With the Media Inquiry in full swing and the Greens’ Bob Brown complaining loudly about News’s lack of fairness and accuracy, now might be a good time to travel back in time 20 years. Let’s visit another era when a powerful paper was unashamedly boosting one side of politics – the left.
In 1992, Joan Kirner’s government was in its dying days: state government debt had ballooned, and many ministers seemed frequently to be denying reality. One newspaper, however, resisted the consensus that change was needed. The Age stuck by Kirner, took its initiatives seriously, derided the government’s critics and Opposition Leader Jeff Kennett in particular. Some of its best journalists, on beats like national politics and business, looked on in despair. But the state reporters and commentators would not be swayed. Balance consisted of criticising the Kirner government from the left as much as from the right.
The Age had many fine journalists in that era, but working on state issues there sometimes had an air of unreality. When Kennett won the 1992 election in a landslide, some of the paper’s reporters seemed not quite to believe it had happened. Only one of the paper’s Melbourne-based political journalists – the cheerfully professional Sue Neales – appeared to have cultivated contacts within the Coalition. ALP reformers like John Brumby thought the Cain/Kirner government had stuffed up; quite a few at The Age did not. On my third day working for the paper in Melbourne in 1993, I turned down a request from a news editor to write an opinion piece explaining that the new government’s budgetary tightening was unnecessary and dangerous. When Kennett’s initiatives succeeded – he ran one of the most successful privatisation processes ever – many at The Age seemed determined to ignore them. Steve Bracks and John Brumby knew better; on assuming government, they kept the best of the Kennett government reforms firmly in place.
Alan Kohler, appointed editor in 1992 to bring the paper back to a more centrist line, struggled against the power of the paper’s welded-on sympathy for the left. Kohler’s successor, Bruce Guthrie, an aggressive newsman, made Kennett the target of much of his aggression.
The point is not that The Australian’s frenzied campaigning against the current federal government is warranted. (I don’t think it is, and neither do many journalists at The Australian.) It’s not even that The Age’s approach in the early 1990s damaged democracy (the News-owned Herald-Sun was pro-Kennett, and frequently manically so, throughout this period). The point is simply that newspapers have campaigned against governments at regular intervals in Australian history, and campaigned at least as hard as The Australian is campaigning against the federal government now. If a newspaper or an owner has a duty to be even-handed, no-one noticed in the early 1990s. Certainly not Bob Brown.