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Paddy Manning: the Fairfax watchdog eats one of its own

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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