Back in mid-January — the 15th, to be precise — I very nearly took up station at the keyboard to mark a golden anniversary, for it was on that day in 1973 the phone rang in my parents’ Yarraville home and Mum took a message. The note on my pillow said: ‘You’ve been accepted as a cadet journalist on the Sun News-Pictorial. You start next week.”
I had turned 18 three days earlier and, had the phone not rung, I’d have settled for the consolation prize of law at Monash, which would have been a disaster for me and the bar as well. Since then I’ve worked for bad editors and mad editors, for petty tyrants, bullies, backstabbers, overpaid fools and, in just a few instances, editors who inspired. The editor I really want to work for, though, is David Anderson of the ABC. Not much chance of that, obviously, as the national broadcaster doesn’t hire conservatives, but one can still dream of how nice it must be to labour under his relaxed gaze.
Every journo fears the mega-screw-up, the got-it-wrong debacle that will generate a published apology, a defamation settlement or, in the worst cases, a summons to Mahogany Row and instructions to clean out your desk. Going by his recent testimony before Senate Estimates, what Anderson doesn’t know about his troops and what they are getting up to must fill volumes. It seems you can screw the pooch every which way in his ABC newsrooms and, no matter how incompetent or blatant your transgressions against accuracy, propriety, impartiality, even basic decency, no hand will be lifted by way of rebuke or sanction. Indeed, by his own admission, here is an editor — an editor-in-chief, no less — who, two weeks after a disgraceful piece of reporting from Alice Springs, conceded he still didn’t have a clue how a fly-in/fly-out reporter from Sydney managed to find amongst the thousands in attendance a three-person mini-micro-minority of quotable folk who regarded a community meeting focused on The Alice’s rampant street crime as a manifestation of ‘white supremacy’.
Just happenstance, no doubt, that a young ABC reporter with a Buzzfeed pedigree would cross paths with cliche-spouting leftoid activists.
In a Murdoch shop or even the kiddie creches that Fairfax and more recently Nine have made of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age, Anderson’s operational ignorance would be a certain career killer. At the ABC, however, being oblivious to the sins of omission and commission your underlings are perpetrating might just be a case of the precautionary principle. If you don’t know what is going on, well you’re not likely to feel the need to do anything about it. Do nothing by way of discipline or example and you won’t have to contend with a bolshie house committee, nor will the Friends of the ABC demand your scalp and Louise Milligan probably won’t tweet libels about you (but you’ll never be too sure).
A quiet life on a plush salary, that’s the shot, with the only regular annoyance being the obligation to appear before the Estimates panel. Unpleasant as those grillings must be, once again ignorance has its benefits thanks to the simple response of taking trickier questions on notice. Good work if you can get it.
Still, as a survivor of five decades in newsrooms in Australia and the US, I have to wonder why an editor-in-chief wouldn’t be overcome with ardour in executing the duties that go with a corner office. Anderson’s CV perhaps provides something of a hint. Here is how his LinkedIn entry describes a 30-year ascent to the post of managing director. See if you can spot what’s missing:
David has enjoyed a successful career in media for almost 30 years, with a long history as a television executive and a strong track record in television production and commissioning successful programs across all genres.
Before his appointment as Managing Director, David was the Director Entertainment & Specialist, responsible for all broadcast television networks (ABCTV, ABC Kids, ABC Comedy, ABC ME) as well as ABC radio music networks (triple j, Double j, Classic, Country and Jazz), podcasts and Radio National. This also includes on-demand products and services (iview, ABC Listen, ABC Kids Listen, ABC Kids), and network websites and apps.
During his tenure with the ABC David has held a number of senior executive roles, including Director Television, Director of the ABC’s Digital Network and Director of Strategy & Planning. In his capacity as Director of Strategy & Planning, David worked to refocus expenditure towards audience-focused content, products and services; and as Director of Digital Network he lead ABC’s digital transformation by identifying ways to engage new audiences and creating a personalised and connected online network.
While Anderson has been a director of this, a director of that, and has quite possibly done more directing than the traffic cop at the intersection of Bourke and Swanson streets, what he lacks is any experience of, you know, actual hands-on journalism. This may well be explained by the circumstances that saw him become an ABC employee some 34 ever-upward years ago. Wikipedia details the circumstances of his hiring:
While working as a courier, riding a bicycle to deliver letters and parcels, he collided with a bus. Immediately after the collision, another courier allegedly stole documents from Anderson which were destined for KPMG.
Following the incident, a friend encouraged Anderson to find a safer job and told him her father was a floor manager at the ABC in Adelaide who could arrange employment for Anderson at the organisation.
Anderson subsequently commenced working as a utility attendant at the ABC a week after his accident. Initially his duties included changing dirty tea towels for clean ones in all the kitchenettes located throughout the multi-storey building.
There is absolutely nothing wrong or damning about starting out as a tea-towel jockey. Before the universities’ Media Studies departments began churning out their annual thousands of graduates for an industry with novice job openings numbering not much more than the high two figures, young journalists learned their trade by, among other things, fetching the subs’ Chinese food after the first edition was put to bed. This encouraged a respect for accuracy, for hell hath no fury like a back-bench news editor who ends up with tofu rather than Mongolian beef. A related lesson was even more valuable: a good editor is one who, no matter how otherwise pleasant, knows that fear is an essential and invaluable tool for managing a newsroom. If you’ll pardon a couple of personal anecdotes, let me explain.
Fairfax management in the late Seventies decided that Sydney’s Sun-Herald could do with an editorial revamp and installed Max Suich (left), fresh from the National Times, as the new editor. Things changed immediately. A decent but sleepy newspaper gained a sharp new edge, fresh newshounds were hired, and reporters accustomed to three-hour lunches at Dixon Street or the Italo-Australia Club found themselves being jabbed, pressured, cajoled and exhorted to do better. It became an electric, exciting place to work where achievement was rewarded and screw-ups drew stern rebukes. In short, it was a much better newspaper, a place where the editor’s acumen and career achievement challenged you every day to match them. If something can be both a privilege and a pain, working for Max Suich was just that.
Now consider a very different leader, Jerry Nachman, who was installed as editor of the New York Post by Manhattan property developer Peter Kalikow, who bought America’s oldest newspaper at a knock-down price when former (and later) owner Rupert Murdoch was forced to sell it by Ted Kennedy’s midnight insertion of a few pointed words in a congressional budget bill. Murdoch woke up to find he was no longer allowed to own a TV station and a newspaper in the same market and sold The Post, reluctantly, to Kalikow, albeit with a then-secret clause in the contract that guaranteed News Corp’s right to buy it back should the law and circumstances change.
Eventually, after three years of the Kalikow team’s ruinous mismanagement, which included the Bonanno crime family’s use of the paper’s delivery trucks to move drugs and other contraband around the five boroughs and all of New York State, things became so bad the newsroom revolted, blocked the entrances and stairwells, won the support of the pressmen and produced three rebel editions attacking Kalikow, who by then was bankrupt, and the most recent owner, a protege of Jeffrey Epstein who would soon spend the next 12 years behind bars. In 50 years of pounding keyboards, branding my proprietor “a drooling old fool” in 84-point type remains some of the most fun I’ve ever had, but that is a story for another day.
The great deficiency Nachman (right) brought to the job, apart from being a TV guy rather than a newspaperman, was that, while a master of “managing up” and remaining in Kalikow’s good graces, he was a hopeless editor where it mattered most — in the newsroom. A memory that will never fade is of this short, round, corpulent man sound asleep in his editor’s chair, a half-eaten jam donut gripped in one hand and a dusting of castor sugar crusting his cascade of chins. As it was time for the afternoon news-planning session, we were gathered at his office door and wondering if we should wake him. “F*** Fatso,” said night editor Jimmy Lynch, who disliked him more than most. “He can’t screw up anything else if he’s asleep.” So we left him to his snoring, quietly shut door and had our afternoon meeting to decide what might lead the next day’s paper — a story, if I remember correctly, about city bureaucrats stealing hundredweights of small coins from parking meters.
I have no doubt that whatever else he has done, David Anderson has never slept with a donut, but what he and Nachman have in common is the absence of a direct and supervisory involvement in what their respective minions did and do. This, even more than the bias and nepotism that characterises the ABC, is the saddest deficiency of his management. Max Suich’s politics, it is safe to say, heel to port, which cannot be disputed by anyone who recalls the National Times of David Marr, Marian Wilkinson, Brian Toohey and other bylines that should have been sent to the compositors with the sub’s instruction to “always set flush left”. But at the Sun-Herald, a middle-of-the-road paper, he did what good editors should do — tailored his editorial cloth to suit the 800,000+ readers who purchased us every Sunday. They weren’t too interested in purported CIA conspiracies to oust Whitlam or the furtive mischief of the Nugan-Hand bank. What they wanted was what was mainstream journalism was then all about — stories played with a relatively straight bat in a bright and spritely package.
Anderson’s brief, according to the ABC Charter, is to make sure the news is presented in a fair and unbiased way. How can he possibly satisfy that requirement when, weeks after the Alice Springs travesty (for which the ABC finally apologised), he remained unable to explain, let alone analyse, what went so badly wrong? From Senate Estimates (emphasis added):
SENATOR HENDERSON: … I can’t quite believe what you’ve just told me, that you don’t know who approved it [‘it’ being the ‘white supremacy’ disgrace]
DAVID ANDERSON: No, I don’t know who approved it yet.
HENDERSON: Isn’t that the most basic question? You are the editor-in-chief, aren’t you?
ANDERSON: Yes. I’ve asked for there to be a report given to me with regard to precisely what happened on that day. Was it approved? Did it go to air with approval but concerns? Was advice given back that didn’t reach the reporter? These are things that I need to know and understand. I will have that information shortly, but it is something—
HENDERSON: Mr Anderson, you are the editor-in-chief. The buck stops with you. Surely by now you would have established what happened on that day. I called for an investigation within days of this report going to air. That is surely an incredible oversight by you as editor-in-chief to not know what happened.
ANDERSON: Look, I have asked to understand precisely what happened in the fact that we had a failing in an otherwise good system of editorial checks and measures before something is published. I’ve asked for that. I haven’t had it given to me yet. I do expect to have it soon.
‘Asked to understand’! For goodness sake, a half-decent editor immediately finds out what went wrong. He or she has no need nor tolerance for a blitz of intramural cover-your backside paperwork. Waiting for others to tell you what you should know for yourself is no way to oversee a news organisation.
GRANT the ABC its ambient leftism; that will never change until hiring practices are made transparent. Also look beyond the astonishing incidence of ABCuddly couples, plus the new hires who just happen to share beds with existing employees. Indulge the national broadcaster those foibles because, frankly, there is no chance of changing them.
But do picture how the ABC’s news coverage would change were a genuine, bona fide, newsfloor-stalking editor to be placed in charge, someone who rates good reporting and is prepared to make sure barrow-pushing subordinates keep their politics in a back pocket while on the job. It won’t be done, especially under the current government, but it could be done. Imagine a morning news list conference with such an editor presiding.
‘So you’re pitching a story saying the Climate Council’s Tim Flannery reckons it will never rain again, plagues of toads will eat our firstborns and the seas will be lapping at the third floor before Christmas?”
“Yes, that’s the climate crisis yarn of the day.”
“Terrific! Go with that, but do make a point to check Flannery’s record as a climate prognosticator. We’d better have some pars on that by way of presenting the whole story. I’ll assign someone to help you write the full picture, what he says and what he has said.”
At the top this piece I mentioned that, back in January, I almost began to reminisce about half a century in journalism. I didn’t, as it happens, because, well, being a journo these days isn’t much of a source of pride. Maybe, if the ABC, by the far the nation’s biggest news gathering operation, had senior editors — and especially an editor-an-chief — prepared to lead rather than ignore and obfuscate, to praise when it’s due and and damn when it isn’t, the craft might begin to rise from the depths to which it has been allowed to sink.
Ah, well, one can dream.