Rod Tiffen. Chris Mitchell at The Australian.

Dec 18, 2015

Chris Mitchell’s place in Australian journalism history is secure. The newspaper he edited lost more money during his tenure than any other paper ever has or will be allowed to again. Mitchell was editor in chief of The Australian for 13 years, and while News Corp is studiously coy about how much profit or loss the paper has made each year, it has certainly been losing money in recent years and probably on a grand scale. News Corp’s star columnist Andrew Bolt said recently The Australian was losing $20 million a year.

The parade of tributes from News Corp personnel about Mitchell’s genius would make Kim Jong-Un blush, but strangely this record goes unmentioned. Of course, Mitchell’s losses are not on the scale of his Australian colleague, Col Allen, whose losses on the New York Post are rumoured to be around $100 million annually, while Robert Thompson, the global chief executive of News Corp, once told Michael Wolff that the London Times was losing a similar amount of money.

At least at this stage of his life, Rupert Murdoch’s favoured publications are no longer subject to the disciplines of the market place, perhaps he is more interested in their political impact or the clout they give him with governments, or just past caring.

The key to Mitchell’s longevity was not his entrepreneurial ability or his commercial success, but rather that he produced the type of newspaper that his proprietor and patron wanted.

Before coming to The Australian, Mitchell had edited the Courier-Mail. The worst blunder of his time there was the paper’s claim that one of Australia’s most eminent historians, the late Manning Clark, was a Soviet agent. The paper devoted pages to this claim, even though it essentially rested on the fact that Clark had worn a memorial badge he had received in the Soviet Union to a Soviet Embassy function. Mitchell had allowed his prejudices, and perhaps his love of controversy, to over-ride the lack of credible evidence. In many news organisations, this egregious error would have been career-ending, but not in News Corp.

Mitchell said that the low point of his career was convincing Murdoch to support Kevin Rudd in the 2007 election. Murdoch’s Australian press split down the middle in that election. Whatever conversations the editors had with Murdoch, the Murdoch press would have exposed their ineffectualness if they had all supported Howard. Rudd was going to win anyway whatever Murdoch newspapers, and especially whatever TheAustralian, did. To win in the face of Murdoch opposition would not only have damaged the proprietor’s myth-making, but also given him no leverage with the new government.

The most notable feature of The Australian during Mitchell’s tenure has been its intellectual decline. Its previous editors Paul Kelly and David Armstrong had maintained an intelligent newspaper, not only in its comment columns, but in its reporting. Mitchell has made the paper much more one-sided, and also less intelligent.

Matthew Ricketson and Andrew Dodds looked at the paper’s Media Section, introduced by Kelly, and at first it was a very useful and informative addition to Australian public life. The years since have seen a long decline, and now it is principally a vehicle for News Corp propaganda, praising itself and allies and attacking enemies. Over several years now, the paper’s coverage of the ABC has bordered on the moronic, never acknowledging the broadcaster’s achievements, outdoing itself in rhetorical denunciations of any alleged transgressions. You would never guess from the paper’s coverage how much higher the national broadcaster stands in the public’s esteem than the Murdoch press.

For a project a couple of years ago I looked at its coverage of climate change issues. Robert Manne did an analysis of their editorial positions for his Quarterly Essay Bad News, but I think the judgements of newsworthiness are more revealing and more important. One aspect that stood out to me was that scientific reports were rarely reported straight, but often framed in terms of political controversies surrounding the issues. Important stories that favoured action were downplayed; while stories thought to be adverse were highlighted and visited again and again.

Since I finished that work, the paper has given front page and extensive coverage to quite ridiculous claims about the Australian Bureau of Meteorology falsifying historical records to make global warming look more severe, plus a study of two couples, self-selected, complaining about the damage wind power was doing to them. The bizarre judgements of newsworthiness meant that anyone seeking to follow the issue through the pages of the Australian would have had a very distorted view.

Although the tedious, repetitive commentary columns occasion the most criticism, the paper’s erratic judgements of newsworthiness and the declining accuracy of some of its reporting are Mitchell’s principal legacy. 

Rod Tiffen is Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.



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