After almost a lifetime of reading the Age, Melbourne’s 162-year-old morning newspaper, I am debating whether to cancel my subscription. This is not so much about digital technology as, in the words of a veteran ex-subscriber friend, because the paper is “biased and boring”.
A lot of people around Melbourne are saying the same thing and, in a way they would not have a few years ago, dismiss the Age with disdain. They agree with the description of the late Peter Ryan, in one of his last Quadrant columns, that it has become a “feeble and foolish newspaper”.
How could a once very good newspaper fall so low? The financial squeeze of recent years has affected it severely, but there is much more at work. In a few words, it is over-managed and under-edited, puts process before product—a common complaint about management everywhere—and, worst of all, it is bizarrely politically correct. Politically correct in this context means censoring the news at the expense of reader interest and thus circulation and accurate public debate.
Similar complaints are made about its 185-year-old Fairfax Media stable-mate the Sydney Morning Herald, but this is more specifically about the Age newspaper version and excludes specialist pages such as sport and finance.
The circulation of both has been falling at 7 to 8 per cent a year, twice the rate of their tabloid competitors and is now, at 96,000 for the Age and 102,000 for the SMH, around half that of earlier in the century. The rival tabloid circulations have declined only about half as much. Digital versions partly explain the falls but in my observation widespread reader dissatisfaction is also part.
It goes back a long way. The weaknesses have been seeping in over more than forty years, but have become marked in the past decade. Questions arise about how suited a conventional public company with no dominant shareholder is to owning a newspaper.
Until about 1970 family dynasties, going back to the mid-nineteenth century, controlled both organisations: Fairfax in the case of the SMH and the David Syme family company for the Age. Neither was ideal, but they offered commitment and collective memories of how to do things going back generations. The management bureaucracies were small, close, fairly decentralised among the operating units, and administrators often had spent their entire careers there. Management usually tried to bring up future administration and editorial executives from within.
The SMH was the most respected newspaper in the country, and while the Age had been rather stolid it was a substantial and readable paper of record. When Graham Perkin, with his flair, energy and drive, became editor in 1965, with Syme support he soon turned it into a very good newspaper.
By around 1970, however, financial pressure and family changes pushed David Syme & Co into merging with Sydney’s stronger John Fairfax & Sons. The old intimate simplicity of both was weakened in a much bigger public company, while 1970s radicalism began asserting itself among journalists, bringing a certain lofty preciousness. The notion of journalism being about opinion and questioning rather than plain reporting was creeping into society generally.
Fate intervened tragically in 1975 when Perkin, still only forty-five, died suddenly of a heart attack. While some good and some not so good editors followed Perkin, most had short tenures—not helped by the demands of the job, declining rapport with distant Sydney control and changes in their powers.
Death intervened again in 1987 with the passing at eighty-five of family patriarch Sir Warwick Fairfax. Sir Warwick had had his problems earlier as chairman but was liked and had the status of constitutional monarch, a symbol of continuing family influence and stability. Division and mistrust among the extensive Fairfax family followed and—to cut short another long story—trouble came with most of the family selling shares and a period of takeover and receivership. After a few years Fairfax settled as a major independent public company, without a dominant shareholder. The board, most members with management backgrounds and little experience of the industry and its share of prima donnas, made its presence felt more than is usual in a big company. The management bureaucracy expanded nevertheless, with most recruited from outside the industry. The centralising trend continued.
Challenges from outside for control of the company, unstable share prices, frequent changes of chief executives and editors and changes in their powers became disconcertingly common and some of the board’s choices of both people and policies were maladroit.
Fairfax Media, as it became, was therefore not in the best position to meet the harsh challenges from new technology in the twenty-first century. It at first under-estimated the way in which digitised classified advertising would bite into its “rivers of gold” printed classified advertising but, arguably, then over-estimated the financial capacity of digital editorial to replace print.
It met the challenge with more and more resort to modern management favourites such as new (but not necessarily better) ways of doing things, the “forward looking, evidence-based” approach, focus groups, consultants, meetings and detailed planning. Any experienced journalist could have told the board over a sandwich lunch what the consultants and focus groups told them so expensively: people want the news in a paper to be different from television, with more explanation of events. They also like local news, and in Melbourne they get irritated by an excess of Sydney news. The editorial line should be just a bit to the centre-Left of the competing Murdoch newspapers.
This was actually what was being done, arguably to excess already, and had been done for decades, but the Age powers-that-be took it to extremes, like a dogma. They created a Planet Age world, with a radical increase in comment, opinion and analysis of the news and emphasis on “exclusives” and exposés at the expense of more conventional news, including the kind of stuff that is in other newspapers and on television that most catches public attention and is what people talk about. Exposés about sexual or child abuse, business misdoings and state government frailties are all to the good, but they make bleak breakfast reading on the front page.
Explanation and interpretation of the news are also good things—if they are done well. Again, the problem with the Age is excess. There is too much comment, much of it not very good, and not enough supporting information. All this comment comes at the expense of mainstream news reporting, which is uneven. Formula seems to dull the intuitive news sense that is the life blood of journalism.
Deaths and other classified personal notices are another critical ingredient for a local newspaper, but for whatever reason most days now the tabloid Herald Sun has five or six times as many as the Age and much more reader-friendly retail advertising. Even the Age’s television guide is not entirely reliable.
In giving priority to matters relating to the government of Victoria it does a good job. But it has very little on important interstate politics or other interstate news and not as much as it should about world affairs. As an example of bad balance, it might ignore a major political story interstate—the Eddie Obeid saga in Sydney comes to mind—and then have a minor story about some place in New South Wales that Victorians have probably never heard of, without saying where it is; or it might say a case is in the “Supreme Court” without indicating that it is the New South Wales Supreme Court.
The Age also seems to forget that reading a newspaper takes time. Since Rupert Murdoch was a boy, and even more so now, a newspaper should be designed for a half-hour read in the train to town, or its equivalent. Age reporting—and comment—too often rambles, is not as clear or crisp as it ought to be, and opinion intrudes. The Age does not do concise well.
The poor cover of conventional news is the reason I am thinking of switching my subscription to the Australian, which I usually buy over the counter. The Australian and its Herald Sun stable-mate have their flaws, but they usually have the fuller, clearer and more perceptive cover of the daily news that I would expect to find in a daily newspaper.
Political correctness also goes back a long way. I am tempted to use a lot of adjectives here, but weird will do to cover the whole subject. Back around 1970, Victoria introduced massive changes in education, including radically reordering the curriculum and weakening school discipline. Everybody was talking about it, but although the Age prided itself as a pro-education paper and on getting behind the news, it reported this upheaval as nothing more than interesting administrative changes. I and others had the impression that it was doing public relations for the left-wing teachers’ unions and others behind the changes, wanting to avoid any adverse public reaction. It was not the only time the Age has run dead.
With the Cain–Kirner Labor government of 1982 to 1992 Age reporting was again deadpan. Everybody except the Age was talking, usually with alarm, about over-adventurous ministers and the upheaval in “restructuring” state services, politicising the public service and financial risk-taking.
Some years later I raised this conversationally with Creighton Burns, the longest-serving editor after Perkin and one of the better ones. “We wanted to give the first Labor government in a generation a go,” he said. If the Age had reported the Cain years with the same dedication as it did the Lionel Murphy tapes exposé in Sydney around the same time, a better-structured public debate might have developed and influenced things for the better. Burns also said younger journalists wanted climate change presented more aggressively. Age environmental journalism is often close to activism.
A few years later the Age shouted out on page one the most hysterical journalism I have ever read, over the alleged “Stolen Generations”. The Human Rights Commission report involved, Bringing Them Home, was mainly a few pages of quotations from a sample of part-European people interviewed about the emotional difficulties of living between two cultures after being removed from their families. This and the whole question of apparent indigenous child neglect were and still are major issues which need much more public understanding—which they did not get. Instead the Age spun out a fantastic story of a vast, previously undisclosed “government policy” of turning undifferentiated “Aborigines” into cultural whites. The only possible justification for this in the report is a loosely worded introduction which, accidentally or otherwise, implies such nonsense.
In 2003, unlike other media, the Age ignored the commemoration of 200 years since the first, if short-lived, white settlement in what became Victoria. Its fervour now in favour of same-sex marriage resembles that in favour of the republic in 1999.
Conservative columnists have not had an easy time. In Burns’s day the Age ran Michael Barnard, whose sharp pen regularly took on controversial aspects of feminism and trendy education. People liked to read him and often bought the paper for him, as they do with tabloids for Andrew Bolt today. Readers appreciate contrast and some pointed comment, but some politically correct staff wanted Barnard out, as not suited to a “small-l liberal” newspaper, and he was not always welcomed socially.
A subsequent editor dropped Peter Ryan’s column after pressure from Paul Keating over his wittily acidic candour. (Ryan then went to Quadrant.) Fairfax paid handsomely to poach another Quadrant figure, Paddy McGuinness, from the Australian, where his erudite, concise and precise candour was a big attraction. The Sydney Morning Herald kept him longer, but the Age dropped him fairly quickly. He was bitterly angry over what he believed was beheading due to pressure from staff who did not like what he was saying, and particularly the lively way he said it. It was not just politics. Another victim of being interesting was the warm-hearted, witty, leftish columnist Bob Millington.
These days the Age is mostly anodyne. Lots of “columnists”, and columns of other comment, editorials and letters on message, a dirge about racism, refugees, multiculturalism, climate change, man’s inhumanity to Aborigines and woman (but mainly women in prestigious careers), state school funding, conspicuous conservatives and so on and on. I usually feel I have read it before or that the point could be made briefly in a letter.
The news columns are not quite as biased but are still more biased, selective and opinionated than they should be. The views expressed might be unobjectionable, but Age readers are effectively shielded from information other than what is politically correct about some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change and the physical and financial limits of renewable energy.
Robert Murray is a former Fairfax journalist and a frequent contributor to Quadrant.