Keith Windschuttle

The future of the press, if it has one, has been big news in the past month. Some major titles in the United States are in deep financial trouble and one of America’s best media analysts, William McGowan, has just published Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. In Australia, the leading basket case is Fairfax Media, whose major newspapers are in serious decline. The company’s share price fell from $5 in 2007-08 to $1.20 in March 2011.

Yet some newspapers continue to thrive. Since Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, its sales have increased from 2,011,882 copies per day in 2007 to 2,092,523 in 2010—a 4 per cent increase, and during a recession. It is America’s best-selling daily newspaper. In contrast, our own national financial daily, the Australian Financial Review, lost 11 per cent of its circulation between 2005 and 2010 – down from 85,000 sales a day to 75,000. The Wall Street Journal’s circulation amounts to 0.67 per cent of the American population of 310.9 million, whereas the Financial Review sells to only 0.33 per cent of Australia’s 22.6 million. In other words, to match the American benchmark, the Financial Review should be selling twice what it does now.

Many media commentators have blamed the internet for Fairfax’s problems, not only for providing an explosion of alternative information sites but also because the company bungled its efforts to put the Financial Review online. The truth is that this paper has for too long been a source of lousy journalism. In contrast to the fine writing and conservative bias of the Wall Street Journal, political reporters on the Financial Review play left-wing politics. They are relentlessly biased towards the Labor Party and against the Coalition. Political editor Laura Tingle uses terminology such as “liars and clunkheads” to describe Tony Abbott and his colleagues. In Sydney financial circles the paper is a standing joke. The chairman of the Australian Securities Exchange once famously cancelled his subscription. For two decades, while small-business people groaned under federal and state legislation on unfair dismissal, Financial Review journalists persisted in defending these laws as good policy, to the despair of the biggest sector of the paper’s potential readership. The Friday “Review” section usually reprints one, and very often two, long essays from the English socialist magazine New Statesman, plus other reprints (all readily available online or on iPad) from leftist publications like the New York Review of Books. A staff writer once told me this was conceived as an exercise to “civilise” business people. Any publication that patronises its readers and insults their intelligence this way deserves its fate.

When Sydney Morning Herald writer David Marr in 2002 described the “natural culture of journalism” as a “kind of vaguely soft-Left inquiry” he was describing quite accurately the world of Fairfax. The underlying problem for the organisation is that it has allowed its editorial pages to be captured by leftist journalists who prefer to write only for people like themselves. Once they reach a critical mass, leftists in the media recruit those who fit the same political and cultural profile. They become intolerant of viewpoints different from their own. Instead of reporting opinion, they want to win arguments. They thereby become estranged from at least half their potential readership, guaranteeing their circulations will continue to fall.

The process is far from confined to Australia and explains much that is happening in the United States. William McGowan describes the same scenario on the New York Times. Obsessed with leftist causes such as multiculturalism, ethnic and sexual diversity, soft pop cultural news and counter-cultural attitudes still stuck in the Vietnam War era, its journalists have set the paper at odds with the values and perspectives of mainstream America. In doing so, McGowan argues, its staff are squandering the great tradition of American journalism. I would argue, however, there is still some hope in the continuing success of the Wall Street Journal, whose example can hardly be ignored. But what happens after Rupert dies? 

I received some kind e-mails about my piece in last month’s column on the death by silence imposed by the Australian historical profession on Alan Frost’s great work The Global Reach of Empire. One reader asked about other examples. Well, John Gascoigne’s 2002 book The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia got better treatment than Frost in the academic history journals but was almost totally ignored by the press, especially the review pages and supplements of the major newspapers. It really deserved front-page treatment since it overturned Manning Clark’s once-compelling scenario of Australian history driven by conflict between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Clark had assumed the British Enlightenment was secular, like the French. Gascoigne showed it was imbued with religion, especially the evangelical variety, a fact that revises much about convict and Aboriginal history too. My favourite book by Gascoigne is Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment (1994), a great insight into one of our most important founding fathers.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant.

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