A failure of stewardship: a feckless, flailing Fairfax confounds with the latest round of savage cutbacks

True to its tin-eared modus operandi Fairfax management thought it fitting to choose World Press Freedom Day to announce the loss of 125 editorial positions from its already depleted metropolitan mastheads. After years of savage cutbacks, that’s a breathtaking 25% of its current newsroom numbers.

Announcing the cuts on World Press Freedom Day may not be as in-your-face as Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood splashing $140,000 on a new Maserati Ghibli in 2014 during tense wages negotiations and ongoing cost-cutting, but there is no question that relations between staff and Fairfax management are at an all-time low.

The decision by journalists from The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WA Today to go on strike for seven days reflects not just their anger but their lack of confidence in Fairfax’s feckless management and a genuine concern about the future of journalism in Australia.

As the journalists’ union, the MEAA, stated on behalf of its striking members: “These cuts are bad for journalism, bad for democracy and press freedom, and bad for the future of not only the Fairfax business, but for the entire industry in Australia.”

The strike period covers federal budget night, May 9, a plum event for any political, economics and finance reporter, which goes some way to revealing the extent of bitterness felt by Fairfax staff.

Fairfax journalists are red-hot angry, and they have a right to be. For the past five years of fevered “restructuring” and rolling redundancies they have worked under enormous stress, uncertainty and the vagaries of Fairfax management ineptitude. They feel strongly enough about not just their own job security but also the very future of journalism in this country to forego a week’s wages and expose themselves to penalties under illegal-strike laws. (And this goes to the heart of the point made by newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus when she made what should have been the unremarkable observation recently that, “It shouldn’t be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to.”)

Hywood has made comments that suggest Fairfax will take a sanguine approach to the strike, insisting: “I absolutely respect the passion of our people. I wrote for the Financial Review for 17 years, I’ve edited the publi­cations, I’m a journalist.”

Good cop, bad cop

But another Fairfax executive who also might profess to still be a journalist, Editorial Director Sean Aylmer (whose distinguished career includes being editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor-in-chief of BRW), sent a very different signal on the subject of strike action.

A memo to staff in which Aylmer stressed that “we want to make the company’s position very clear” warned that the consequences of “unlawful industrial action” and “unauthorised absence” may include “disciplinary action” and “termination of employment”. Oh, Sean.

Hywood has assured staff that the latest cuts, aimed at saving $30 million annually, will be the last.

“After this year, we will be spending $100 million a year on journalism; that’s a lot of money,” Hywood told The Australian.

A lot of something, that’s for sure. It’s this kind of flim-flammery – saving $30 million to spend $100 million – that infuriates journalists at the manifestly flailing Fairfax. Rolling cutbacks since 2012 have seen some 600 editorial jobs slashed from newsrooms. The lack of a credible, cohesive or consistent strategy leaves little room for confidence in either the management or governance of Fairfax. A merry-go-round of strategies, reviews and restructures have ostensibly sought to prepare Fairfax for the age of digital media, but all that has been achieved is that a once-great media house has been depleted to a point where the viability of its flagship mastheads are now in serious doubt.

Since the late 1990s, Fairfax has been run as a management consultant’s plaything. A succession of thick and jargon-laden consultants’ reports always seem to come to the same conclusion: more cuts. While the reports piled up, nobody thought to understand how the internet would change the media industry. Early opportunities for Fairfax to buy into internet plays such as carsales.com, SEEK and realestate.com.au went begging. While Fairfax assumed that the legendary rivers of gold had dried up, in fact they were flowing into new online media channels. James Packer and the Murdochs were more attuned to this critical change in course.

A failure of stewardship

Fairfax was caught flat-footed by the rapid rise of the internet and ever since its only resort has been to cut costs. Fairfax has some of Australia’s best and brightest business and finance journalists; they will know better than most that a company that relies on cost-cutting for profitability eventually has nothing left to cut.

Fairfax management and the Fairfax board have failed miserably as stewards of one of Australia’s – one of the world’s – great publishing houses. Instead of looking to the long-term health of the company Fairfax’s management and board remain fixed on creating short-term wealth for shareholders.

“[W]hat we are doing is that we are making sure that our publications are profitable and by profitable that means sustainable. They are profitable now and they have to continue to be profitable,” Hywood told The Australian.

“You have to look into the future … If they are not profitable, they become vulnerable, seriously vulnerable.”

As if Fairfax today is not “seriously vulnerable”. It is certainly diminished.

The constant assault on the very assets that deliver value – Fairfax’s people – belies any suggestion that Fairfax is building a company for the future. The erosion of newsroom resources – reporters, photographers, sub-editors – across the Fairfax stable has left the company a shell of its former self.

Fairfax staff know better than most that there is a need for fundamental shifts in business models to transform traditional media companies into 21st century businesses. What they lament is not just that they are so little regarded, but that Fairfax has no clear direction for the future. Over the past five years of restructuring the company has been less than candid about its true intentions – if indeed it has any.

While Hywood insists that he has a plan, Fairfax’s vacillation over the future of the print editions of its flagship city mastheads, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, reveals a company in strategic disarray. Earlier this year, after years of uncertainty about the future of print, uncertainty created by Hywood himself, the Fairfax CEO announced that “[t]he model we have developed involves continuing to print our publications daily for some years yet”.

It is hard not to be cynical about this decision. A reasonable conclusion would be that retaining the print editions of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald provides Fairfax with valuable assets that can be sold. Has this been its intention all along? Does Fairfax’s future rest with its real estate site Domain and online fripperies such as the dating site RSVP? (The noise you hear in the distance may well be generations of Fairfaxes rolling in their graves.)

The fact that Fairfax now finds itself the subject of a takeover bid by private-equity investor TPG is hardly flattering. It’s the equities market equivalent of vultures circling for the kill. Neither staff nor readers would have cause to welcome a private-equity overlord. But a sale of some kind is probably in the wind.

Former Fairfax titan Robert Gottliebsen does not like what he sees. Gottliebsen was the founder of the iconic and now-defunct BRW at Fairfax, as well as a stable of magazines that included Personal Investment and Shares, also gone. Gottliebsen was also responsible for acquiring what was then Australia’s oldest business magazine, Rydges, and relaunching it as BRW’s sister magazine under the editorship of this writer. Rydges was later merged into BRW, cementing the latter’s market leadership.

Gottliebsen speculates that The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald might be sold to Melbourne and Sydney families with deep pockets.

But with no end in sight to the cost-cutting, Gottliebsen has this warning:

“[T]hat scenario may be impossible to even consider if the quality of journalism declines too far and the papers become a source of ridicule.”

 Leo D’Angelo Fisher was at Fairfax in 1986-89 and 2006-2013. He is a former editor of Rydges magazine when it was part of the BRW Group and associate editor of BRW. He has also been a columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He took a voluntary redundancy package at the end of 2013.

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The Road to Ruin: Niki Savva is under fire for being sexist, but feminist critics should leave their agenda at home

Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin has proven a polarising chronicle of the destructive co-dependency between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and its role in the demise of Abbott’s prime ministership.

Some of the critics have aimed their wrath at Savva for daring to give currency to the long-circulating Canberra gossip that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Savva makes no effort to settle the veracity of that virulent rumour, nor does she offer any indication of her own view on the matter. The alleged affair, per se, is not the point of her book.

Her point was to illustrate the undisguised intensity and peculiar, not to say bizarre, characteristics of the relationship. It’s possible at a generous stretch that Abbott and Credlin were not aware of the rumours circulating through Canberra, but at times it certainly seemed that they were daring observers to come to that conclusion.

Frankly, the idea of a senior politician having an affair with a staffer is hardly breaking new ground. Mercifully, in Australia, what happens in the anteroom traditionally stays in the anteroom. Occasionally journalists push the envelope, but if journalists were to make a practice of gratuitously revealing every extramarital indiscretion involving politicians and staffers – not to mention the odd journalist – our media would be filled with nothing else.

Matters of public (as opposed to prurient) interest aside, affairs should be none of our affair. What is different about politicians behaving badly through the decades is that they and their paramours have behaved with discretion and secretiveness.

Affair or not, Abbott and Credlin were so bizarrely in-your-face and completely lacking in public decorum that of course they were going to be a talking point.

One MP recounted to Savva being present at a Melbourne restaurant when Credlin used her fork to feed Abbott from her plate. And after the meal “she put her head on his shoulder to complain about being tired”. On another occasion Abbott was spotted patting his chief of staff on the fundament.

There was nothing gratuitous about Savva’s detailed and richly sourced account, but there certainly have been some gratuitous insults hurled at her.

One commentator opined that Savva included rumours of the affair to boost sales of her book. Such a specious claim is an insult to Savva who is a well-connected, seasoned and fearless political journalist (as anyone who reads her columns in The Australian will know).

The intensity of the corrosive relationship between Abbott and Credlin and its toxic impact on Abbott’s private office and the governance of the country – and within two short years his prime ministership – was hardly a matter of Savva’s invention. But her book does break new ground in revealing just how obsessive and caustic this relationship was.

As Savva herself explained: “This was not meant to imply an affair; it was meant to describe the depth of the dependence, the consuming obsession, and what Abbott was prepared to sacrifice for it.”

Too much for a troubled government to bear

Far from being simply a matter of Canberra intrigue, Abbott’s closest colleagues were deeply concerned about Credlin’s micro-management – which extended to over-ruling ministers’ staff appointments and travel arrangements – and the extent of her influence on the Prime Minister and the workings of government.

On top of these deeply and widely held concerns about Credlin’s power lust, rumours about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship, and their seemingly wilful fanning of it with their outlandish behaviour, was simply too much for a troubled government to bear.

It was of such concern that NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Abbott about the rumours. As has been publicised, Fierravanti-Wells made this blunt assessment to her Prime Minister: “Politics is about perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it. I am here because I care about you, and I care about your family, and I feel I need to tell you the truth, the brutal truth. This is what your colleagues really think.”

It was a gutsy intervention, not one that would have been made lightly. Her counsel was of course ignored. Abbott did not sack Credlin; in fact nothing changed. Quite apart from the impact of this reckless relationship on his government, Abbott was also becoming a laughing stock in public over the relationship.

A widely circulated gif on social media in which Credlin could be seen making goo-goo eyes at her boss in the back seat of the prime ministerial car – and some none too subtle accompanying comments – would have confirmed Fierravanti-Wells’ worst fears.

Savva has been criticised for not putting these matters to Abbott and Credlin. But why would she? For the inevitable mealy-mouthed denials or explanations, or threats of legal action? Perhaps as a pro forma exercise she should have, but the book is no less revelatory or relevant for the lack of the protagonists’ input. In any case, it was well known for some time that Savva was writing the book; did they seek input? This was not an authorised account of the failed Abbott government. It was an exposé. And a well written, thoroughly researched one at that.

Of the many criticisms levelled at Savva, none has been about the accuracy of her account. It seems inconceivable that an account of the demise of the inept and dysfunctional Abbott government could have been written without delving into the principal architects of its disintegration; and when Savva delves, she delves.

The most fiery criticism of Savva has been over Credlin’s central role in the narrative. This was to be expected, although perhaps not its vehemence.

Previous media reports about Credlin’s divisive and destructive role as Abbott’s chief of staff also attracted the ire of feminists, so it’s not surprising that Savva’s book should come in for like condemnation. Throw in the matter of the alleged affair and Savva was guaranteed a hostile reaction from her sisters. Although she might not have anticipated the extent of the condemnation and accompanying accusations of betrayal of feminist ideals.

Fatuous feminism

But fiery feminism is not necessarily infallible feminism. In this case, fatuous comes closer to the mark (or marcia). One female critic, for example, sought to demonstrate that Savva was being sexist. She argued that despite the intense bond between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, nobody accused them of having sex. Ergo, the only reason people were speculating about an affair in Canberra is because Credlin was a woman.

Well, yes.

Where does one begin with such absurd logic? I’m not aware of any sightings of Campbell feeding his boss forkfuls of cake that might have set some people wondering. But as it happens, the Blair-Campbell alliance was very much the subject of heated discussion, criticism and condemnation.

Criticisms of Campbell mirrored the concerns expressed about Credlin. He was criticised for having too much influence on Blair and government policy, more so than ministers in some cases. He was condemned for bastardising Westminster politics. Campbell’s influence was all the more egregious, critics argued, given that he was not an elected official. These are familiar criticisms in the context of Credlin’s time as Abbott’s chief of staff.

Critics have variously argued that the book’s focus on Credlin is another example of Australian society’s problem with powerful women, is “insulting to women everywhere” and will dissuade girls and young women from seeking positions of power or influence because they’re only going to be dragged down by an unreconstructed patriarchy.

Which is tosh. Savva, to state the bleeding obvious, is a woman, clearly a powerful one, and as tough as nails. She also knows the turf; not only as a veteran political journalist and commentator but as a former staffer to Peter Costello and John Howard. Far from being a negative influence she may even inspire a new generation of female political and investigative journalists.

Society is the better for the gains that have only come through feminist agitation and insistence. And there are more battles to be fought and won. But using the simplistic rationale that an attack on Credlin is an attack on all women is simply another way of saying that women should be beyond judgment or criticism.

Savva’s book does not posit that the problem with Credlin was her gender; the problem with Credlin was Credlin; and the problem with Abbott was very much Abbott. Savva’s book is about the  poisonous combination of Abbott and Credlin and their dysfunctional approach to government.

The critics presumably must know that the behaviour of Abbott and Credlin would not be tolerated in any Australian workplace. A male CEO patting his female associate’s arse (or vice versa) in view of others would almost certainly only end one way. A CEO who lets himself be fed at a restaurant table, have his hair brushed or tie straightened by said female associate would presumably be sending one and only one signal to all those watching agog at the table.

Quite apart from the power and influence wielded by Credlin and the inadequacies of Abbott as Prime Minister, there are norms of behaviour that must be observed, if not for the sake of decency, for the sake of professionalism.

The Abbott-Credlin relationship was unprofessional, wilful, self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic, provocative and inevitably destructive. Savva has nothing to apologise for; but Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin most certainly owe their party, if not the people of Australia, a very big one.

 

 

The media’s role in driving workplace diversity: the risks and rewards of a sometimes rocky road

We’ve heard about the role of diversity in business, why it’s important and the strategies and challenges involved in seeking and managing a diverse workplace. But how well is that diversity reflected in the media? And what role does the media play – and what role should it play – in promoting and shedding light on the diversity agenda?

As journalists, it’s our job to hold a mirror to the business community and the nation’s workplaces. Our role is to challenge, to champion change – to act as a medium through which change is championed by others – to moderate and filter.

The media has been an agent of change for diversity. If you have any doubts about that, compare any of the daily newspapers through the decades and the differences will be stark – both in editorial and advertising content.

From the media’s perspective, however, seeking to reflect diversity can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

There are some senior women in business, for example, who flatly refuse to be interviewed about gender issues. They argue that there is more to being a successful woman in business than simply talking about women in business. They do not want to be seen through the prism of gender activism.

Diversity can be a sensitive topic, and occasionally in the eye of the beholder. One manager of Asian heritage told me of his annoyance at being asked by his company’s in-house communications team to be featured in a story about diversity. This man was a fourth-generation Australian and he resented being seen in that light.

In 1998, I was a staff writer with The Bulletin magazine and I covered what was dubbed “the Gutnick tapes” affair. The story involved the disclosure of taped telephone conversations in which employees of Melbourne stockbroking firm JB Were were heard to make anti-Semitic comments about businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

My story examined the question: is there an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Melbourne’s business community? I spoke to and featured comments from several Jewish community leaders and businessmen, and Gutnick himself.

The story won praise for shedding light on the contentious and uncomfortable issue of anti-Semitism; but it also attracted criticism, from members of the Jewish community, that the story might potentially fan anti-Semitic sentiment. These critics were basically arguing against rocking the boat. One Jewish leader who had become aware that I was writing the story contacted my editor to express his concern.

It’s important to write such stories, even when they may cause discomfort to some. Experience shows that lasting and substantive change doesn’t just happen. Discredited attitudes take root in silence and indifference.

Recently on my site I revisited the subject of anti-Semitism, which in recent years has assumed a much higher and more disturbing profile. To eradicate anti-Semitism it must be confronted, but it’s a subject that still causes great discomfort, within the Jewish community, and within the media itself.

When ‘the right thing’ is not so obvious

Sometimes the media can tie itself in knots in attempting to do the right thing.

A few years ago, an internal debate raged at a Fairfax magazine when it was proposed that magazine run a list of Asian directors on the boards of ASX 200 companies. The story was framed in the context of the Gillard government’s Asian Century whitepaper and its call for more Asian experience on company boards. Internal critics of the list argued that such a list was racist.

In the end a list was run, but it was limited to Asian-born directors on the top 100 boards – that is, not the original list which would have also included Australian-born Asians. This distinction, it was felt, removed any racist overtones.

BRW magazine used to run several very popular lists throughout the year: the top entrepreneurs, the fastest 100 growing companies, the leading franchises, the best companies to work for… and so on.

With each ranking came the usual complaints: why aren’t there more women on these lists? The answer was simple: these lists were dependent on individuals and businesses nominating themselves: but relatively few women did, even when they received a prod from us to do so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover story for BRW about Carolyn Creswell, the woman behind the hugely successful Carman’s range of muesli products. Carolyn is a very warm, very successful entrepreneur who many women – men and women, but certainly women – find inspirational. Even so, I wasn’t really surprised when we started receiving letters from readers complaining that it was typical that a “male-centric magazine” like BRW should feature an attractive woman on the cover. (At the time, the editor of this “male-centric” magazine was Kate Mills.)

It’s just a fact of life that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. Editorial judgment doesn’t get side-tracked by that kind of criticism. But it can be tricky terrain.

Most prominent women in business would assert that the business media is sexist.

Melbourne company director Carol Schwartz is perhaps the most vocal critic of the business media for being dominated by male editors, male journalists and male businessmen. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Overall, I believe we are seeing more female bylines and more ethnically diverse bylines, and we are seeing more women and non-Anglo people in the business media.

But it does raise the question: How far should the media go in ensuring diversity is well represented in its content?

When I write a feature on a particular topic I will start by working on a list of sources. Some will come from my own network or knowledge of the subject matter, but in many cases I will also cast the net with PR contacts for someone or some business that may fit the bill.

Thinking outside the diversity square

My priority here is to find a relevant contact, but it’s also a way of ensuring that my stories don’t comprise the usual suspects. When I send out the call for potential contacts, I don’t stipulate that diversity be a consideration: my interest is in finding the most appropriate contacts. But the PRs I approach are free to think a little bit outside the diversity square in who they nominate.

In most cases, that contact list will be a diverse grouping, reflective of the wider community. But it won’t always be the case; and even so it may well transpire that the women or non-Anglos on the list may not be available, or interested or necessarily be right for the story.

The view that there is an institutional gender or cultural bias in the media is wrong. Editors, by and large, are very much attuned to the issue. Diversity is something that most editors are conscious of – as one of the many aspects of a publication that must be considered in producing the best possible product.

At BRW, in recent years, there were conscious efforts to get more women in the magazine. A couple of years ago, BRW editor James Thomson – now companies editor at the Financial Review – dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to women to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was a landmark issue.

Also at BRW, to overcome the male-dominated, self-nominated lists, we introduced lists such as the ’30 richest self-made women’, which was based on our research, rather than relying on self-nominees.

But how far should the media go in ensuring diversity in their publications? In the United States in November last year, Bloomberg took the radical step of introducing a “quota for quotes”. Now retired editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler issued this directive: “All Bloomberg News [stories] must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

I can’t see it working, nor do I think such hard and fast rules are desirable. Journalistic red tape is not the answer. And if a quota for female voices is desirable, why not for other groups? That said, I certainly understand the motivation.

Journalists have a critical role in promoting diversity – in many respects simply by doing their jobs professionally rather than taking on the mantle of social activists. Communication practitioners, too, can promote diversity in and through the media.

Most journalists are interested in writing stories that are relevant, accurate and engaging, which necessarily means reflecting their audience and the wider community; and most journalists, I believe, are interested in being socially responsible.

How corporate comms can promote diversity

Communication professionals – whether in-house or external media advisers – can play an active part in advancing the diversity agenda:

01 For communications professionals who want to promote diversity in the media: I will start with this very basic but fundamental advice – understand the media, understand the role of the journalist, understand what is news and what is newsworthy, and always consider your pitch not simply in terms of what’s ideal coverage for your organisation, but what fits the interests and audience of a particular journalist and his or her publication.

02 When pitching a diversity-based story – for example, how a company has implemented diversity management targets – think beyond the HR director as the media contact, avoid diversity jargon, and try not to take the high moral ground. Provide meaningful data, illustrate how the program has worked, provide names and details of people who have benefited from the program, and convince your CEO to be prepared to talk about the program and the value of diversity to his or her organisation.

03 When issuing media releases, provide alternate contacts, even if they don’t feature in the body of the release, to provide journalists with optional contacts that reflect the diversity of your organisation.

04 When arranging speakers for your own conferences, or providing speakers for external conferences, be mindful of the opportunity to promote diversity through your choice of speaker.

05 Compile contact lists for journalists that reflect the diversity of your organisation. A directory is one option, but also consider tailoring a less expansive list to the particular interests of a journalist, with maybe half a dozen contacts. If you’re targeting a writer who specialises in workplace issues, tailor a list accordingly – it may be the chairs of in-house diversity, cultural or LGBT committees, for example, or a list of employees who have won awards or have some special achievement. You can issue a fresh list every month or quarter. Journalists will keep the names they want for their own contact books.

06 Various organisations compile media contact or speaker lists; these are usually for women in business, such as the Women’s Leadership Institute which compiles a Women for Media Database. Encourage notable women in your organisation to be on those lists. If your organisation is part of an industry association, consider the creation of an industry-wide database of contacts.

07 If you’re not already part of the content marketing revolution, becoming your own publisher is an ideal way to promote the diversity of your organisation with key stakeholders, including the media. ANZ BlueNotes is a perfect example.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation to the International Association of Business Communicators (Vic) forum, ‘Driving the Diversity Agenda’, Melbourne, 18 March 2015.

From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité

Traditional media may have to change its tune as ANZ decides to try its hand at journalism with BlueNotes venture

ANZ Bank’s new “comment, analysis and opinion” website, BlueNotes, has caused a spirited debate in the media community around this one question: is it journalism? The bank insists BlueNotes represents “a new type of media” and is a bona fide member of the Fourth Estate. Sceptics believe the site is nothing more than a hugely resourced arm of the bank’s already formidable PR and marketing machine.

BlueNotes deserves the benefit of the doubt, if only because of the effort that has gone into the creation of the fully staffed “newsroom” which has been producing the site since its launch on April 15.

The integrity of the publishing initiative, which promises to provide “a forum for insights, opinion, research and news about the economy, financial services, investment and society”, would have been immediately undermined had a PR operative been placed in charge. But ANZ recruited Walkley Award-winning journalist and long-time associate editor of the Australian Financial Review, Andrew Cornell, as the site’s founding managing editor.

That ANZ appointed such a prominent journalist, and more to the point, that he accepted the position, gets BlueNotes off to a promising start. In addition to Cornell, the highly regarded journalist and media executive Amanda Gome, until the end of 2013 the publisher of BRW magazine and previously the CEO of online publisher Private Media, has joined ANZ as its head of strategic content and digital media.

ANZ offers this explanation for its entry into publishing: “Digital media is changing the way people consume information, opening new channels for communication and engagement with our clients, staff and stakeholders. BlueNotes is part of our response to this transformation from old to new media. BlueNotes is new media.”

The BlueNotes concept does not sit comfortably with many journalists. Their concern is understandable: if the future of journalism is tied to corporate interests, no matter how arm’s-length, how assured is the traditional role of journalism as the frank and fearless pursuit of truth, an essential component of any democratic society?

BlueNotes represents an immediate challenge to mainstream media – yet another one – and marks an important advent in the evolution of journalism, both in terms of people’s understanding of it and the value they place on it. It will also challenge the way current and future journalists think about their profession (or trade, as some old hands insist). One imagines that young journalism graduates will not be as concerned about the emergence of “corporate journalism” as their more experienced peers.

Journalism or glorified PR?

The corporate publishing model is not so alien in the United States, with major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco and GE boasting well resourced newsrooms operating as separate organisational units. In Australia, the AFL has been an early example of organisations bypassing traditional media to reach stakeholders through their own media outlet.

But can corporate journalism claim to be more than glorified PR without the credibility that comes with objectivity? Yes, Cornell told The Australian:

“These [corporate media] models only work if there is genuine independence. They don’t work if they are not separate from general marketing. And the value to the organisation is commensurate as a result.”

And for good measure: “It’s naive to think commercial publishing ventures don’t have vested interests.”

It’s obvious that corporates are not becoming publishers for altruistic reasons. Clearly the exercise is about branding, reputation and positioning. But that need not diminish the commitment to editorial quality and excellence, nor the potential to provide a valuable news and information service.

The move to corporate newsrooms is a vote of no-confidence in the under-resourced traditional media sector. Much of the media giants’ response to structural change and shifting consumer behaviour is less than sophisticated: cuts, cuts and more cuts. And it’s in already sparse newsrooms that the bean-counters’ machetes slash most often and most deeply. 

As media companies strip their newsrooms of staff and increasingly dumb down or chase scandal and conflict in the race for scarce circulation, many blue-chip corporates feel it is getting too difficult to reach stakeholders through traditional media. Better to go direct themselves, they reason. It’s also true that corporate newsrooms can exploit the weaknesses of depleted newsrooms by cutting out the middle man and presenting their best selves to the marketplace.  

The media sector is changing rapidly and profoundly. As traditional media companies scramble to adapt to the threat of cheaper, faster, more nimble online competitors, and the advertising market continues to fragment, the question of who is going to fund journalism in future, especially expensive investigative journalism, is occupying those who care about the role of journalism in society.

Journalism: an expensive business

In the US, and to a limited extent in Australia, universities, philanthropists and foundations are funding investigative journalism projects. It’s an expensive business: in January, Brisbane philanthropist Graeme Wood withdrew his support of around $15 million for the struggling online start-up, The Global Mail.

Journalism academic and author Margaret Simons wrote in Crikey on 3 February 2014: “In this fast changing sphere…here as well as internationally the indications are that philanthropy is not likely to be a long-term, broad answer to the failures of the news media business models.”

Until recently, competition in the media has meant competition from other providers of mainstream media products; today and increasingly in future competition will come from diverse sources, with divergent interests, objectives and measures of success.

Citizen journalism, in which members of the public use blogs, websites and social media to report, analyse and disseminate news and information is both an expression of dissatisfaction with the mainstream media as well as a personal outlet made possible by technology. In the citizen-journalism scenario – what might be termed amateur journalism – everyone is potentially a journalist and publisher.

And now the billion-dollar corporates have decided that they couldn’t agree more. BlueNotes is the big end of town’s version of the citizen blog. But that question again: is it journalism?

BlueNotes may not be journalism per se, but that is not to say it does not contain journalism in its more traditional context of objectivity and independence. For example, former Australian Financial Review journalist, Mark Skulley, by any measure a journalist’s journalist, is a contributor to BlueNotes.

That’s of no comfort to AFR columnist Christopher Joye:

“You will only find truly balanced and fearless analysis on any subject of interest at destinations like Fairfax Media’s The Australian Financial Review and other independent media, which base their entire business models on providing uncontaminated information and advice,” he wrote recently.

Joye is one of the AFR’s most popular columnists, but this spirited champion of “truly balanced and feared analysis” is not himself a journalist as we would generally understand it. To quote from the AFR website: “Christopher Joye is a leading economist, fund manager and policy adviser. He previously worked for Goldman Sachs and the RBA, and was a director of the Menzies Research Centre. He is currently a director of YBR Funds Management Pty Ltd.”

That’s not a reflection on Joye, it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the media. As mainstream media outlets outsource more and more of their content the norm will be to rely on alternative external sources, whether it’s commentators such as Joye or specialist “new media” sites such as BlueNotes.

BlueNotes is premised on the ideals of objectivity and independence. For Andrew Cornell, his challenge will be to create and maintain a publication that is true to those ideals, and his own as one of Australia’s most respected journalists. For all ANZ’s best intentions, its unaccustomed role of publisher will be tested by its own corporate instincts, inclinations and caution.

With the BlueNotes publishing venture there are two distinct and potentially incompatible cultures at play: Cornell’s challenge is to create something entirely new, credible and sustainable from these cultures. BlueNotes will either blaze a new trail through the media landscape, or it will end up as media road kill. Whatever the outcome, it will make for interesting reading.

Disclosure: I was invited to write a column for BlueNotes but my first effort remains at the bottom of the editor’s in-tray, which quite possibly confirms BlueNotes’ commitment to quality journalism.

 

 

If George Megalogenis is an ‘ethnic commentator’, maybe we’re not as multicultural as we think

George Megalogenis is one of my favourite writers and one of Australia’s most respected political and economic journalists. I used to read him in The Australian, I have read and reread his seminal books and I am one of his 28,000 followers on Twitter. (Forgive this gush, George, but I’m about to make my point.) So imagine my surprise when earlier this month he was referred to – almost dismissed – as an “ethnic commentator”.

George Megalogenis an “ethnic commentator”? Oh, of course, it’s the surname.

A bemused Megalogenis tweeted on April 14: “I see my old employer News Corp has me branded as an ‘ethnic commentator’. Um, I was born in Oz.”

Even if Megalogenis hadn’t been born in Australia, how could anyone read his vast body of work as a journalist, commentator and author and pigeonhole him as an “ethnic commentator”?

Quite apart from being a misnomer, there is something inherently divisive in the notion of an “ethnic commentator”. The use of “ethnic” in this way is a throwback to a time when the population was divided into “them” and “us”. It deliberately sets out to marginalise and trivialise somebody’s contribution to public discourse.

So how did this contretemps unfold? It started when Megalogenis, in response to Tony Abbott’s decision to reintroduce knighthoods, while controversy raged over the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, tweeted on March 25: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”

The comment caught the attention and raised the ire of Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi who wrote on April 6: “It’s a common mistake to assume all ethnic minorities must be on the same page on a particular issue.” Megalogenis, and commentator Waleed Aly, who was also in her sights, were examples of “ethnic commentators who misrepresent minority groups”.

I was surprised to see this term still kicking around. Does Australia still have – need? – “ethnic commentators”? Can’t one simply be a commentator? Why should Megalogenis’ tweet carry any additional import because of his surname?

Panahi was born in the United States and it may well be that in the US, whose multiculturalism is as triumphant as it is tribal and angst-ridden, it is more common for commentators to speak on behalf of their ethnic constituencies.  

Multiculturalism in Australia has made such enormous strides in a very short time – certainly within my lifetime – that even the term “multiculturalism” seems outdated and superfluous.

A foot in both worlds

My surname was plain D’Angelo until I added Fisher when I married in 1989. My mother was born in Sicily and migrated to Australia in the 1950s when she was in her teens; my father was born in Queensland of Italian immigrant parents, also from Sicily. (My paternal grandparents migrated to Australia in 1922; Pop was interned during the war despite being a naturalised Australian.)

In many respects I had a foot in both worlds. As a fair-haired boy I didn’t stand out on the school playground (my mother and maternal grandmother were blonde and blue-eyed), and because I grew up with English (as well as Italian) in the household I didn’t speak with the distinctive “ethnic twang” that most kids of Italian stock carried. As a child I was both a product of what would be called multiculturalism and an observer of its dynamics.

When I was at North Footscray Primary School in the 1960s the ethnic diversity consisted of Italian, Greek and recently arrived Yugoslav kids; nothing like today’s cultural cornucopia. I remember when a group of migrant kids started playing soccer in the school grounds – one of the boys had brought a soccer ball to school – and the headmaster strode up to the startled and embarrassed children and declared: “This is Australia; we don’t play soccer here!”

Once a week we had religious instruction, conducted by a Salvation Army officer. Before the class would begin a teacher would bid the “non-Christian” children – that is, the Catholic kids from migrant families – to file out and wait in the school yard until the “Christians” had their lesson. A dozen or so of us kids, fairly certain we were Christians, and well aware that we were being set apart from the Anglo-Australians, would chat among ourselves, bemused but happy to escape something so boring as religious instruction.

In the era before multiculturalism, when migrants were “new Australians” – a seemingly inclusive but subtly divisive term – assimilation was the order of the day. That’s why so many migrant kids from the 1950s to the early 1970s have tales of being ridiculed (or worse) in the playground for having salami sandwiches or other such exotica for lunch. Today everyone thinks they’re Italian and more often than not their specialty dish is spaghetti Bolognese (and more often than not it’s bloody terrible).

An explosion of difference

The other day I was walking through the Highpoint shopping centre, in Melbourne’s west, and as I surveyed the throng of shoppers I was struck by the presence of every possible hue, culture, ethnic dress and language in a cacophonous explosion of colour, sight and sound. Of difference. National dress would have been frowned upon in the 1960s, except at annual festivals, but today Australians from Indian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds feel no hesitation in dressing as they would in their homelands.

How can anyone debate the desirability of multiculturalism, or protest that it’s time to scale back the “multicultural experiment”? This is now who we are. There is no turning back; there’s only the future and its many exciting possibilities to embrace.

The post-war migration boom of the 1940s and 1950s certainly changed the course of Australia, and the Whitlam government (1972-75) deserves credit for ridding Australia of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy and celebrating the diversity and riches of post-war migration. But the undoubted father of Australian multiculturalism is Malcolm Fraser, prime minister from 1975 to 1983, and he gets too little credit for it.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, which had slowed under the Whitlam government, with a particular emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia during his term. In 1978 the Fraser government created the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, overseeing a migrant population that was multicultural and multiracial.

The success of Australia’s multiculturalism, defying its most ardent critics, is that ethnic and cultural differences have not dulled the broad community’s sense of common cause and values, of belonging, of one’s Australianness (except for those whose necks are of a particularly vibrant hue).

That is not to say that each infusion of migrants and refugees is seamless and without its challenges, but the richness, cohesiveness and productivity of Australia’s population is a great success story.

In such a free and inclusive society there is no need to marginalise or segment somebody who contributes to public discourse – whether as a journalist, blogger or interested citizen – as an “ethnic commentator”. To do so is divisive and trivialises whatever they have to say as something less than legitimate or credible (as opposed to a “mainstream commentator”).

So, where were we? Oh, yes: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”

That’s the view of George Megalogenis, commentator. If you disagree with George that is something you’ll have to take up with him, and thanks to social media you very easily can. He may well argue the toss with you and support his case with some compelling stats and facts, or he might refer you to something else he has written on the subject, or he may engage in a lively conversation with you in which you both learn something, or agree to disagree.

Because that’s what commentators do. They inform, engage and stimulate. And that’s about the size of it, in any language.