Friday, 15 July 2011

Watching John Hartigan perform on the ABC's 730 program last night I was unhappy. Hartigan, CEO of News Limited, the Australian arm of News Corp, is a polished performer and he demonstrated yesterday a suitable quantity of professional diffidence although the constant movement of his hands struck me as slightly defensive (news editors are accustomed to be the ones asking the questions, not the ones answering them) especially since Leigh Sales, his interviewer, held back a fair amount of justified indignation - which is the default pose of the News journo after all. The Australian belongs to the ideological right in the media space and is often at odds with the ABC - where journalists actively observe the organisation's code of conduct - on matters of editorial approach. Certainly, News Limited vehicles participate in the agenda-pushing activity that goes on, with more enthusiasm than does the ABC, in my opinion. So Sales was actually quite kind to Hartigan given the volatile nature of the backchannel relationship. Once the initial back-and-forth about the News of the World scandal had been aired, Sales turned to the real meat of the encounter which is the "bullying" of politicians that News vehicles engage in with - what many would say was - unusual relish. Here's what transpired.

HARTIGAN: "Look, I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities. I don't believe we ever overstep. Yes, it's a love-hate relationship and sometimes it's loving and sometimes it's very hateful. But I don't think, generally speaking, that we don't exceed our authority."

SALES: "The independent MP Rob Oakshott believes that since he backed Julia Gillard to form government that some of the News Limited reporting about him has been, to quote him, 'malicious and shamelessly unfair' because they disagreed with the decision that he made. Do you see examples of that in your publications?"

HARTIGAN: "Look, I think that we've been very aggressive with Rob Oakshott as we have with the other independents."

SALES: "Unfairly aggressive?"

HARTIGAN: "I wouldn't have thought so. I think his electorate, which is largely a conservative electorate, asks questions of him and we reflect those questions."

SALES: "The Age reported in June last year that you personally told a meeting of senior NSW police that they could choose to work with News Limited or not. And that paper reported the police took that as a threat, that if they didn't cooperate with your group's reporters they would receive negative coverage. Are they right in that interpretation?"

HARTIGAN: "No they're not. In fact it's the opposite. The police commissioner at that time said to me that he had no intention of working with the media in this country. He then went about - in my view - a series of leaking to an opposition newspaper organisation. But he instigated that. I went there to really open the bounds of having a relationship with him. He chose not to."

SALES: "So what did you mean when you said 'you can work with us or against us'?"

HARTIGAN: "No, I didn't say that. What he said was that he had no intention of working with the media. He was the new police commissioner and he chose to go about his way in a very different and not open way, that I would have thought he would have."

SALES: "And what did you say to that?"

HARTIGAN: "I said, 'Well that's his initiative. If he plans to do that ...' I didn't question that."

SALES: "A number of senior government ministers have told 730's political editor Chris Uhlmann that the believe News Limited is doing all it can to force regime change in Australia, that they want the Gillard government out. Stephen Conroy's said that on the record. Is that the case?"

HARTIGAN: "Look, you know, I've heard that that has been said. Interestingly noone has stood up to say 'Hey, it's me!' And I would suggest that's a whispering campaign and like most whispering campaigns it has no element of truth."

SALES: "Some of the example that people point to are things like Anthony Albanese has said that News Limited papers have run inaccurate stories, Stephen Conroy has complained that the coverage of the NBN, for example, is skewed to be negative and not balanced. What do you say to those examples?"

HARTIGAN: "Well, I think most people would think that the BER program was a sham and very badly organised. And I think that some of our newspaper reflected that very strongly. Some of the other issues, I think, the NBN, you know, Australians are asking questions about the transparency of huge amounts of billions of dollars. So I would suggest that we're acting in the public interest."

SALES: "So you stand by The Australian's coverage of the NBN as being fair and balanced?"

HARTIGAN: "I do, yep."

SALES: "There was a meeting of News Limited executives and senior journalists and editors in Carmel in the United States recently. Again, Gillard government ministers have told 730 that they believe that after that meeting News Limited publications escalated their anti-Gillar government campaign. Was their any directive issued along those lines?"

HARTIGAN: "I think it's very necessary to say what that meeting was about. We have a lot of meetings. We're a global company and we're going through arguably the greatest change in media at the moment. You're seeing all sorts of digital channels, you're seeing audiences moving around. That was about seeing what is the best practice for us as a company, as a corporation."

SALES: "So there's no company-wide directive, then, that you want the Gillard government out?"

HARTIGAN: "Absolutely not. We're a company of values like most companies, and we have very implicit values. We have things that we think as a company and individually as editors that need to be done. One of them is a leadership vacuum by a minority government. But there's lots of leadership vacuums around Australia at the moment. You know, there lots of issues."

SALES: "If you disagree that News Limited is running a campaign against the Gillard government where, then, do you think is the source of this widespread view among ministers? Why is it held?"

HARTIGAN: "Well I think it's heald because, largely, we're the only organisation that really takes it up to the government and, also, when they're also at record low levels of public support. I think that endears that sense that, 'Hey, there's one organisation out to get us.' Rather than the performance of the party."

SALES: "You don't think you could say that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and the ABC apply a reasonable amount of scrutiny to the Gillard government?"

HARTIGAN: "They do but they also feed vary largely ... They get preferred treatment because they tend to support most of the government initiatives. The Australian doesn't. It does on occasion but it really is very strident in the way that it covers politics. And I don't argue it's really the only newspaper in Australia that properly covers politics, national politics."

Back to my commentary here.

There's an exceptionalism at play here in Hartigan's words that probably serves a lot of the troops in the organisation well at different times, especially when they feel besieged as a result of run-ins with external entities. When the time comes to making a stand it's therefore easy for journalists to say "We're different and, yes, this will be unpleasant but we're performing a public duty here". This attitude can only inflame the situation because a wild animal when cornered will always turn and fight. So every headline and every editorial, every story placement on the corporate website and every picture selection - designed to depict, say, the prime minister as domineering or cowed - is animated by a preemptive supposition that thousands of people out there in the Australian public sphere hate what you are doing. There would a permanent sneer on the face of an anthropormorphised masthead, a sneer cemeted in place by endless disappointments anticipated and countless rebuffs looked upon as a birthright. "Go ahead," the once-again despised editor thinks, "Make my day."

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