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Paddy Manning: the Fairfax watchdog eats one of its own

Sacked Fairfax business writer Paddy Manning appears to have set out on a suicide mission when he wrote for Crikey this week about problems with the plans to merge the BusinessDay sections of The Sydney…

Fairfax journalist Paddy Manning was sacked after writing an opinion piece critical of company strategy for Crikey. AAP/Julian Smith

Sacked Fairfax business writer Paddy Manning appears to have set out on a suicide mission when he wrote for Crikey this week about problems with the plans to merge the BusinessDay sections of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age with the Financial Review Group.

Just three years ago, The Age showed it still had great integrity when senior business writer Michael West wrote a piece in Fairfax newspapers that contained a similar message.

But times have clearly changed at Fairfax, and an article written without fear nor favour about internal problems was always going to crash and burn.

Manning made a number of points, but significantly he joined a long lists of journalists bemoaning other journalists who are complicit in PR-driven “churnalism” which he delightfully described as:

herograms for business leaders, unreadable roundtables and conference-linked spreads featuring plenty of happy snaps of business leaders with a glass of champagne or mineral water in hand.

Churnalism was first noted by British journalist Nick Davies - the same reporter who brought to light the News of the World phone hacking revelations - in a 2008 book, Flat Earth News. In the book, he describes the time and cost-pressured reproduction of press releases and wire stories without fact-checking - that is, churnalism - as leading to the “mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda” in the mainstream media.

By criticising the role of the journalists – because so many put their relationships with their sources above the public interest – Manning was never going to win friends within Fairfax. As he wrote, the public wants more serious journalism and not the bubblegum that is served up to please PR spinners and company directors.

Nobody reads it. Educated readers…hate it. Ultimately, even advertisers shun it. It’s a business model for business journalism that had been tried at both The AFR and The Australian. It doesn’t work.

Sadly, Manning’s burning desire to tell those of us outside Fairfax of his genuine concern about quality journalism means he has now been forced to leave the Fairfax stable of high-profile business writers. Though in recent times their ranks have been diminishing, Fairfax still boasts many highly-regarded reporters such as Michael West, Adele Ferguson and Malcolm Maiden.

In his final column for Fairfax last year before taking redundancy, senior business writer Ian Verrender bemoaned the “soft and fawning” relationship the Australian media has historically had with big business.

Veer too far from the press release, question a little too aggressively and the mighty weight of a corporation suddenly is hovering above, threatening litigation, demanding your dismissal. The chief executive probably knows a few people on the newspaper company’s board.

Manning probably knew the moment he sent his story to Crikey that he was unlikely to last. Even if your news organisation waxes lyrical in its editorials about freedom of speech, journalists these days cannot bite the hand that feeds them even if they’re right. Every sports and entertainment writer in the country knows that.

While there is limited whistleblower protection in place for people in government organisations who tell it how it is to media outlets, there is no such protection in place for fearless journalists who tell their competitors (and more importantly the public) how they are failing.

News organisations are in some regards no different to any other business, as every first year university student argues in journalism 101. While it’s supposed to be about truth-telling, in the dying days of the legacy media it is all about economics and the market for corporate control.

Unless journalists write puff pieces to keep advertisers and shareholders happy, then reporters can expect subpoenas or being shown the door.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are among the nation’s great newspapers. They need to be supported by people who value the role of the journalist as the fourth estate, as a watchdog on those in power (both government and corporate). It is a shame that one journalist has lost his job and livelihood for what those in the business used to call truth-telling – which is also what those of us in the public still like to call journalism.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Margaret McMillan

    Retired teacher

    Paddy Manning - what a hero! It would be great if a whole lot of other journalists followed his lead and called their employers on the dumbing down of the media. It probably won't happen because this is a difficult transition stage. The papers are dying, the internet is thriving as a source of unbiased news but it is still an uncertain area of employment. Roll on the day when no decent journalist will ever want a job with Murdoch and now Fairfax

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    1. John Drinnan

      Journalist

      In reply to Margaret McMillan

      Who will they write for then?
      Agree with most of what said here about churnalism and demands of budgets.
      But is it of any relevance that he wrote this stuff in another publication?
      Did he try and fail to have similar published in Fairfax.

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    2. Margaret McMillan

      Retired teacher

      In reply to John Drinnan

      I'm guessing that they will write for online sites like this one. Surely that's going to be the way of the future?

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    3. Paul Burton

      Professor of Urban Management and Planning at Griffith University

      In reply to Margaret McMillan

      My concern is that The Conversation is not above churnalistic rehashing of press releases, or does that apply only to its Chief Political Correspondent?

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  2. Chris Reynolds

    Education Consultant

    What an indictment of the pitch to which Fairfax has descended. Unless the journalist was using commercially in confidence information, it makes a mockery indeed of the notion of freedom of the press. It also makes a mockery of the squeals we all heard from the Press Barons at the prospect of some degree of arms-length accountability for press activities when the Government attempted to get it through parliament.

    Just because one is part of the Fourth Estate as it is called, does not entitle one to behave in this draconian way when one's interests are not served by an employee. It seems that there is a long and depressing queue of excellent journalists exiting the MSM leaving the remainder looking lonelier by the minute. Reminds me of trhe decline and fall of the Roman Empire although it's happening more speedily.

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    1. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      I think I will have to review my subscription to The Age. I have been buying the paper (and now have a digital-only sub) but it is becoming less and less attractive to me.

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  3. William Cranston

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    Great piece, but you offer no reason why anyone should support The Age or the SMH when they continue to decline in credibility and performance. Is it some sort of pity exercise or is it like staying in an abusive relationship hoping for improvement day by day? Bring on Guardian AU, I say.

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  4. Don Williams

    Water Policy Analyst

    Thoroughly agree with most of this article and I have great sympathy for 'crazy-brave' Paddy Manning. He deserves to find an alternative outlet for his forthright commentary.

    One issue where I will disagree with the article - as far as I am concerned, the Age and SMH are no longer great newspapers. Those days have gone, never to return. I reckon that the key challenge is finding alternative channels for first rate reporting and debate, instead of trying to bring back the quality that has inexorably leached out of the Age and SMH.

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  5. mike flanagan

    retired

    Paul Burton; your are so right.
    Unfortunately the disgrace that represents the Fairfax press is permeating the whole of the Fourth Estate throughout the english speaking world.
    Much of the demise of the print media that we are witnessing today can be attributed to to the 'standards' profferred by the Murdoch press'
    I do hope the MEAA find their gonades when dealing with Linnell on Paddy's behalf

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  6. Sarah James

    Psychologist

    And these are the same people who not 2 weeks ago were up in arms over the threat to free speech and a free press? Sacked someone for telling the truth.

    Rupert said the other day that a free and fair press is essential to democracy. Well Rupert, like Gandhi and Western civilisation, it would be a very good idea.

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  7. Brian Byrne
    Brian Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, and Emeritus Professor, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at University of New England

    I have reason to admire the diligence and intelligence of the several journalists, particularly from Fairfax, who have written about research emanating from my group. But there's an inherent and irresolvable conflict of interest between media-as-business and media-as-the-fourth estate. So maybe it's time to add another player, an ABC-like entity that delivers as a newspaper the kind of news and analysis that it does as a broadcaster. Government-owned entities are free to have goals other than profit. Matter of fact, it might not be hard to morph the ABC's current on-line presence into a digital newspaper. The stores and documentaries are all available. Setting up the production and distribution networks for a paper version would be another and presumably expensive matter, but digital is the way of the future in any case.

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    1. Myk Somerville

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Brian Byrne

      I agree that a non-profit driven rag would be a good idea, but struggle to see how state ownership (or control) of such an organ would balance with truth and freedom of speech. While the players may change, the game remains very much unchanged. As soon as the annual budget/funding dependency is involved, any journo who critiques s the government of the day would be relegated to the fashion pages fairly quickly, I suspect.

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    2. Anne O'Sullivan

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Brian Byrne

      Brian, recent influences at the abc have meant that we no longer get balanced and unbiased content from the abc through any of the existing media. The transformation in the tone of presenters on television and specifically in local radio in my area has been remarkable. I think that someone could one day make a very revealing study into the changing of the abc culture.
      I doubt that print would be any different.

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  8. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    I'll miss Paddy Manning's articles - and will look elsewhere to see what he's writing.

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  9. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Hail and boquets to Paddy Manning. Brickbats to Fairfax's censorious and vengeful reaction revealing that they are committed to serving as a PR machine/churnalist for selected business interests rather than an independent news service. By their actions we judge them.

    And here's a unanimous vote of confidence for him in this thread and his conscientous morally responsible action.

    A journalist with a conscience standing up for the integrity of his profession against the eventually always corrupting…

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  10. Jack Bloomfield

    Retired Engineer

    The reality is that the 4th estate has become the corporate estate.
    As with all corporations, they exist for profit .
    The preparation/composition of 'advertorials' is simply a publisher related commercial activity, despite the quasi "editorial" form - the content is structured for commercial gain - not to present the view or recommendation of a journalist. When a publisher uses a "respected" journalists name to add credibility to an 'advertorial' it is both unfair to the journalist concerned…

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