Skip to main content

The Age is not 'independent', nor should it be

I would probably not qualify as a real blogger in Australia if I didn't have some kind of opinion on Gina Rinehart and Fairfax, so here goes. This is not new. Rinehart has been stalking Fairfax for months, and if there was ever any doubt that it was political then this minor bombshell did away with it. But the spin this week is about her refusal to sign the Charter of Independence, as the other Fairfax board members have. So suddenly the trope is not 'balanced media' as previously, but 'independent media'. That's a bit of a shame, because it's a seriously easy position to attack, largely for the reason that it's absurd.

Just think about the content of the charter, which devolves power over reporting and editorial to the editor without interference from the board. Chris Mitchell's tenure at The Australian, and to some extent the evidence that's been given at the Leveson inquiry, tell us pretty unambiguously that you don't need to have direct, personal control over a newspaper to determine its editorial leanings. With enough shares and board seats, Gina can influence or control the editors and thus the newspapers, even if she signs the charter.

That power also rests with the current board. The independence, currently much-vaunted, is a bit of a myth - editors don't get appointed to The Age or the SMH without the board having some idea of their political leanings. Moreover, read the comment threads on those papers' websites, or the commentary in other papers, and you'll find plenty of people accusing the Fairfax media of hopeless bias to the progressive side of politics. Dressing up the anti-Rinehart argument in independence terms invites the mockery of anybody who doesn't see a bias to the liberal left as impartial, and further inflames the conspiracy of a leftist elite trying to pull the wool over all our collective eyes.

Newspapers make decisions every day about what to run on the front page, what to push further into the paper, what to cover and what to ignore. They choose opinion columnists, filter letters to the editor and write editorials. More subtly, they hire journalists who want to work in a political and cultural environment they are comfortable in. The idea that all those decisions can be managed by some objective criterion of newsworthiness is absurd. The concept that out of this morass an independent and impartial instituion can emerge is optimistic in the extreme.

There are not many media organisations which blatantly make false statements and ignore facts - at least not outside the opinion column. When they do, they are either well-known for it (I'm thinking Fox News) or the media's self-obsession catches it out pretty quickly, as with Dennis Shanhan this week. That kind of act is the biggest 'threat to democracy', to take another recent trope, but it's more or less under control.

So what's to worry about? Well, still some things - having a media landscape domianted by right-leaning voices is probably not good for democratic choice or policy in the long run. But it's disingenuous to suggest this is a fight between the good, old-fashioned, impartial journalism of Fairfax and the new-right, truth-distorting approach of News Limited.

Let's be honest. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald are not 'independent', whatever that might mean. They are newspapers of the centre-left. That's just as worth defending, ultimately: without them, a socially liberal, left-leaning view of the world will have no reflection in the prioritisation of stories, editorials, op-eds (except surrounded by columns denouncing the intruder). How do people who hold that view get news? How do they come to understand the arguments for the things they are inclined or have been taught to believe? How do others come to understand the arguments against their views?

It would probably be going too far to say that those things would be actually impossible, but they'd certainly be more difficult and, as a result, done by fewer people. This is the oft-talked-about, abstract public discourse. It's important. And it's important, not that it contains unadulterated and unbiased truth, but that it contains more than one side of the story.

So let's stop pretending. Pretending that we're fighting for truth, when we're fighting for balance. What's at stake here is not facts and reality. It's a voice for the liberal, progressive side of politics which, although under-represented in the ranks of mining and media billionaires, is a very real part of Australian political life and should stay that way.