Is The Australian the most influential voice in Canberra? Not quite ...

By Myriam Robin

July 17, 2014

A former prime minister to Rupert Murdoch’s left, the current prime minister to the right. Around the room were Ricky Ponting, James Packer, Kerry Stokes, Ian Narev, Frank Lowy, Richard Goyder and plenty more. Was it, as Daily Telegraph editor-at-large John Lehmann asked, “the biggest power room ever?”

Whatever it was, The Australian’s 50th birthday gala was a fantastic way to make an impression. Here was Prime Minister Tony Abbott tying the national paper to the very fabric of Australia. His speech was beamed on the ABC and on News Corp’s websites. A bigger display of influence and power would be hard to imagine. Who could doubt now that The Australian was the country’s most influential paper — the one more likely to shift governments and mark the country?

It turns out, plenty of people. This isn’t the piece your correspondent set out to write. As our only national broadsheet, surely the Oz had clout, and it would be more interesting to look at how it pursued and used its influence in Canberra rather than to question it. But asked if The Australian was Canberra’s most powerful paper, as is often claimed in its own pages, the political operatives Crikey spoke to hedged and equivocated.

A chief of staff to a high-profile Senator told us he never bothered much with the Oz — or any newspaper. “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper,” he said. The Oz wasn’t read widely by voters, so he tended not to worry about it. However, when pressed on what was the most powerful newspaper in Canberra, he “grudgingly” conceded it was the Oz after all, but not by a huge margin.

A media public servant told us his department had so many ways to get its message out, The Australian was just one media product among many these days.

It’s a surprising reaction. The Australian pioneered reporting of national affairs, and to this day focuses on it to a far greater extent than almost any other paper except The Australian Financial Review. As a former editor-in-chief David Armstrong puts it to us, there is simply no comparable Australian paper. Armstrong was editor-in-chief until 2002, and before that he edited the Canberra Times, and has seen Canberra through the prism of both News Corp and Fairfax. Now living in Thailand, he told Crikey that while city-based newspapers traditionally wielded influence through their wide circulations, The Australian’s influence was more subtle.

“The readership isn’t huge, but it’s clustered at the top of the socio-economic grouping,” he said. “It includes a lot of people who are involved in the shaping of policy.” The paper’s reporting of things other papers largely ignore, like Aboriginal affairs, Armstrong says, makes it a must-read for those who write policy in those areas. “Over time, exposure to that content has influence.”

Another factor in The Australian‘s influence is its consistency, he continues. Unlike the Fairfax papers, for example, whose commitment to Canberra has ebbed and flowed over time, The Australian has always prioritised the goings-on in the nation’s capital. This continues online, Armstrong says. The Australian’s website is very similar in tone and focus to the paper, unlike the websites of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

But in former Labor leader Mark Latham’s view, The Australian’s influence on political parties has declined in recent years.

“I think it did have influence when I first got to Canberra,” he told Crikey. “It was seen as an objective paper then. But it’s moved a long, long way to the Right, most notably under [current editor-in-chief Chris] Mitchell. As such, I don’t think you’ll find any Labor politician who thinks it’s viable to keep it on side … For anyone but the Coalition, it’s a lost cause.” And for the Coalition, Latham continues, it’s convenient to have a friendly outlet to drop to — but that’s not the same thing as that outlet having influence.

A senior staffer to the previous Labor government says media follow-through is the ultimate measure of influence for an outlet. He recalls that after the 2007 election, whatever was on the front page of The Australian would be splashed on the television news that night. This caused huge problems for the government, ensuring wide coverage for scandals such as the pink batts roll-out and the Building the Education Revolution scheme. “If you can keep a story alive from the breakfast shows to Laurie Oakes at night, you’re pretty much won,” he said.

But the Oz’s ability to set the agenda, the staffer notes, becomes weaker with every passing year. “They slowly lost their way editorially, evolving into a quasi-alliance partner with the Coalition … So the broadcasters started to view the coverage pretty cynically. They were often ignored altogether by Laurie Oakes and Mark Riley at 6pm. At the end of the day, those two remain the most crucial gallery journalists as far as most voters are concerned.”

Perhaps part of the reason other sections of the media began to look sceptically at The Australian is because of its tendency to pursue issues fiercely and uncompromisingly. The Oz is a campaigning newspaper. “It doesn’t drop off a story,” as Armstrong said. From the AWB scandal, which The Australian blew wide open, to the ongoing crusade against Clive Palmer, the Oz will sink its journalists for month after month on a story, keeping it top of mind among its readership. But sometimes its campaigns don’t stand up to scrutiny particularly well. For example, after Media Watch host Paul Barry failed to give The Australian a chance to comment on its financial figures, the paper responded, in part, by analyzing his Twitter feed for anti-News Corp bias. It’s no wonder most journalists, those at Crikey included, weren’t impressed, even if they thought the Oz had cause to be miffed about Barry’s original infraction.

Lately, The Australian has been unhappy that other media outlets have not been following up its angles. Last week it published an article haranguing the ABC, Fairfax and The Guardian, as well as the TV networks, for their failure to “prominently cover court proceedings involving Clive Palmer’s alleged use of siphoned Chinese cash in his election campaign”.

Latham says this is one measure of its lack of clout in Canberra. “Look at the inordinate amount of time it spends criticising others for not following its lead,” he says. “If it was influential, it wouldn’t need to do that.”

Most of the people Crikey spoke to agreed that who’s anyone in Canberra reads The Australian, so there’s influence in that. But as to whether it can change policy and unseat or crown governments, that depends on whether it convinces other outlets to follow its lead. When it’s onto a good thing, the Oz’s reach combines with its dogged, unyielding focus to make governments quake in their boots. But if the rest of the press gallery picks it up and shrugs, its scoops don’t make it to the broader public to force politicians to react. The Oz is the most influential newspaper in Canberra, but now as ever, it cannot affect change alone.

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