Though feared as the wicked witch of the west, Gina Rinehart will replace a legacy of hardline enforcers at Fairfax, writes Miranda Devine.
Gina Rinehart will be an engaged proprietor at Fairfax.
You’re in quicksand up to your waist, about to be sucked into oblivion, when along comes a lady with a rope. She wants to save your life. What do you do?
For most people it’s a no-brainer, but for Fairfax Media, owners of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, it’s a cause for existential angst.
“The barbarians are at the gate,” they wail, now that West Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart has bought almost 19 per cent of the ailing company and wants three seats on the board.
“Save us from the wicked witch of the west.”
But the only thing that will fix Fairfax is an engaged proprietor.
“For too long the inmates have been running the asylum,” as Graham Richardson puts it.
I know because I worked as a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald for almost 10 years from 2001, hired so the opinion pages would better reflect the values of its small conservative readership.
This column is based on my experience and on recent conversations with current and former Fairfax journalists, editors and high-ranking executives.
When I arrived at the Herald it was controlled by a handful of hard-Left enforcers who dictated how stories were covered, and undermined management at every turn.
“At one extreme, they could be likened to the KGB’s Cambridge recruits at MI6,” recalls former editor in chief Alan Revell.
“More generously, I think they saw themselves as ‘the keepers of the flame’, whose job it was to resist the approach that I (and others) had, which was to encourage a ‘broader church’ of opinion.
“In my view, the paper was not serving its market: its readership was predominantly on the north shore and in the eastern suburbs, not in Balmain and Glebe.”
Another former high-ranking executive described the newsroom collective as “sabotaging the paper and some very good journalists. It’s a crying shame”.
A former editor said: “They love acting like politicians act. To them it’s a war, to the great damage and detriment of the newspaper.”
Another former executive described the world view of the collective as, “inarguably Left-leaning, and anti-business”. It was also anti-religion – especially anti-Christian – and hostile to bourgeois family values.
“The tragedy was that (Fairfax’s) core audience was a conservative audience. You’ve never seen a paper more disengaged from its core audience. Particularly The Age.”
While editors in morning conference decided which stories should be covered, the collective decided how those stories were framed – and they were ruthless enforcers.
For example, in 2007, a journalist was assigned to write a story about the appointment as head of the NSW education department of Michael Coutts-Trotter, who had once served three years in jail for dealing heroin. To his credit, he had rehabilitated himself, but his conviction remained an important part of the story.
One former executive recalls the journalist being heavied by members of the newsroom collective to remove the fact from the article, because Coutts-Trotter’s Labor politician wife was a “particular favourite”.
“All the usual culprits just ganged up on the reporter and bullied her into changing that story, first to not include that fact at all. When she refused she was pressured to downplay the matter. The defenders of free press and independent journalism censored the story.”
He was struck by how overt the interference was: “Such was the strength of that group, and the level of confidence they had around their position. It was understandable, since they’d seen off very many editors and CEOs and directors.
“There used to be a saying that you didn’t need to worry about the current Fairfax regime because there would be another one along any minute”.
The collective, or “nomenklatura”, as one of my Fairfax colleagues described them, were not household names. They rarely had bylines because they did very little of what you might call journalism. They were too busy policing what the real journalists did.
Their tactics against me included bombarding my screen at deadline with poison messages about previous columns, or recruiting friends to lodge complaints about my work.
I was not alone. A former reporter, who arrived as an editorial trainee shortly after the 9/11 US terrorist attacks immediately fell out with the collective.
“I thought that terrorists were real people who needed intercepting and removing, not just a bunch of amorphous root causes,” he says. “They treated me as if I were an ideological criminal”.
As higher education writer, he wrote a column arguing for voluntary student unionism. But the collective vetoed its publication, saying he was “too young”. He was in his mid-30s.
He remembers a secretary, a fan of John Howard who kept a photo of the then-prime minister on her desk. “She was treated like she was insane, a mentally disabled person.”
Fellow columnist Paul Sheehan once advised me to use the word “harass” against a particularly vexatious colleague.
A touchstone word of the PC brigade, it didn’t spring naturally to my lips, but the effect was electric. The newsroom stopped. My tormentor rose in his acid-washed jeans and swore at me, which only made it more delicious for the audience.
I repeated the magic word several times in the vigorous exchange that ensued and returned to my desk with the little thrill of knowing I’d used the enemy’s weapon against them.
A few days later the editor sidled up and asked if I needed to see HR. I didn’t, but acid-wash man didn’t trouble me overtly from then on.
The majority of journalists were not like that. They were talented, lovely professional people.
I will say, because he is often cited as a malign influence, that working with David Marr was a pleasure. He was the first to welcome me in those uncomfortable early days, saying it was good for the paper to have multiple voices. We had disagreements, but he was always a gentleman, and at least puts his name to his beliefs.
Many of the collective have left in recent years but the damage was done.
One former executive says that editorial independence was the fig leaf they used to justify their behaviour.
But all that meant was: `I can do what I want to do’, and (that meant) constructing stories with an ideology, and making sure (the other journalists) fully understand that everyone in management is an idiot.
“That is their interpretation of independence – and they do it to the detriment of the broader journalistic enterprise.”
That is the same editorial independence which has been raised as an obstacle to Rinehart joining the board – not just by Fairfax but by Treasurer Wayne Swan and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy – who says she wants to turn the papers into a “mining gazette”.
Labor MPs want “compensatory regulation to ensure socially acceptable outcomes” for Fairfax and the Greens want to fine Rinehart if she breaches the charter of editorial independence.
Why are they so frightened? Rinehart might be eccentric but she is a savvy businessperson. She is hardly likely to want to kill the company by turning its newspapers into her mouthpiece.
Her friend Jack Cowin says her views are more Right-wing than those of the average Fairfax journalist, but so are the readers. And a newspaper’s greatest asset is its relationship with its readers.
By Miranda Devine