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When "Freedom" means a billionaire's right-wing front organisation hijacking your paper's front page

When our watchdogs let us down

December 9, 2021

Opinion by Greg Ray

The sight of those nonsensical black and yellow advertisements for mining magnate Clive Palmer’s political spoiler organisation on the front page of my local newspaper is upsetting, I admit. When I saw them the first thing I wondered was, why does the newspaper accept advertising from that dreadful troll club? I’ve heard of instances, in the past, when newspaper owners stood on their dignity and refused to publish certain ads, arguing that they were harmful, misleading or beyond the pale in some other way. Might this not be one of those times? But then I look at the paper on some other days of the week, when the whole front page is an advertisement for a retail operation run by a man known for his sporadic unhelpful social and political remarks and I realise the newspaper’s problem is probably the shortage of advertising dollars. I guess maybe the company that owns the paper needs the money so badly it can’t say no.

When I joined that same newspaper in 1984 times were different, even though the writing was already on the wall in the form of declining circulation. The big thing about the paper in those days was the famous “rivers of gold”: the page after page of classified advertising that filled the Saturday edition in particular. It was those mighty rivers that kept the organisation afloat and allowed it to make a solid attempt at impartiality in coverage and reporting. Thousands of people each contributing a handful of dollars to sell a car, a wardrobe, a canoe, a dress, a pair of shoes or goodness knows what else. Placing public notices, garage sale notices and all manner of other small notifications to alert other members of their local community to whatever it was they wanted them to know. Jobs. Work wanted. Ahem, personal services (there was a time when these were not accepted, being a little too risque for our paper). Government and semi-government bodies were obliged to use the classified columns for numerous purposes. All these tiny trickles of cash joined in streams and added up to those famous rivers that paid the wages of hundreds of workers, including many journalists, and put profits in the pockets of the owners. And while the owners were happily pocketing the dough, they weren’t too concerned with what was in the news columns of the paper. As long as the public was buying it and placing ads in it, everything else was more or less OK.

As a journalist I quickly discovered how easy it was to offend people with news reports. Sometimes those offended were “powerful” people who could wield significant influence in a variety of ways. But almost every time, in my experience, their threats and behind-the-scenes representations to the newspaper’s management came to nothing. The paper was afloat on the rivers of gold, and even the fury of a big real estate tycoon, heavy industry boss or public service mandarin looked small beside that beautiful torrent of riches.

The rivers of classified gold

Long before I went to work as a journalist things had been starting to change, of course. Radio and TV had been cutting into newspapers’ markets for years, but those rivers of gold were still pretty big and editor after editor reassured their reporters that a strong wall protected our work from commercial or political interference. And it was mostly true. The importance of projecting an image of unbiased neutrality was so great that if, from time to time, the organisation had to suffer an episode or two of commercial attack from a disgruntled local powerbroker, this was a price that had to be paid. We still had the rivers of gold to underwrite our independence. I must not pretend that this independence, neutrality and lack of bias was all that might be wished for. It wasn’t. But in general it was surprisingly real and robust. I had many jousts with powerful folk who wanted stories suppressed and strong editors ensured they almost never won, especially in the earlier years of my career. (Those folk typically have long memories, however, and I’ve been surprised to find that some of them are still petty enough to seek retribution in many little ways long after my departure from the paper, which just goes to show.)

As a society, we took our robust press voices for granted, I’m afraid. We thought we had those voices because we deserved them, but it turns out they were just a freak of history that existed for a relatively brief period – mostly thanks to those good old rivers of gold. Take away the classified advertising and suddenly the influence of the remaining big advertisers becomes very important. And of course with less income the papers can’t support as many employees and the staff numbers have to be cut. Owners don’t like seeing their profits shrink and they search high and low for ways to cut costs. Stodgy old ideas about the firm separation between commercial and editorial departments are re-examined, intensely.

The point arrived when working for the Fairfax organisation – which was long held up as a beacon of reason and integrity alongside Rupert Murdoch’s stable of outlets – was like watching a slow-motion car crash. Sometimes it wasn’t even slow-motion. And elsewhere it wasn’t plain sailing either, apparently. Refugees washed into our newsroom from once-proud smaller papers that had been bought and asset-stripped by profit-hungry businessmen masquerading as financial geniuses. It seemed to me that they only had one trick: buy a paper, sack most of the staff, sell the building, sell the press and print the thing miles away at a big central facility. Hearing the sad stories of these traumatised refugee reporters, we pondered our own futures with great nervousness.

Google and Facebook

The rise of the internet brought the old order to an end, in most respects. The little trickles of money and information that once joined into streams to fill the rivers of gold in the big weekend papers were diverted on-line and eventually flowed to the likes of Google and Facebook.

And so here we are.

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to draw a link between the decline of our old newspaper model – a relatively fair and reasonable system of news reportage kept afloat by the highly democratic rivers of classified advertising gold – and the parallel decline of our political systems at every level. Accountability has all-but evaporated, political discourse has coarsened and swerved madly to the right and even the most well-intentioned of our remaining good newspapers (I count my old workplace, The Newcastle Herald, among those) seem to be so reduced in circumstances that they will carry the poisonous propaganda of some of our nastiest political operators on their front pages. You could weep.

Murdoch’s outlets have weaponised idiocy and use the madness of our worst minorities to bash apart our democracy and our common wealth. They play politicians like puppets. Those who play the game get a free pass and positive coverage. Those who won’t play are ignored or bludgeoned into political oblivion. Meanwhile the biggest and best of the once-proud Fairfax papers are in the hands of the Nine group which nowadays makes little pretence of political neutrality and openly supports the Liberal Party and the big business agenda. The once-crowded constellation of regional papers is in disarray. Many of its stars have blinked out forever, others have seriously dimmed and many of the communities thus deprived are force-fed the poison of Murdoch’s Sky. The publicly funded ABC remains, but the forces of the far-right-wing are constantly attacking what remains of it, cutting its funds, making appointments apparently designed to speed the decay, suing it for its news reportage and siding with the Murdoch cheer-squad which, for its own commercial reasons, wants the ABC dead and buried for all time.

As 2022 approaches it’s clear that the forces of the corporate far-right and its political glove-puppets and front organisations in Australia are setting up for a re-run of the previous federal election. The offensive newspaper and billboard advertisements already sprouting in our midst show us how it is. In the guise of offering an alternative, these tricksters really offer nothing but more and more of exactly the same rot as we have already been getting. How can Australia shake off these dishonest ratbags when so much of the remaining machinery of the nation’s media is working for them, in one way or another? I wish I knew.

Maybe in time the alternative online media voices will be loud enough to make a difference. Crikey, Michael West Media, the Schwartz Media group and several more players are in the fight, trying to carve a viable space for more truthful reporting, but it’s an uphill battle against the overwhelming forces of big business and its captive politicians and propaganda machinery. What can you do? Support those growing independent voices. Subscribe to them. Read their work and share it when it deserves sharing. Back your ABC to the hilt. And complain to the owners of your local paper about those terrible advertisements.

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