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October 03rd 2014 print

Roger Franklin

At The Age, Cruelty to Trees

Not too many people read Fairfax media's southern flagship these days, but if you happen across a copy of this sad publication don't spare too much sympathy for staffers waiting for the final edition. Think instead like a Fairfax writer and weep for the forests razed and pulped in the meantime

fairfax chartNot so long ago, a very happy tree grew in the forest. Then, one day, there came the sound of chainsaws as the tree and all its sylvan siblings were rudely cut down, the latest of Gaia’s cellulose-rich children to be swallowed whole by capitalism’s rapacious, planet-mauling maw. Boxes and cardboard, greeting cards and toilet tissue – that was to be the grim lot of those noble forest monarchs, most of them anyway. For our tree, though, destiny reserved an especially horrible fate.

Chipped, pulped, pounded and flattened into a near-endless sheet, our very special tree was wound into a big roll, loaded onto a carbon-belching truck and taken to a printing plant on the outskirts of Melbourne. That was where the driver learned his dispatcher had given him an outdated address.

“When The Age’s circulation fell to a pitiful 113,000 weekday sales, Fairfax Media sold this site for $20 million,” the nightwatchman told the driver, who had to get back into his cab and drive all the way to Ballarat, where the newspaper is now printed. As those carbon-intensive miles made his odometer spin, he contemplated the $220 million that the Tullamarine plant had cost to build just 11 years ago and silently rejoiced that he had never been so foolish as to include FXJ shares in his self-managed super portfolio.

Fact was, like most Melbournians, the driver was barely aware of the Age’s existence. The last time he glanced at a copy it had been full of stories that made him feel unwelcome, despised even. There were sermons about how wicked and unhealthy it is to live in a house, just like his, with more than a couple of tiny bedrooms and a yard big enough for his kids to play.

There were reports, too, decrying the state government’s plans to build a tunnel under the northern edge of central Melbourne, which he could not understand why anyone would oppose. An underground link between the Eastern and Westgate freeways would mean his truck no longer had to crawl through Fitzroy, Carlton, Parkville and Kensington, belching exhaust fumes all the way. Did Age writers and readers really want their kids inhaling his diesel’s particulants? Apparently they did, just as they didn’t mind rat-running motorists shooting up and down their backstreets to avoid all that arterial congestion.

At the plant, another problem. The loading bay was blocked, so he grabbed what that tree had become, tomorrow’s newspaper hot off the presses, and settled down to catch up on the news. It wasn’t good, not good at all, although the edition’s sad tidings struck him as being, you know, a bit removed from reality, certainly as he experienced it.

There was a column by some half-an-academic and ABC radio host about how the burqa, or niqab or whatever it was called, was no different to dressing your kid in a Spiderman costume. Where do they find these people, the truckie wondered? If someone told his 12-year-old daughter she’d be taken for a slut unless she covered up head-to-foot, denied the pleasure ever after of feeling the wind in her hair and sun on her neck, he’d punch that person in the nose.  He must be one of the rednecks the Age writers were so worried about, he surmised. If so, good!

A turn of the page and the truckie’s blood came a little closer to boiling. As an owner-operator, his profits and family’s security had much to do with the price of fuel, which was through the roof. It was something he had never been able to understand. Australia has lots of energy sources yet the price of filling his tank was ruinous. If only they would cut the tax, he could be more productive, maybe buy another rig for his son to drive. Instead, like his electricity bill at home, his fuel overheads were staggering. The Age seemed to think that inhibiting the creation of wealth is a good thing.  It was a curious perspective, but he could not fault the paper for hypocrisy, not in light of the way the board had consistently foiled their own investors’ aspirations.

He listened to the radio quite a lot while on the road, and the person quoted as saying Tony Abbott was forcing the planet to “commit suicide” by exporting  Australian coal rang a bell. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is an unusual name, one that niggled at the memory. Then it came back to him. It would have to be the same Schellnhuber who claimed the Himalayan glaciers would all be melted and gone by 2035. He even said the melt-by date had been easy to calculate – only to eat his words when it turned out that the Himalayan ice fields were not only much smaller than he had claimed, but entirely safe as well.

The truckie wasn’t much for linguistics, but he grasped in an instant that Schellnhuber must be German for “Flannery” and he turned to another page, just a little jealous that someone with useful mates should have picked up $180,000 a year for a part-time job involving not much work at all.

Another page, another blood-temperature spike – and a reminder why a newspaper is apt to become an oldspaper if it is printed so far from its market that deadlines are even earlier than the ABC’s nightly TV news. Peter Hartcher was writing that Tony Abbott had confirmed his divisive presence by backing a call to banish burqas, or whatever they are called, from Parliament House. Except he hadn’t. What the PM actually said was that he didn’t want a ban, but Hartcher must have missed that bit and his editors likewise.

Perhaps the sports pages would offer some relief. But, no, they were no better, worse even

There was a story saying Essendon coach James Hird was trying to save his coaching job. The truckie laughed out loud. Only yesterday the Age reported online, and via its 3AW radio station, that Hird had already been fired. Now he hadn’t been.

The Age seemed a lot more certain about the nasty nature of football than the career moves of one of its most famous sons. Going by the published opinion of a young woman from Sydney who had attended the previous weekend’s Grand Final, the AFL is  a cesspit of sexism, homophobia and racism.

The loading bay was clear – the truck delivering the wind generator that Fairfax editors were certain would power future press runs had pulled away – and he was finally free to deliver his reams of virgin newsprint. Reading the Age had turned his stomach, but it was with great tenderness that he put down his edition.

He enjoyed nature, the fishing and the camping in the bush, and he loved the smell of trees. How sad, he thought, that one had surrendered its life for no better purpose than to be smeared with Fairfax ink.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online