Last week I received a letter from the Age newspaper informing me that my subscription was due for renewal. I’d been receiving the newspaper, Melbourne’s main broadsheet, four days a week. I’d already decided not to renew; a few days later I received a phone call from the paper reminding me that the subscription was due. When I said I wasn’t planning to renew, the polite young woman on the phone asked me why.
At last, for the first time, the Age actually wanted my opinion! Finally it cared about what I thought! Politely but briefly, and trying not to sound smug, I explained that the content had become too corporate and that the paper didn’t give the Greens a fair go. I could have said a lot more, but brevity was of the essence.
‘Okay, then’, said the young woman. For all I know she had simply typed ‘content’ into the space on the screen after ‘Reason’; or perhaps there was no such space and she’d typed nothing.
For various reasons I won’t go into here (Murdoch) there has been a huge shift to the (Murdoch) right in the Australian media in the last few (Murdoch) years. The Age, while it isn’t owned by Murdoch, has been no exception.
But what does a shift to the right actually mean in the case of the Age, a paper with a long and proud history of progressive activism, which was first published in 1854, and which Wikipedia still amusingly describes as ‘left-wing’? Below are the reasons that I didn’t give to the polite young admin person as to why I wouldn’t be renewing my subscription.
The Age pretends to be progressive but actually supports the status quo. It maintains this contradictory stance by advocating that the major parties adopt progressive policies that they are now incapable of, while failing to inform readers that those policies are in fact those of the state’s third political party, the Greens – that is, that readers actually have a choice. This sleight-of-hand enables the paper to maintain its progressive readership while ensuring that nothing ever changes.
Last Friday, for example, the paper ran a story about a cancer victim who had urged the state premier, Ted Baillieu, to introduce pro-euthanasia legislation that would allow him to die a dignified death. The story included a very brief history of failed euthanasia legislation in Australia, including Victoria. However, it failed to include a simple paragraph, even a sentence, that would have informed readers that the Greens are in favour of voluntary euthanasia. This kind of failure to inform indicates that the Age has abrogated one of its major tasks as a newspaper.
During the recent state election, the paper failed to hold Liberal Party policies to account, then complained about those policies after the party was elected to government. One example of this is the ridiculous policy of arming underqualified bovver boys to patrol train stations, a policy the government is currently rolling out; the millions being spent on training and paying this gun-toting urban militia should instead be going towards providing more reliable and frequent train services and building new train lines, which is what public transport users actually want.
The content of the Age is increasingly becoming friendlier to the big corporations at the expense of news values and a commitment to the truth. A few months ago Good Weekend, a features magazine that is included in the Saturday edition of the Age, included a story that was generally positive about feedlots for Australian cattle. About six weeks later the magazine included a double-page advertisement spruiking the advantages of red meat by Meat & Livestock Australia.
A recent article in the magazine about coal mining in the Hunter Valley failed to mention the harm it is doing to local residents. (Mining billionaire and anti-tax activist Gina Rinehart now owns just under 4 per cent of Fairfax Media, the owner of the Age; her statements have indicated that she intends to use her media holdings to advance her business interests.)
The Age is generally positive towards climate change science and in favour of government action on it (apart from its hatred of the Greens). However, it sometimes features articles from unqualified deniers for purely populist purposes. This occurred as recently as 27 June, when climate change denier Bob Carter made an ill-informed attack on the trustworthiness of climate scientists, in an article in the paper that was also published on Fairfax’s National Times website.
The Age also has a denialist right-wing cartoonist, Spooner, whose opinions seem consistently out of step with both the editorial line and the readership – no doubt to appease a minority of right-wing readers.
Failure to act
The Age still views itself as a sometime activist newspaper and has run occasional campaigns on key issues affecting Melbourne; one of the most notable was its ‘Save the Yarra’ campaign. However, its activist role is threatened by its increasingly corporate slant. For example, an obvious target to campaign against, or at least be critical of, is the Grand Prix, a yearly travesty that takes place in one of Melbourne’s most loved parks, Albert Park.
The race is able to occur in the park only because in 1994 the Coalition government passed the undemocratic Australian Grand Prix Act. This removed the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court from the operations of the Act and gave the Australian Grand Prix Corporation total control of the park – it can cordon off any area it wants, demolish any building, close roads and cut down trees at will.
For four months of the year, key roads are closed leading to traffic delays and use of the park is disrupted by preparations for the Grand Prix, which turns parts of the park into a huge construction site. During the race, residents have to put up with blocked-off streets, traffic disruptions and the constant high-pitched whine of the dangerously loud cars. The race loses millions each year, and is subsidised by reluctant taxpayers; in 2010 it cost taxpayers an estimated $50 million. Even many businesses hate it because locals flee the city on the Grand Prix weekend. Yet, while the Age does critique the cost of the race, its links with the big end of town are too strong these days for the paper to actively oppose the race.
Shoddy editorial standards
The Age had already deskilled and casualised its subediting staff to the great detriment of editorial quality – it has long been common to find literally dozens of small grammatical and typographical errors in any one issue. But recently it went further, announcing that it was planning to outsource its subediting entirely to another company, Pagemasters.
Journalists responded with howls of fury and expressed grave fears about the future quality of news reporting without subeditors available onsite to liaise with reporters.
I know that the paper has to make money somehow, but I’m sick of the pages and pages of cheap alcohol deals the Age runs, encouraging the boozy culture that Australia still retains. Scientists are still discovering just how much harm alcohol does, even in quantities once considered safe; pending a ban on alcohol advertising, media outlets need to start doing the responsible thing and stop running advertisements for alcohol, especially cut-price deals that encourage binge drinking.
The rot really set in for me when an attempt to complain to the Age about the busty bimbos featured regularly on its website was greeted with derision. Meanwhile the paper’s literary editor, Jason Steger, continues to blatantly favour white male writers, despite recent general criticism in literary publications of this practice, still all too common in Australian literary pages and journals.
Not all bad news
There is plenty still to like about the Age. The connections between the Victorian police association, police command, the Office of Police Integrity and the state government are labyrinthine and sometimes sinister and the Age has done a good job in reporting these connections, given that it also has its own complex relationships with its police sources.
Many of the feature stories in the Saturday Age are still of high quality and take into account the complexities of the issue under review. The paper has also dramatically improved its reporting of women’s issues both in Australia and internationally.
Yet while I’ll no doubt still pick up the paper on weekends, my relationship with it has substantially weakened. At a time when Australia is fast becoming a faux rather than real democracy, its parliament increasingly captive to the big polluters, miners, and other business interests, a strong, independent news source is more important than ever before; sadly, the Age is becoming a symptom of the democratic crisis in Australia, rather than being part of the solution.