Important news from The Age. It’s the sainted editor speaking…

An indication of how far The Age, a tabloid newspaper that is published from Melbourne, has sunk can be seen from a letter to subscribers [note, not those who read it free] from the editor, Gay Alcorn on 2 April.

Perhaps to imbue said document with importance, Alcorn chose to place it behind a paywall. [The Age home page can be read without payment and a limited number of articles are also free to read, before the paywall kicks in.]

But Alcorn apparently considers her writing so important that it has to be paid for. Of such stern mettle are editors [and journalists too] made. Heaven forbid that the common man should be able to read this important missive.

[I worked for the website of The Age for nearly 17 years, from June 1999 until May 2016.]

Alcorn was a good editor when she headed the paper’s Sunday edition. But she appears to be out of her depth as editor of the weekday paper.

With a national election looming, Alcorn apparently wanted to offer the subscriber a bit of spin: our coverage will be unbiased. But why would she need to offer this perspective – unless the newspaper had been caught out taking one side or the other recently?

All this talk about balance is so much hogwash when a former Federal Liberal treasurer Peter Costello is chairman of the company that owns The Age. The terrible, regular columnists are another indication of the paucity of real talent at The Age; most of them are unreadable and biased in the extreme. Shaun Carney, who left the paper some years ago, but is now writing for it again, is Costello’s biographer. No prizes for guessing where his sympathies lie.

And there is Parnell Palme McGuinness, daughter of the late right-wing contrarian Padraic McGuinness, a right-wing nutjob if ever there was one. Add to that a woman named Julie Szego — who has been there for decades and once ran to Mark Leibler to get a column of hers reinstated after the then editor, Paul Ramadge, had spiked it — and you have all the ingredients for a stale right-wing pudding. Oh, before I forget, there’s also former Howard minister Amanda Vanstone who provides the icing on that.

The only decent political columnist is Nikki Savva and she came to Nine only because The Australian, where she was a staple, hired the former Tony Abbott spin doctor Peta Credlin. [Update, April 9: Looks like The Age is now reduced to running columns written by Michelle Grattan who left the paper seven or eight years ago.]

But back to the exclusive letter. That an editor would pen a missive like this is itself a joke. It starts out by saying that she would like to outline The Age’s principles [that is, if it has any, which is doubtful – see above] before the election – only to promptly say that they are the same as for all other coverage. Then why raise the point at all, one hears the puzzled subscriber ask.

Alcorn says election coverage will not be “he said, she said” journalism. But given that a substantial part of everyday reporting, be it political, economic, sport or arts, is just that kind of story, what is she planning to offer in lieu? Mystery stories? Tales of dark horror? Crossword puzzles? Frankly, it’s a mystery.

“We have to seek the truth about what is being claimed, and to highlight issues that matter and those our subscribers care about,” Alcorn thunders, unaware of the many contradictions in what she has just written. Issues that matter to whom? What do The Age’s subscribers care about? Nobody knows or cares.

And then Alcorn comes back with, “You can rely on The Age for trustworthy coverage.” Let me just note one thing here: the ABC, the government-funded media organisation, touts something similar as its mantra: “the most trusted news source.” But the same ABC is lapping up the data of its users online and sending it to the likes of Google, Facebook and Chartbeat – though it has no need to do so as it carries no advertising. Trust?

If The Age did care about the common man in Melbourne [and other parts of the country] then it is fair to assume that it would have given this data slurping by the ABC some critical coverage. Alas, it has been silent for the most part. Its media writers are pro-ABC and so the coverage is slanted – by a publication that claims not to take sides.

At the last election, in 2019, practically all media were carried away by the opinion polls that predicted an easy win for Labor. In the end, the Coalition came home. Alcorn appears to want to put this memory behind her [she was not editor at the time] and also offer an excuse: “Much of our coverage is informative and useful, but in the past, it could be too focused on opinion polls, particularly the shifts in two-party preferred voting intentions. The problem with that is that the polls influenced our broader coverage too much.”

That’s nothing to do with the polls. It’s got a lot to do with the fact that journalists at The Age sit on their arses in the office all the time and do not bother to go out and get a feel for how voters are thinking. Writing stories from polls is easy – and that’s what The Age generally does. Or else, there are always plenty of press releases which these glorified stenographers can use.

Alcorn’s solution? “We relaunched polling in April last year through the Resolve Political Monitor. Voting intention is collected — emulating as closely as possible the real ballot paper ranking without an ‘undecided’ option — but you will have noticed that we no longer report two-party preferred results.”

The Age editor’s subscriber exclusive isn’t done yet. It indulges in loads of verbiage, canvassing a number of options, but forgetting that Australians, like mugs all over the world, are more influenced by how much money they will get due to backing a particular political party. That strategy was put in place by the Liberal Party hack John Howard who, thanks to a boom in resource exports, had buckets of money to play with. He once gave women a bonus of $3000 for having a child! He stayed in power for 11 years and spent hundreds of billions in such bribes.

The truth is that The Age now has a stable of hacks who are really not world-beaters. Some of them are tired Murdoch castoffs — like David Crowe, Simone Fox Koob and Chip Le Grand — plus others who border on the edge of racism like Peter Hartcher. The last-named is, incidentally, on the record as saying that Australia should not accept Chinese from mainland China as immigrants. This is the kind of balanced writer in the Nine stables [Hartcher is an employee of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age’s equivalent in Sydney].

The epic letter then says: “The Age is not partisan, and we attempt to think through the issues independently to come to a position on which party would best serve the public interest.”

Which public is this? Until that is defined, one would really not know what to expect.

“So, I am taking a breath. Election campaigns are intense, often ugly, but they are a privilege in a messy liberal democracy. The Age’s job is to provide accurate and fair coverage, an important role in any democracy. Then you get to decide,” is how Alcorn ends.

One point about balance: When a Murdoch newspaper claimed that a Labor senator had been bullied [based on material that came from others after said Senator died] and that this, in part, led to her death, The Age was quick to leap on the story and give it wall-to-wall coverage.

But when a Liberal Senator openly blasted the prime minister and called him a bully [two other women politicians followed suit] The Age did not offer even a tenth of the coverage afforded to the Labor issue.

Balance, did you say?

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