Bias? Don’t know that word, says The Age editor

Another Saturday, and there’s a fresh dose of wisdom from Gay Alcorn, the venerable editor of The Age, a tabloid that is one of the two main newspapers in Melbourne. Once again, Alcorn’s gem was behind a paywall in the morning but is now free to read.

As with her effort some weeks ago — which was dissected here — Alcorn is again trying to play the balance card even as accusations of bias arise. This time, a federal election campaign is in full swing and thus the shrieks from the gallery are that much louder.

Alcorn claims the newspaper, part of once what was a large stable running under the name Fairfax Media until it was taken over by Nine Entertainment, has not moved to the right.

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

In her own words: “There is no doubt that on social media in particular, The Age is accused of being pro-Coalition, especially since Fairfax, publishers of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, were taken over by Nine Entertainment and because the board’s chairman is Peter Costello, a former Liberal Treasurer. We are also accused of being pro-Labor – our letter writers appear overwhelmingly progressive to me – but mostly the suggestion is that we have moved rightwards.”

Alcorn denies this is the case: “Maybe I would say this, but I don’t believe it’s true. We take editorial independence so seriously that there would be a major problem if commercial interests attempted to influence our editorial decisions in any way.”

But history says otherwise. The very fact that The Guardian, a newspaper that leans to the left, has been able to set up a website and thrive in Australia, and The New Daily, a website that is funded by the superannuation industry and also veers more left than right, has found a sizeable audience speaks to the untruthfulness of this assertion.

Both these publications have cannibalised the Age’s left-wing readers as the Age has swung to right-of-centre.

In 2006, the Age’s rival, the Herald Sun, a Murdoch tabloid, was planning a redesign, to become a little more of a red-top than it already was. At that time, the editor of the Age website, Mike van Niekerk, sent an email to the site’s news editor, pointing out what was about to happen and saying the Age website would have to go in a similar direction.

The website became a lot more tabloid-like from that point on, often leading to criticism from the print side of operations, saying that the website could not be even recognised as being the Age.

Some years later, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald both decided to reduce their sizes and become tabloids. The content slowly began to reflect the size of the paper. Hence, saying there has been no turn to the right is wide of the mark.

As to bias, Alcorn and the Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields both defended their respective papers (and by extension the two websites) from such a claim on a podcast.

But then the reality is different. The columnists are reflective of the bias: Shaun Carney, who left the paper some years ago, is now writing for it again; he is Peter Costello’s biographer.

Another of the op-ed writers 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. 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. The Age also runs columns written by Michelle Grattan who left the paper seven or eight years ago.

Waleed Aly, a lecturer who was once on the left, but is much more centrist these days, writes the occasional column. Then there is Peter Hartcher who is on the record as saying that Australia should not accept Chinese from mainland China as immigrants. Plus Ross Gittins, an economics writer of some vintage.

The sharing of copy between the two papers started some years ago to save money and continues apace. The Sydney Morning Herald is the boss and calls the tune.

These occasional missives from Alcorn do little good to convince any reader with even an IQ of 10 about the lack of bias; the content is the only thing that will speak for it.

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