September 6, 2012

Editor’s Note

September 2012 Editor's Note

By John van Tiggelen
John van Tiggelen.

Quality journalism may be several things, but it is not the hunt for an imaginary Order of Lenin medal. In 1996, a few months after John Howard replaced Paul Keating as prime minister, the editor of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, then still a broadsheet, unleashed his senior reporters to dig up Manning Clark, the late, left-leaning historian. Clark, according to claims by a gloomy poet, had once been seen wearing an Order of Lenin medal, one of the Soviet Union’s highest honours, at a dinner party. Tens of thousands of words, including eight pages in a single issue, were devoted to the case and the shame it bestowed on Clark’s supporters, and by extension on the country. Clark was a communist, a spy, a traitor etc. His famous History of Australia, which Howard-era conservatives despised for its lack of patriotic vainglory, was thus rendered meaningless. Order of Lenin medals, after all, had to be earnt.

Fortunately for Clark’s widow and children, the shock and awe campaign against his reputation ended in silliness. There was no Order of Lenin medal. It was all tosh.

It’s worth recalling this episode in light of The Australian’s voluble assault last month on Julia Gillard’s short-lived, long-ago career as a labour rights lawyer. The editor was one and the same, Chris Mitchell. His modus operandi can be summed up like this: 1) pick a target, 2) identify a rumour as a smoking gun and 3) go in with a thousand air rifles, and spray everything. You just might strike that Order of Lenin medal.

But enough of the Murdoch press. Quality journalism took a bigger hit this month. Or did it? Running a finger down the long list of those Fairfax stalwarts accepting redundancies last week, as published in Crikey, the first thought was not, ‘Gee, we’ll miss them.’ It was, ‘Well, they’ve had a good innings.’ And did they what. Clearly the Fairfax business model (and the News Ltd one, for that matter) was not merely unsustainable because of changes happening elsewhere. It was top-heavy: the senior writers never left because there was nowhere else to go.

In 2008, when the lofty Sydney Morning Herald offices overlooking Darling Harbour descended to Pyrmont and the flow of advertising gold had begun to ebb, management decreed a wage freeze on editorial staff earning over $100,000. Those of us on less didn’t think this sounded entirely unreasonable, but the union decided we should agitate in support of more pay for all. In response, management let it be known that three in five journalists, photographers and subeditors were actually members of the $100,000-plus club. The joint was as youthful as a politburo.

Four years on, those die-hards/wise heads/mentors are finally leaving the building. Most have been with Fairfax since the ’80s, or were hired on famously generous terms in the mid ’90s by the then editor, John Alexander. Many are leaving with payouts upwards of a quarter of a million dollars – they’ll get by. The sad thing is not that their talents can’t be replaced. It’s that they won’t be.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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