The year Australia’s newspapers broke me

In 1893, US publisher Sam McClure established McClure’s Magazine, employing a crack team of writers including Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens.

McClure’s Magazine became famous for its in-depth exposés of the dark underbelly of the US during the ‘Gilded Age’.

McClure sent his writers on long, well-funded assignments of up to six months at a time and directed them not to return until they had produced material of sufficient quality to ‘shake the foundations’.

For the next decade, the journalists produced lengthy, brilliant essays that exposed widespread corruption – monopolies that destroyed their competitors through illicit means and of the politicians bought off by those same companies, the endemic mistreatment of workers, and violence within the labour movement.

These investigative journalists proudly called themselves “muckrakers”. Their meticulous work had enormous implications for the political process, holding powerful monopolies and corrupt politicians to account.

Theodore Roosevelt, a formidable Republican president and Renaissance man, relied heavily on the muckrakers to stare down his conservative opponents and push through a range of progressive reforms in the US.

When corporate interests called in favours with the Republican politicians that did their bidding in an endeavour to block Roosevelt’s legislation, he collaborated with investigative journalists to expose their misconduct and shame the corrupt politicians into retreat.

The essays were devoured by a strong loyal audience who were prepared to pay to support the significant costs associated with the journalists’ work. According to Baker: “Month after month they would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking — and ask for more.”

Historians and economists like Thomas Piketty are increasingly fond of drawing parallels between the Gilded Age and the contemporary era of a globalised, hyper-connected, highly aggressive form of capitalism.

Not only has inequality escalated in many developing countries but there is an overwhelming sense the political system has been gamed.

Just as in the Gilded Age, democracy is being damaged by the dubious financial links between politicians and corporate interests, the growth of enormously powerful monopolistic companies like Facebook, Google and Apple, and the blight of multinational company tax avoidance.

As the Panama Papers demonstrated so spectacularly, there is no shortage of material for good investigative journalists to work with.

And yet, just as the need for fearless independent journalists has reached another peak, the ground is falling out from beneath them.

Journalism is engulfed in its own existential crisis. An oft-quoted study found that between 2004 and 2014, US newspaper print revenue fell by $30 billion while online revenue increased by $2 billion. After decades of decline, a successful business model for mainstream newspapers is yet to emerge.

Back to the present

In 2016, death and destruction is enveloping Australian newspapers.

The collapse of the orthodox business model over the last two decades has meant that most newspapers are no longer financially viable.

Experienced, competent journalists employed under “legacy” newspaper salaries are being made redundant at a rate of knots.They are fleeing into the burgeoning public relations industry or a working life of precarity. If they are replaced, it is by inexperienced, cheaper staff.

The hollowing out of talent and experience has reached a tipping point, reflected in newspaper content that is both substantially thinner and exponentially dumber.

The structural decline has also resulted in increasingly desperate strategies being deployed by newspapers in an attempt to stem the losses.

A key strategy adopted by a number of outlets is to produce content “in partnership” with businesses i.e. under a financial arrangement in which the private sector pays the newspaper for particular stories or other content.

Cash for comment?

In such an environment are Australian newspapers being compromised by cash for comment?

On April 8, 2013, Paddy Manning, a journalist employed by the Sydney Morning Herald,* pressed ‘send’ on an article he had penned for online publication, Crikey, and blew his AFR career sky high.

Manning’s article excoriated the AFR’s business journalism as “built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high level access in exchange for soft coverage”.

Although Manning’s concerns accumulated over a considerable period, the immediate catalyst for his kamikaze intervention was an “editorial” in the AFR sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank about which Manning wrote:

“Today’s rubbishy “First Person” sponsored editorial in The Australian Financial Review … features a rambling interview (plus vision!) with former Business Council president Graham Bradley, who calls for a wave of deregulation by the incoming Abbott government. Bradley declares over the past five years: ‘we’ve not had a government in Canberra that’s been truly respectful of business, interested in business and supportive of business generally’.”

Was a sponsored editorial featuring an ersatz interview with a big business lobbyist the nadir for this business newspaper?

If anything, the decline of the AFR has accelerated since Manning’s article and no-one can be sure where it ends.

In its desperation for revenue, the AFR has turned to hosting business conferences touted as “summits” with increasing frequency.

The conferences are heavily promoted in the newspaper, featuring key speakers from the private sector. The conference themes focus on matters of public policy: tax reform, infrastructure, innovation, technology and banking and finance.

It appears the business model involves companies sponsoring the conferences in exchange for being offered a speaking opportunity at the podium and associated newspaper coverage of the speakers’ presentations.

Thus, the ‘AFR tax summit’ in September 2015 featured speakers including Phil Edmonds, managing director of Rio Tinto.

Edmonds advocated cutting company tax, arguing that “it’s just not feasible to maintain a 30 per cent rate”.

As he did so, Rio Tinto was under investigation by Australia’s tax office for aggressive tax minimisation through a scheme involving profit shifting of millions of dollars to a Singapore subsidiary.

Edmonds’ problematic role in headlining a tax policy summit underlines the fundamental compromise: businesses participate in the conferences because the AFR delivers favourable coverage.

There are AFR articles in the lead up to the conferences, day by day coverage of the proceedings and follow up articles in the newspaper, generally providing sympathetic content that supports the perspectives advocated by business interests.

As one perturbed accountant, in a letter to the editor, observed: “The trouble with the AFR organising seminars for, and of, self-interested lobby groups and vested interests who the editor feels comfortable with, is that it is not conducive to independent thought and journalism.”

The BCA Bugle

Such is the extraordinary amount of column space dedicated to propagating the views of the BCA, the lobby group for the CEOs of big business in Australia, the AFR is now jokingly referred to as ‘The BCA Bugle’.

At the same time, a substantial proportion of the companies represented by the BCA have been exposed for corruption, aggressive tax avoidance, bribery, price fixing and wage fraud in recent years.

On August 15, 2016, a front page “exclusive” chronicled yet another risible warning from the BCA that “lack of support for big business on both sides of politics was sapping confidence in the economy”.

Most of the rest of the edition was devoted to either promoting rent-seeking by the BCA and its members or a forthcoming ‘AFR Innovation Summit’.

The advertorials and rent-seeking completely crowded out the news. What hope is there for independent investigative journalism in such an environment?

If Rio Tinto is heavily engaged in sponsoring the AFR, will that have implications for the newspaper’s coverage of stories that may show the company in a negative light?

The AFR is no island. All Australian newspapers, whether print or online, are dying but each is dying in its own way.

The only other national newspaper, The Australian, laid its credibility to waste years ago.

The newspaper serves as irrefutable proof that the corrosive phenomena of fake news and trolling preceded the internet.

‘Baseless campaigns’

Its news coverage is overwhelmed by its baseless campaigns against the science of climate change, plain packaging of tobacco laws, ‘the Godless Left’, the Bureau of Meteorology, the ABC and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Then there is its relentless pursuit of individuals including Professor Gillian Triggs, Margaret Simons, Robert Manne, Tim Soutphommasane and Julie Posetti.

If investigative journalism is a heroic and courageous vocation, the voluminous personal tirades perfected by The Australian represent the cowardly, bullying face of mainstream journalism in this country.

The Australian also occupies an unusual position in the market. Unlike its competitors, it is a money pit that shreds up to $36 million per annum all the while cocooned from market forces by its owner, Rupert Murdoch.

The free market fundamentalists that populate its editions and enjoy legacy journalist salaries, well above market rates, appear untroubled by their hypocrisy.

Within Fairfax, the talent at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald is being hollowed out at a pace. A core of strong investigative journalists continue to publish brilliant exposes, but for how long?

Morale is low as it moves to a digital future promoting click-friendly articles like ‘Six Hot Mini Skirts Not To Wear to Your Father’s Funeral’.

The opinion pages are being dumbed down, populated by shorter, ‘breezier’ articles. One such article recently featured a critique of the placement of women’s fashion labels in Myer department stores.

A strong signal is being sent to newspaper readers about the future. The future is dumber. In this environment, the notion of a 10,000 word investigative essay is unthinkable.

Splintering not the answer

The splintering of media outlets into small online publications is not the answer.

Crikey, like other online publications that have sprung up in recent years, is not sufficiently resourced or profitable to sustain a solid body of news reporting, let alone investigative journalism.

The need for robust, independent journalism to hold those who abuse power to account is as urgent now as it was in the Gilded Age.

Institutions like the trade union movement are in such a diminished state that they rely on others to expose wage fraud scandals. Witness the work of Fairfax and Four Corners in exposing wage fraud at 7 Eleven, Woolworths, Pizza Hut, Caltex and Australia Post.

Non-government organisations, including charities, are routinely silenced by government contracts that prohibit them from speaking out about public policy issues. Doctors have been prevented from communicating the physical and psychological harm inflicted on refugees by federal government immigration policy.

In August 2016, US humourist John Oliver unleashed a cri de coeur about the fate of journalism warning that: “Sooner or later, we are all going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for [not doing] it.”

Avid readers of newspapers like Oliver, willing and happy to pay for quality journalism, are running out of options. Instead of paying for journalism, they are reluctantly cancelling subscriptions and instead fossicking online, curating their (largely) free content.

The most trusted source of news and information in Australia is its national broadcaster, the ABC.

After decades of right wing campaigns and budget cuts, it is slowly, painstakingly being transformed. There have been numerous inquiries into allegations of bias.

Most recently, the arch conservative and former CEO of the ANZ bank, Mike Smith, spearheaded a bizarre inquiry into whether the ABC business coverage was “anti-business”.

Smith, the highest paid banking CEO in Australian history, and who presided over ANZ’s disastrous expansion into Asia and whose new successor is distancing the bank from the culture that produced a series of scandals while Smith was at the helm, cleared the ABC of any “discernible bias”.

ABC cultural revolution

The relentless accusations of “left-wing bias”, the numerous reviews and inquiries, wave after wave of punitive funding cuts, the stacking of the ABC board with ultra conservatives including Maurice Newman and Janet Albrechtsen, the dysfunctional Jonathan Shier era and, more recently, a government black-ban of a panel talk show have all taken their toll.

The cultural revolution unfolding at the ABC intensified in 2016. It broadcast a reality television show about the debate concerning the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, providing star billing to Andrew Bolt, an ABC hater, who argues the climate is cooling and who has been found by the federal court to have illegally racially vilified Aboriginal people.

In September 2016, a ferocious storm brought down powerlines in South Australia, leading to a prolonged power blackout.

Within an hour of the blackout, an ABC political correspondent went to air with a bogus report, stating that: “Forty percent of South Australia’s power is wind generated, and that has the problem of being intermittent — and what we understand at the moment is that those turbines aren’t turning because the wind is blowing too fast.”

In November, 2016, the ABC also appointed an “adjunct fellow” of the hard right Institute of Public Affairs, a business lobby group and recruitment ground for the Liberal Party, to a prime broadcasting role.

According to veteran media journalist Errol Simper, the IPA subjected the ABC to “the most persistent orchestrated campaign of vilification” in its history in 1998, and it has not relented since that time, even campaigning for its privatisation.

Notwithstanding its strident and outlandish criticisms of the national broadcaster over decades and its secret corporate funding sources, IPA representatives enjoy extraordinary access to slots on ABC programmes.

Notwithstanding the malaise, the ABC news and investigative arms continue to perform strongly. ABC’s Four Corners stands out like a beacon, producing brilliant investigative journalism year after year.

And like McClure’s Magazine, its investigations delve into the darkest corners of society and economic life, with the result that they regularly shape and influence public policy. Witness the immediate government response to its expose on the violent abuse of indigenous youth in detention in the Northern Territory.

But without sustained and meaningful institutional support for an independent broadcaster, the ABC is at risk of further political influence and degradation.

If newspapers continue their death spiral, the case for increased funding to the ABC to fill the void and bolster its news and investigative journalism capability becomes even more compelling. Before that can happen, someone has to speak up strongly against the prevailing headwinds.

Those who might be expected to campaign for a well-funded, independent national broadcaster are strangely mute and certainly no match for the relentless right wing attacks.

It appears the ABCs new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, is not intending to lead the charge. She is reported to have told staff in recent weeks that Four Corners could improve by being kinder to business, including by broadcasting profiles of successful business leaders.

If true, Guthrie, need look no further than the AFR for a template. Of course the implications of a move into vanity business broadcasting by Four Corners and the ABC are immensely dangerous.

This article originally appeared in The New Daily.