The dilemma of working at The Australian

November 30th, 2015 by admin

IN a piece published in The Australian today about the retiring editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, Errol Simper captures one side of the dilemma that is The Australian very well. (The Oz is paywalled but you can read the tribute by googling the headline: “Young Chris Mitchell, you were simply Devine”. In summary, Simper says what a fine editor Chris was).

During my 11 years in the Oz newsroom as a sub-editor, reporter and editor, I can say with all honesty that it was the best edited paper I’ve ever worked on, and probably harnessed the best stable of reporters I’d ever worked with too.

But this is just one side of the beast. The other is the unwavering, often knee-jerk conservative ideology that the Oz trumpets so readily. During my years there, roughly corresponding with the time that Paul Kelly was editor-in-chief, this extremism was usually kept in check by a broad pluralism that recognised its readers were best served by a range of views.

Sadly, this position gradually gave way to the one-sided extremism of the neo-conservatives. The paper began to act more like a propaganda sheet for the right wing of the Liberal Party than a broad-based sounding board for big ideas and public policy. This period roughly coincided with Mitchell’s ascendancy as editor-in-chief.

And therein lies the dilemma. No matter how well written, no matter how well edited, the paper’s right-wing bias is overwhelming. The tone is hectoring and unforgiving, making it frustrating to read and tricky to work around as a journalist.

As a reporter you learn how to navigate your way around masthead biases that don’t fit with your own values or approach to news gathering. It’s a survival technique you have to master to balance the demands of editors with the trust you build with your sources. You have little choice – your reputation is at stake. You learn that if you give a nod to your editor’s views and then proceed more or less as you had planned you can keep everyone happy. If you maintain a strong supply of copy it helps keep the editors off your back. On a good day, this means you can deliver a cracking story, with all the facts checked, with the sources verified that you have dug up on your own and that they can run with some prominence.

Trouble is, this becomes increasingly disheartening when your stories touch on or flesh out some unsatisfactory implications of policies or directions the editors support. Editors react by commissioning stories countering the thrust of your own and running them upfront under 60-point headlines. At some point you start to question whether you might be better off elsewhere.

That’s what I did. But I was big enough to acknowledge what a fine bunch of journalists they had gathered in the Oz newsroom and what a pleasure it had been learning from them and honing my craft. In the end though, they cramped my style too much and I left. No regrets.

Having said that I can’t read the paper anymore. It’s too distressing seeing ideology run rampant because it suits the bottom line of the proprietor and his allies.

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