be a professor, or to be building a replica of the Titanic. It reported on his ownership of a Sunshine Coast resort, where he also built a dinosaur park (Mitchell writes in his memoir Making Headlines that Palmer named dinosaurs after Mitchell and reporter Hedley Thomas).

The pursuit has continued under current editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker. In early July, The Australian hunted Palmer down on a luxury cruise in Venice as liquidators try to recoup entitlement payments for his previous company Queensland Nickel.

The Australian has also campaigned on behalf of besieged individuals — Muhamed Haneef’s terrorism charge was doggedly investigated by Hedley Thomas, who found a series of mistakes in the arrest and charge of Haneef, and won a Gold Walkley award for his work. Haneef was later cleared of all charges and was awarded compensation for the Australian Federal Police’s mistakes.

Mitchell took pride in running a campaigning newspaper. The problem is that the paper applies the same breathless “gotcha” aggression and accusatory headline treatment to leftists, social campaigners, academics and totally trivial issues as it does towards sleazy businessmen, politicians and corrupt governments. And the problem with that equivalence is that every campaign — the irrational public hangings and the important exposes — is dressed up with the same gravitas.

“Going after people is part of The Australian‘s DNA, the paper is relentless and unabashed about it,” one former senior newsroom staffer told Crikey. But if another newspaper ran the same story for a week on its front page and in the editorial pages and cartoons, says this ex-insider, the reader would be given a clear signal, by this treatment, that the story was of great public importance.

“If a paper like The Age went after someone day in and day out, every day for three weeks or even one week, and every day put a story on page one, the signal The Age would be giving to readers is that this is really bad, you need to pay attention to this.” But, says the former journalist, “The Oz is different.”

How can readers trust The Australian’s news values when they see the same treatment for both Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s social media post on Anzac Day, and a vital expose of a mining magnate and a former member of parliament?

At The Australian, everyone — the good, the bad and the ugly — is tarred with the same brush.

MONDAY: The war against Paul Barry