News judgement

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) claims to be Australia’s finest newspaper. Interesting, therefore, that the latest circulation figures show a massive decline in readership. The weekday SMH lost 3.5% to just over 214,000 copies, while the Saturday edition shed a massive 5.4% to 352,482. There is trouble in Fairfax land. With speculation rife that management is hoping and praying for a change to cross-media laws after July 1 – allowing the once-great media company to be bought by a hungry mogul – the paper’s relevance to the Australian community is decreasing weekly. Numbers sold are far from the only barometer of success, but with less people still reading the paper, at what point does it become less relevant to informed debate?

Take today. “They’re having a baby – and eight Tassie cousins eagerly await a playmate”, screamed the article at the top of the front page. The pregnancy of Denmark’s Princess Mary is undoubtedly news-worthy, but the ever-increasing elevation of celebrity gossip to prominence shows an editorship, under Robert Whitehead, losing focus on what constitutes serious news. If the paper wants to be a tabloid, let the broadsheet morph into a tabloid or place such “news” in the entertainment section.

During a recent media forum, head of UTS journalism school, Wendy Bacon, spoke about the increasing reluctance of Fairfax to tackle the corporate takeover of Australia. She co-wrote a piece for the SMH in early March on the Australian connections of Halliburton. She said that she had had great difficulty getting the piece in the paper, “and if I was a nobody it possibly would have been impossible.” The facts in the story were alarming and yet no follow-up has occurred.

I recently spent time with one of the Middle East’s prominent journalists. I asked if he knew Paul McGeough, Fairfax’s leading foreign correspondent. He looked at me blankly. “Never heard of him”, he replied. McGeough is indeed one of Australia’s finest reporters, but his newspaper’s impact on setting agendas outside of Australia remains minimal, despite the advent of the internet. A newspaper’s success should never be solely dictated by its effect on the world, though it’s one important factor. We’re a small fish in a big pond, and seem to be becoming more parochial as time goes on. Shouldn’t a local paper want to challenge established norms in Washington, London and Canberra?

Is the mainstream media capable of seriously examining the tightening relationship between government and corporate interests? Are senior editors concerned about upsetting the status quo (witnessed during last year’s Federal election, when the Fairfax press either supported John Howard’s re-election or gutlessly sat on the fence, despite spending the previous years criticising Liberal Party policy.) We all know the agendas of the Murdoch press. We should be more questioning of how the Fairfax press conducts itself in a democratic Australia. If the organisation fails to listen, circulation figures will continue to haemorrhage and they’ll only have themselves to blame.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common