Troubles in the print room
Monday, September 26, 2016
Justinian in Critics Corner, Newspapers, Rupert Murdoch, The Australian

Searching for the worthwhile bits in Chris Mitchell's book Making Headlines ... Weird editor criticises weird politicians ... Lecture on "quality journalism" from a News Corp editor whose paper never turned a decent profit ... Graham Hryce's review 

Mitchell: a thick hide, with a thin-skin

Chris Mitchell is a former editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers and The Australian. He resigned from the latter position in September last year.

Mitchell's book Making Headlines was published a week ago. The book is not an autobiography, nor is it really a memoir. It is, to adopt Mitchell's own description, a book "about prime ministers and journalism". 

Mitchell is a controversial figure - at the same time much reviled and, in some quarters, admired within the world of journalism. 

In some respects the book is self-serving and Mitchell does not hesitate to take the opportunity to settle personal scores. For example, his time with Queensland Newspapers was not a happy or productive one, but you would not gather that from reading the book.  

Furthermore, Mitchell was quite close to a number of politicians, in particular Kevin Rudd. Despite the close associations they are roundly criticised in his book, with an element of personal vindictiveness attached to his observations. 

Unsurprisingly, Mitchell doesn't mention his numerous thin-skinned threats to sue for defamation, including an ex-employee and journalism lecturer who had criticised him.

Leaving those issues aside, there are two aspects of the book which merit attention. 

The first is Mitchell's account of his relationship with three prime ministers and what this discloses about those politicians. The second is his analysis of how major publishers might resist the tendency to become lifestyle websites and continue to publish quality journalism at a profit.

Much of the media attention attracted by the book has focused on Mitchell's  breach of confidence in recounting private conversations with former prime ministers Rudd, Gillard and Abbott. Mitchell has brushed aside this criticism on the basis that he has resigned and the three politicians no longer hold office. 

Whether this justification is valid or not (and it appears dubious) the content of the conversations certainly warrant disclosure, showing, as they do, that each politician behaved in a thoroughly unprincipled manner.

Mitchell's criticism of each former PM is scathing - regarding them as incompetent and/or worse.

His conversations with all three PMs show they resented any kind of critical scrutiny by journalists and responded with rage and vindictiveness. 

Rudd is described as "shameless like no other politician I have met ... brutal ... puerile [and] ... weird". 

Gillard is accused of seeking to change the media laws in order to prevent proper scrutiny of her role in the AWU slush fund affair while, in Mitchell's view, Abbott was devoid of insight and in thrall to Peta Credlin, who lacked judgment. When a News Corp journalist criticised Credlin, Abbott sought to have Mitchell sack her.

However, the portions of the book dealing with journalism raise important issues.  

Mitchell portrays himself as a passionate defender of quality journalism, by which he means investigative journalism and serious political analysis. 

Not only is quality journalism useful in itself, but Mitchell regards it as being crucial to the effective functioning of a democratic society. Quality journalism educates readers and scrutinises politicians.

Mitchell tells us that The Australian newspaper is the very embodiment of quality journalism and, with the decline of mainstream journalism over the past 20 years, it stands alone as the only quality paper in the country. 

Many would disagree with this assessment, but it is difficult to dispute that The Australian has not declined in the way in which The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have diminished in recent years.

Other newspapers and media organisations, according to Mitchell, have succumbed to the digital revolution and replaced quality content with lifestyle stories and "ephemera". At the same time, he says that investigative journalism has been replaced by one-dimensional ideological activism.

Mitchell sees the Fairfax press and the ABC as the twin embodiments of these seemingly irreversible trends - even though the Fairfax investigative teams are second to none. 

Williams: a digital first man who waved goodbye

According to Mitchell, The Australian came very close to suffering the same fate. Under Kim Williams' management the newspaper was headed down the all-digital path until Mitchell (with the personal support of Rupert Murdoch) intervened to stop the implementation of Williams' policy.  

Mitchell accepts that digital publication has its place, but argues that quality journalism works best in print and that in its digital form it must be paid for by subscribers. 

He argues that quality journalism requires generous editorial funding and a management structure that gives editors and "serious traditional journalists" power over managers who seek to cut editorial budgets and go fully digital. 

What he terms "quality journalism" can be preserved and generate profits and he maintains that this is what occurred under his tenure as editor-in-chief at The Australian. Again, views will certainly differ on that, particularly as The Australian rarely, if ever, turned a profit. 

Mitchell argues that digital/lifestyle journalism can co-exist with quality journalism within a large media organisation and puts forward a model structure for News Corp in which local-digital tabloids would co-exist with a single broadsheet newspaper, which would appear in print and paid for digital forms.

The former editor-in-chief's own analysis, however, makes it doubtful whether such an arrangement (even if adopted) could be viable for News Corp in the long term.  

Mitchell sees the survival of The Australian as the result of a number of factors: its audience is the baby boomer generation, which appreciates and is willing to pay for quality journalism; News Corp has had a culture which favours editors over managers; and importantly Rupert Murdoch has a personal commitment to maintaining at least a modicum of quality print journalism. (Murdoch may publish The Australian, but he also published The Truth, News of the World, and currently The Sun and the New York Post.)

What happens, however, when the baby boomers and Rupert Murdoch are gone and the digital management culture which engulfed Fairfax (and, according to Mitchell, almost engulfed The Australian) makes further inroads into News Corp? 

There are aspects of other portions of the book that show serious lapses in editorial standards. For example the publication of an extraordinary apology to Julia Gillard in August 2011 was not The Australian's finest moment. And the publication of the Manning Clark Order of Lenin story (which Mitchell tries to justify retrospectively) has been shown to a fact-free zone 

Not even Murdoch knows the recipe for newspaper survival

At a time when politicians are deeply resentful of even the mildest criticism and seek to avoid any kind of legitimate scrutiny, and when quality journalism is rapidly disappearing, Mitchell has exposed the cupidity of three former prime ministers and put forward an analysis of how journalism came to be in its present sorry state. 

His recipe for quality journalism, however, requires an ideologically committed proprietor with a long pocket, prepared to subsidise prodigious losses. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
See website for complete article licensing information.