Opinion

Clementine Ford
The demise of independent media

After last year’s federal leadership spill, the newly anointed prime minister, Scott Morrison, wasted no time asserting his deeply conservative convictions. After a hand-wringing “report” in The Daily Telegraph about training teachers how to respond to the rise in trans-identifying children in schools, the prime minister tweeted, “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids.”

I was just one of many who reacted with anger. The assumption transgender identity can be somehow implanted in vulnerable children by “politically correct” svengalis is deeply offensive, and it only serves to further isolate trans kids, who already report heightened rates of suicide and depression.

Morrison’s characterisation of this training was despicable. I said as much in response to his tweet, calling him a “fucking disgrace”.

I wasn’t surprised to be contacted by my then boss. But even I hadn’t realised the depths to which a once proudly independent news organisations had sunk in its attempts to appeal to the right wing. The day after I posted my tweet, I was told a memo had recently been circulated around the offices of Fairfax directing staff to, among other things, “respect the office of the Prime Minister”.

But as a mere freelancer, I hadn’t received the memo – nor the seven years’ worth of superannuation, sick leave, holiday pay, job security and reasonable salary increases that would have accompanied being on staff. Apparently, referring to Scott Morrison as a “fucking disgrace” was not an act of respect; instead, this behaviour was now considered a sackable offence. I was told this would be my first and final warning.

It was concerning to see how fearful my employer was of the fallout that might come from a tweet criticising the country’s most senior political figure – particularly when that tweet, written by a freelance contributor, wasn’t even widely shared. But my editor made it clear to me that some punishment was required, because they wanted to say appropriate action had been taken should The Australian decide to write about it. I was due to fly to the United States the following week for a two-week book tour, so I agreed to go on paid leave for the duration. Still, I was troubled by how Fairfax seemed to be making its decisions on the basis of a competitor’s potential outrage.

Some have argued this shift to the right is a result of Fairfax’s merger with Nine, a deal that was completed in December last year. But the change in political culture at Fairfax began long before the television network set its sights on establishing a newspaper presence, and my story is just a small example of it. To my mind, the trajectory traces back to the appointment in March 2018 of James Chessell as Fairfax’s group executive editor of Australian Metro Publishing. Chessell has worked previously as national editor of both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and as deputy business editor of The Australian Financial Review. More pointedly, he has also been an adviser to former Liberal treasurer Joe Hockey, as well as a known associate of many in business and finance.

Chessell’s appointment was accompanied by concerns over editorial independence. During the Fairfax strike in 2017, when Chessell was overseeing national content at The Age and The SMH, Mike Seccombe quoted one striking staff member in The Saturday Paper as saying, “The idea that the company would appoint a Liberal Party staffer and friend to run federal politics is extraordinary.” Writing in Guardian Australia in 2017, Amanda Meade reported Chessell had told the chief foreign correspondent for The SMH and The Age that his reporting on Donald Trump was “too anti-Trump”. As Meade wrote then, this was a view “said to be shared by Fairfax bosses Greg Hywood and Sean Aylmer”. Over the past year especially, I have noticed a dramatic shift in the direction of what is considered “worthy” content at Fairfax.

 

Of course, Fairfax isn’t the only news organisation whose political independence appears to be wilting, nor is it the first to demand absolute brand loyalty from an ever-increasing army of freelancers who are afforded none of the basic civilities of formalised employment in return. Ahead of writing this piece, I asked for comment from other freelancers who had noticed similar policies of fear being applied in their professional relationships. Many people contacted me.

Freelance tech journalist Nick Ross told me he spent three years investigating a piece on the failures of the NBN for the ABC only to have the story killed “because it would upset Malcolm Turnbull”. Another freelancer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me: “The outlet I worked for had a sponsorship arrangement with a major bank that seriously limited what we were allowed to report on. We were unofficially encouraged to self-censor how we wrote stories, and when we didn’t, we were told directly. One of my articles indirectly criticised the major banks, and our managing director phoned my editor ordering them to take it down.”

This policing affects us all, but it has its own hierarchy of harm. Yassmin Abdel-Magied still receives death threats to this day following a seven-word Facebook post that highlighted the ongoing harm caused by war and military conflict. The Murdoch press spent weeks vilifying her, with The Australian devoting more than 90,000 words to the topic. On an episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast that aired in 2018, Abdel-Magied spoke about the impact on her career and wellbeing, and the many organisations from which she was unceremoniously dumped as a result of the campaign against her.

Tarneen Onus-Williams was working for Oxfam when reports of her speaking passionately at an Invasion Day rally in 2018 were seized on by News Corp commentators, who wasted no time waging a campaign against her that was striking in its similarity to the one that targeted Abdel-Magied. Onus-Williams told me that in the midst of the media storm, Oxfam implemented a media policy that had previously not existed. “When an article came out, I would get in trouble because of the policy. Anything I did publicly had to be run through them. They have self-determination policies and programs to support Aboriginal women’s political engagement, but they kept shutting me down and not letting me do anything. I ended up leaving because they made it so frustrating to work there. They wouldn’t even be a referee.”

The impact on Onus-Williams has been extensive. “I’m just anxious about tweeting or writing anything because I get trolled all the time,” she said. “Oxfam Australia lost more donors from my comment than they did [from] the revelations workers had been sexually abusing natural disaster victims in Haiti.”

 

In September 2018, shortly after I returned from America and resumed writing, the newly appointed editor at Daily Life – the Fairfax section for which I was a columnist – informed me via email that after almost seven years filing twice-weekly columns in exchange for exclusivity, my output, and thus my freelance salary, would be cut in half. When I spoke with my editor on the phone a week or so later and expressed my frustration at the situation, she told me Chessell had instructed her that my presence in the paper was “in no uncertain terms” to be reduced.

As a freelance writer, the nature of the work is inherently unreliable. But beyond dealing with the rotating roster of editors, expected fast turnarounds and a rapidly evaporating pool of subeditors, contributors are being asked to protect the brand at all costs. At the same time, the brand offers little in the way of support for those providing all of its saleable content. Across the organisation, contributors and staff journalists have been directed not to “attack the competition”, being reminded that “when they go low, we go high”. But what this really means is that the columnists and journalists themselves – whom News Corp has no problem viciously targeting – are denied protection and support when they need it most. Instead, their opinions are being scrutinised and curbed in order to not incite “negative” press.

Understandably, it’s been difficult to find Fairfax employees willing to speak on the record about the cultural shift inside the organisation. They are terrified about the ramifications. After I left, though, one senior Fairfax journalist gave me their assessment of the company, on the condition of anonymity. I think it gets to the heart of what has changed at Fairfax, and what is wrong:

“Chessell’s clear political agenda is to shift The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age sharply to the right, to make us pale versions of The Australian. It’s been hugely damaging to the independence of our journalism and to the reputation of the mastheads. Much of the changes have resulted in fawning coverage towards moderates in the Liberal Party and outright puff pieces including on Chessell’s former boss Joe Hockey.

“Fairfax journalists have long been a rare independent voice in mass media in Australia. That independence is now being undermined from within.”

That really is a fucking disgrace.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Inside the news doom". Subscribe here.

Clementine Ford
is a writer and speaker living in Naarm (Melbourne).