July 2014

The Nation Reviewed

The decline of the ‘Australian’

By Margaret Simons
The decline of the ‘Australian’
Talking about the narcissistic national daily only encourages it

This year the Australian newspaper celebrates its 50th anniversary. Rupert Murdoch will be in town to attend the party on 15 July. Thousands of words of self-congratulation have already been published in its pages, and more will doubtless follow.

It is certainly an occasion worth marking, though perhaps more critically than the outlet itself will do. When Murdoch founded Australia’s first general interest national newspaper in 1964, it was a revolutionary move, one of the few truly pioneering feats in Australian journalism.

The Australian has greatly improved journalism in this country, despite more or less constant controversies and some bad missteps by the proprietor.

There was the sacking of Adrian Deamer in 1971, despite the fact that he was one of the masthead’s most successful editors and probably rescued it from early closure. Deamer later claimed he was let go because Murdoch disliked the political flavour of the paper under his editorship – too bleeding heart – and he was insufficiently acquiescent. Then there was the political campaigning against Gough Whitlam in 1975 that saw journalists go on strike because their copy was being altered.

A national daily newspaper is a fine and important thing. It is one of the artefacts that can make a nation. As the media historian Mitchell Stephens has observed, the sharing of news and information is a cohesive force in society – even when views about the news strongly differ. A country without a national news outlet that reports politics and society with depth and commitment is less of a nation. It is certainly harder to govern and a tougher field for meaningful democracy.

There have been times in the Australian’s history, particularly Paul Kelly’s five-year tenure as editor-in-chief during the Hawke and Keating governments, when observers on all sides of politics willingly conceded it was the best newspaper in Australia – this as the Fairfax group was locked in the latest round of its perpetual management agonies. Then as now, the paper had a distinct identity, character and broad political position. This is no bad thing.

Kelly’s paper engaged with, and supported, the market reforms of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It wasn’t partisan, but favoured what Kelly, in a book published during his editorship, called the end of the Australian Settlement: a century of public policy based on White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. During Kelly’s tenure, the Australian was socially liberal (it made Eddie Mabo its Australian of the Year for 1992) and economically dry.

It was during this time that the newspaper launched its media section. I wrote for it in the early 1990s, and remember the section editor telling me the challenge was to prove that News Limited, as it then was, could fairly report the industry it dominated.

How times have changed.

These days, the Australian frequently claims to be the best newspaper in Australia – a boast it didn’t need to make earlier, because its quality was widely acknowledged. And even though the competition is weaker, many people would not agree with the self-assessment. Even those who support the paper’s political slant are distressed by its increasing self-obsession. There is a difference between pursuing ideas with intellectual muscle on the one hand and name-calling as a substitute for argument on the other. The Australian is increasingly partisan, its campaigns more belligerent, its attacks on its critics more persistent and nasty.

The sharing of news and information is a cohesive force in society – even when views about the news strongly differ

Before I go further, I should make some declarations. I have history with the Australian. I worked there for about two years in the 1990s. More recently, though, I have been on the end of nearly 10,000 words of attacks in its pages. These followed from my strong criticism of how the newspaper reported murky Victoria Police politics.

I won’t recap (it’s all online) other than to declare that I am never again likely to be favourably mentioned in its pages. This has become part of the geography as I navigate my professional life.

And here is the paradox at the centre of this assessment of the national daily on its 50th birthday. Even as I critique it, I want to argue that we should talk about it less. It is losing touch, and if we become purely reactive, the rest of us will lose touch too.

The reason the political class, for want of a better term, spends so much time talking about the Australian is that for the past ten years or so the paper has been growing gradually more remarkable, and not in a good way.

Chris Mitchell, the Australian’s editor-in-chief (and the editor under Paul Kelly), has been described by Elisabeth Wynhausen, a journalist he sacked in 2009, as “a tireless strategist whose best and worst instincts [are] filtered through the same tendency to turn almost any subject into an excuse for an argument with a bunch of imagined enemies. He treated the paper like the spoils of war.”

Increasingly the Australian is a niche media outlet. Its nationwide weekday circulation in print form is around 112,000 and falling. Figures compiled on behalf of the industry aimed at measuring total reach, both online and in print, place it near the bottom of the tree, well below the Sydney Morning Herald.

Yet there is no doubt that the political class spends more time thinking about the Australian than its competitors, partly because it is so vehement but also because it articulates and enables much of the agenda of the right wing of politics (and the present government). Those who wish to critique the right end up dealing with the Australian, and as often as not they find themselves cast as its enemies. This has a flattening effect on the landscape of public life. Critics have their numerous differences and disagreements, but in the pages of the Australian they become one tribe: the enemy. “Left-wingers”.

People should resist this. To the extent critics react to the Australian’s agenda, they dance to its tune. There are many other things we should be talking about. I am tired of the main conversation being a reaction to people whose true influence is waning, a fact that can be hidden by the fury of their excesses.

The Australian’s constant campaigns against the ABC seem to have had no impact, as repeated surveys and public opinion polls find most Australians surveyed trust the national broadcaster and regard it as value for money.

Recently, one of the newspaper’s columnists, Chris Kenny, sued the ABC over a Chaser skit that showed a mocked-up picture of him fucking a dog. In an article for the Australian last month, Kenny equated the vexations of his own affair with the concerns of the ABC audience at large.

He noted that only two ABC on-air staff had criticised the Chaser skit or expressed support for him. This meant that the others “were either united in a groupthink belief that the skit was acceptable, or they believe ABC critics invite such a depiction, or they are cowed into holding the company line. And I don’t know which would be worst.”

A fourth possibility seems not to have occurred to him – that most didn’t think it was important, and had better things to think about.

Outside this narrow, windowless corridor in the culture war, most Australians have never heard of Chris Kenny and don’t care about his dispute.

Most Australians don’t even know that there is a culture war and wouldn’t care much if they did. The Australian is not addressing these people. Nor are those who only react to its agenda.

Its narcissistic tendencies are, I think, the key to why we spend too much time thinking about the Australian. Narcissists are very powerful and energetic personalities, adept at involving those around them in their drama and feeding their need for attention. They exercise a strong gravitational pull, all in the defence of the huge yet fragile ego.

It is horrible to be attacked on the front page of the national daily. Faced with the barrage, there are two potential responses: to run for cover or to adopt the same shrill, immoderate tone and attitude of one’s attackers. At different times I probably fell into both those errors. I am grateful to those other commentators who had the courage to critique the Australian.

At various times it was suggested to me I should sue for defamation. Yet now I think I would find it difficult to prove damage to reputation. The national daily did not change a single mind. Life continues just as it was before all that sound and fury.

It may be that the Australian does not survive Rupert Murdoch, given how much money it loses. That would be a great shame. We need a national daily, and the Australian still carries good journalism. But to the extent that it is lost in its black-and-white world, it represents a missed opportunity for us all. As the best reporters on its staff acknowledge, the Australian’s faults undermine its presence far more effectively than its critics.

How should we deal with a narcissist? Not by adopting its agenda. Until and unless it returns to sense, there are other things to talk about. 

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.

@MargaretSimons

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