Rotting from the head

die pell IIOne of Melbourne’s mysteries is the daily disgrace that is The Age. More than the bias, it’s the sheer editorial incompetence that galls, that and an absolute inability to recognise the symptoms of the very disease which is killing it. It will be no great loss, you may say, when the newspaper sends to press its final ink-and-paper edition — a day that cannot be too far off, given the miniscule 97,000 daily copies it sells, on average, Monday to Friday. But however satisfying it might be to see the market mete stern justice to a terminally flawed product, it will still be a day for mourning. Without the hollow semblance of competition The Age provides, Melbourne’s other paper can be expected to further trim its budget, re-trench staff and pad its pages with the cheap and easy content of yet more canned copy from overseas and, inevitably, further pages of celebrity gossip. The city and its residents will be even more poorly served than is now the case, the list of stories that should be covered but aren’t growing ever longer.

Some years ago, the billionaire Dick Pratt mooted the notion of a syndicate of local worthies taking The Age off Fairfax’s hands and, presumably, lifting its quality. The idea came to nought, and while we can guess at the kid-glove treatment a Pratt-run rag would have given his little mate Bill Shorten, the man the Visy mogul was given to describing as “my labour adviser — never make a decision without him”, it is doubtful in the extreme that a successful and intelligent businessman would have tolerated the nuts-and-bolts travesties that stand as milestones on the paper’s descent to rock botton.

Consider just a few examples:

  • A state Parliament roundswoman interviews a former Premier “off the record” but surreptiously  tapes the conversation and, incredibly, loses her recorder, which falls into the hands of Labor operatives. This breach of trust — a violation of journalism’s most basic tenet — appears to have gone unpunished. The absent-minded reporter retains her job and, indeed, continues to opine about the doings on Spring Street.
  • The photo an innocent lad is served to readers as the image of a suburban jihadi who set about two police officers with a knife, very nearly killing one of them. Rudimentary checks would have revealed the error, saving readers from being misinformed and Fairfax shareholders the costly compensation the teenager’s lawyers demanded. Age sources (and this may be no more than scuttlebutt) whisper the payout for that amateur-hour mistake may have run to as much as one million dollars. While that figure seems excessive, there can be no doubt the undisclosed settlement was a very tidy sum indeed. Not even the most gifted silk would have been able to explain or minimise such culpable negligence had the case gone to court.
  • In its attempt to cover the Royal Commission into child sex abuse, The Age presents on its Facebook page the image of Cardinal George Pell. The headline: ‘Die Pell” (above). Editor Andrew Holden says he is inclined to blame “hackers” and swears to investigate. Not another word on the matter is heard, which is precisely what Holden promised would be the case when quizzed by Media Watch.
  • Sister publication The Sydney Morning Herald goes after then-Treasurer Joe Hockey. The Age picks up and re-publishes the report whose poster headline, as a court subsequently concludes, is written in the ink of blatant bias. Messages between the two editors produced in court are damning.
  • To mark the election of the Abbott government in 2013, The Age places its website at the disposal of a columnist — a valued columnist, if you can believe it — who is marketing a line of “F*** Abbott” T-shirts.

While all of the above reflect in their different ways a disdain for standards of ethics and/or comportment, the greater marvel is that The Age‘s corporate masters permit an atmosphere in which such sins of omission and commission can flourish. How could an editor — an editor worthy of the title, that is — preside over such shoddy, slack and slapped-together “journalism”?

A possible answer came to light last week, when Holden fronted a meeting of Melbourne’s Jewish community leaders. The Jewish News reports:

Pressed by another questioner whether the terrorist murder of an Israeli woman “would not be horrible enough to sell [papers]”, Holden said that as potential front-page material, it was down the scale from “terrorist attacks in Europe … mass shootings in America … Boko Haram in Africa … Sadly it’s a scale, I know that sounds appalling.”

Pressed by former Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Grahame Leonard about his paper’s bias, Holden’s response may well represent the unintended explanation for the stink of death and decay that fouls The Age‘s once-esteemed escutcheon.

“My mind’s gone blank,” he replied.

In a fashion that captured his own paper’s bankrupt craft skills — subbing, headlines, design, news sense etc — and its inability to report the full facts on any matter, Holden  neglected to say just how many years have passed since that stone slate between his ears was wiped clean. That date, when The Age‘s obituary is written, would be worth noting.

Andrew Bolt has more on this. The Jewish News‘ account of Holden’s tour de farce can be read in full via the link below.

— roger franklin

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