Big business besieged Fairfax is un-Manning the barricades

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Fairfax's sacking of brave whistleblower, financial reporter Paddy Manning, marks a sad turning point in the history of Australian journalism, writes Associate Professor Evan Jones.

Sacked Fairfax financial journalist and whistleblower, Paddy Manning.

FAIRFAX financial journalist Paddy Manning – talented, experienced and sober – was sacked by Fairfax management on 8 April. This sacking constitutes a turning point of extraordinary significance in the Australian media and its journalism.

Manning’s coverage in articles over the last several years has been extensive and detailed — particularly of the resources and rural sectors, of green energy, and of national interest questions regarding ownership and land use and investment priorities. Informed coverage of such crucial issues are to be casualties of management’s bastardry.

Manning’s failure?

He is a whistleblower, albeit pointing out with great parsimony what everybody knows already. Manning wrote a piece on Crikey, pointing out some home truths about recent developments in his own bailiwick. For his honesty he was thrown out of his job tout de suite. Shades of behind the Iron Curtain here – everybody knows the song, but if you sing it you’re out of a job and become a non-person overnight.

(Image: Jean-Michel Folon, New York Times.)

Remember that this is the company that attempted to keep shareholder Gina Rinehart off the Board. But the spirit of Rinehart has already been internalised (and embodied in Rinehart’s apparatchik Jack Cowin). And the Board Chairman is Roger Corbett; still held in good esteem by his peers in spite of his having nurtured an anti-competitive and unethical culture at Woolworths. Corbett remains unrepentant, in spite of having been defrocked by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission under Allan Fels and by the Courts. Come back James Fairfax.

What is Manning’s concern? One, that the business sections of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald (‘BusinessDay’) are to be subsumed within the Australian Financial Review; two, that the AFR treatment of business lacks the independence that is necessary and that has been achieved by the BusinessDay stable of writers. On the side, the integrity of BusinessDay has already been compromised by the contracting of columns to vested interest writers and by the introduction of ‘saleable section’ supplements.

What set Manning off to write the Crikey piece – the broader issues smouldering – was the appearance in the AFR that morning of an ‘advertorial’; a long wretched suck-arse interview with one Graham Bradley by Jennifer Hewett. This piece was to be the first of many with ‘Australia’s most highly regarded business figures’.

(Image courtesy Crikey.)
(Image: Crikey.)

Says Hewett:
'Certainly Bradley’s criticism cannot be simply dismissed as narrowly based or ill-informed. Bradley stepped down as president of the [Business Council of Australia] in 2011, but he remains one of Australia’s most experienced directors …'

Well, heaven help us. Bradley comes across as not merely reactionary, but ill-informed and ideologically driven. He doesn’t, for example, seem to understand what drives the much vaunted ‘productivity’ in industry. In short, 2,000 words of fluff. Incidentally, Hewett has had form writing soporific guff at the Australian for yonks.

On 12 May (Budget-eve), the AFR published a piece: ‘What CEOs want from the budget’. Mirvac’s James MacKenzie actually had a sensible sound bite – stop prattling on about the deficit. Not so Wesfarmers’ Richard Goyder (the man presiding over Bunnings’ and Coles’ brutality towards suppliers) and ANZ’s Mike Smith (an omnipresent interviewee) — both self-interested poseurs with no sense of the big picture.

Hewett again:
'Bradley says there is a fundamental problem that not enough people in either state or federal governments have run businesses or worked in large corporations.'

The usual hoary old chestnut. There is a parallel problem that not enough corporate heavyweights have worked in organisations or government agencies committed to the public interest.

In general, who gives a rat’s arse what corporate heavyweights think about the big picture? Rarely do they have anything intelligent to offer. It is staggering how asinine is their commentary.

Manning goes for the jugular (he has been on the inside):
BusinessDay is built on the legacy of reporters and editors like Ian Verrender, Michael West, Adele Ferguson, Ian McIlwraith, Elisabeth Sexton, Stuart Washington and countless lesser-known names who have built up a culture of investigative reporting — holding business accountable — and broken stories that matter not just for business but for the public at large.

BusinessDay writes for the consumer, not for industry. We are not the trade press. With exceptions like Neil Chenoweth that nevertheless prove the rule, The AFR’s business journalism is built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high-level access in exchange for soft coverage.

Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven ‘churnalism’ which shows up as ‘drops’ (the poor man’s exclusive, or as Verrender once wrote, the press release a day early), ‘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.

AFR senior editors hit back through an internal email the day after on the 9th:
The Financial Review takes a starting position that business, competitive markets and individual enterprise are the fundamental drivers of a prosperous and good society. But this fundamental pre-condition necessarily also requires the accountability provided by the sort of vigorous and independent journalism pursued by all the mastheads under the Fairfax banner.

Our tradition of independence and our hunger for news strengthens our credibility even though it brings us into robust discussions with many of those in the corporate world whom we write about …

AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stuchbury. (Image: screenshot Mumbrella video.)

But here we have now editor Michael Stutchbury’s claim that:
'The Financial Review takes a starting position that business, competitive markets and individual enterprise are the fundamental drivers of a prosperous and good society.'

Well we pass over the fact that the state has always and everywhere been an essential ingredient (as well as for ill, of course, like business itself) for ‘a prosperous and good society’ — a fundamental axiom unknown to financial media editors sui generis because they have no knowledge whatsoever of the history of capitalism, or indeed how capitalism itself works to this day.

More specifically, if the Fin feels so strongly about a brief for ‘competitive markets and individual enterprise’ then why has there long been only a token 2-page spread on ‘small business’ that has consistently remained superficial. The Fin’s world is that of corporates, not individual enterprise, nor competitive markets. Its treatment of the long and bitter struggles over the Trade Practices Act (now the Competition and Consumer Act) to enhance competitive markets and to inhibit corporate predation has been derisory.

Worse. During one drawn-out political bunfight in the early 2000s over amendments to the Trade Practices Act that would assist small business against corporate predation, the AFR played an active role in rooting for the Big End of Town. I have examined this ideological battle forensically here. The Fin’s role was intellectually dishonest and ethically contemptible. This is the dirty job that the paper has to play in supporting its natural constituency.

The worse sectoral coverage by the Fin, amongst serious competition for the prize, is to be found in its crucial banking section. Here has long been nurtured Manning’s churnalism and herograms. Banking journalist Andrew Cornell, long in the tooth, has practised the art for years.

Manning again:
‘...high-level access in exchange for soft coverage’.

Exactly. Manning has been there and he knows that bank senior management exert the leverage — write anything critical and you’re out in the cold. Indeed, journalists have disappeared after innocently presuming to write occasionally about the black arts of banking.

I have become (accidentally) atypically well informed on the underside of the banking sector — its incompetence, its venality, its systematic unconscionability and fraud against its small business and farming customers, its corruption of the ‘professions’ that rely on it for income. And of regulatory complicity in that long-standing scenario. But you won’t find any of that, nor detached evaluation of the financial deregulation that spawned it, in the pages of the Financial Review.

good bad ugly commonwealthIt is not surprising that the company that was to sponsor the ‘First Person’ interview series is a bank — the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

It so happens that the CBA has institutionalised a corrupt process of some magnitude in fraudulently defaulting hundreds of BankWest customers after the CBA acquired BankWest in December 2008. To my knowledge, the Fin had a couple of articles on the affair, and that’s it. This is a huge scandal, bubbling along through a Senate Economics Committee Inquiry (albeit an unsatisfactory Report), the aftermath currently clogging the courts, and it’s of minimal relevance to the paper that promisesunrivalled in-depth analysis of business and financial markets’.

Bah humbug.

The CBA has evidently adopted the standard strategy of the National Australia Bank — when in danger of being found out for underhanded activity, pull out the advertising and public relations cards and spend up big. The bank has since pulled out from its sponsorship from First Persons as a fallout from the publicity surrounding the Manning sacking — but there’s an elephant hide there and the CBA will be back in your face ASAP. This is the bank that CAN do whatever it wants, and the Fin is, as usual, happy to oblige.

The AFR is essentially a shit newspaper. You wouldn’t hang it in a country dunny. Manning really turns the screws when he notes:
[TheAFR] is reporting with fear and favour. And you know what? Nobody reads it. Educated readers – The AFR’s demographic – 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. Business readers are not fools. Very often they know more about a given story than the journalist. They want the facts, balance and genuinely independent analysis and commentary. Tell it like it is.

Manning might actually be too kind to financial media readers. From 1980, Fairfax had competition from Packer’s Australian Business, which became ABM in 1991 (with Trevor Sykes on board). It was a superior business/financial magazine to Fairfax’s Business Review Weekly under the insipid Robert Gottliebsen. Curiously, the better ABM died in 1995, while BRW continued in irrelevance.

My view is that there is a heady masochitic streak amongst AFR readers. Thousands read the thing daily because they feel that they have to. It produces a general vacuity; at worst a dull pain. Financial media readers resemble secular Catholics, feeling that ritual flagellation is what one does to remain part of the tribe, no matter how unhappy the outcome.

(Image: Jan Faust, Underground Sketchbook.)
(Image: Jan Faust, Underground Sketchbook.)


AFR readership is declining, but if the ritual flagellators came to their senses Fairfax would have to confront the deep cleavage between honesty/analysis and ideology/vested interests.

In the meantime, with its ‘all we like sheep’ AFR readership, Fairfax management is handing the business sections of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald to this cowboy outfit. The move reminds one of a proposition that academic economists like to throw around: Gresham’s Law, namely, 'bad money drives out good’. Here we have a media parallel — good journalism being debased by the bad.

As Manning briefly notes, the rot has already set in at Fairfax in general. Fairfax has done good work in reporting on the NSW ICAC investigations into Labor spivs Obeid, Macdonald, and assorted hangers-on; but this lot are yesterday’s men and they don’t advertise in Fairfax, so no worries. Of more significance in terms of courage, Fairfax has uncovered the rot at the centre of the Reserve Bank’s Securency scam. But on the Big End of Town and its partners in the regulatory agencies and politics? Some desirable scurrying around the endless inaction of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and of corruption in the insolvency sector, but the dots are not joined.

Staff rationalisation has reduced business reporting to skeletal dimensions (and there’s still that useless Michael Pascoe on deck, a total dead weight). Manning’s sacking deepens the huge hole. It’s like the Gillard Cabinet, with a small handful of people darting across multiple portfolios. Michael West performs herculean manoeuvres on the minutiae of business sharp practice. Stuart Washington, still at Fairfax, and a veteran of the Long March of Storm Financial, is behind the scenes and not seeing that sorry saga (or any comparable) to completion.

What about the ace criminality of Trio Capital and the appalling complicity of ASIC and the Federal Police? Ah, the victims are centred in that irrelevant backwater Wollongong — of no importance.

There is nothing, nil, zero, on bank malpractice. No coverage of the massive CBA/BankWest scandal in the Age or Sydney Morning Herald either. That notable absence has to have been strategic. But it’s been a very long trajectory.

There was a time, ancient history, when the Herald had a superannuation turned banking columnist called Anne Lampe. Sterling stuff. Lampe dutifully attended court hearings, painful, and reported on important minutiae, with a great deal of (natural) sympathy to the bank customer as victim. Her investigatory articles trickled out sometime (I think) in late 2004, reporting on CBA perfidy. She is shunted into the vacuous Money supplement. Her disclosures were evidently not to the then management’s liking. Lampe resigns and is not replaced. Strange that, as there was an era not too distant, that of the foreign currency loan scandals, exploding in publicity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Fairfax (Lampe at the forefront) carried out its reportorial role magnificently.

ClementRodNAB&GRABAFRNot any more. Business is business and the business of newspapers is business. One will have observed that the emaciated BusinessDay section of the current Sydney Morning Herald would be disappearing into thin air if not for the heady presence of advertising from that top corporate criminal, the National Australia Bank. Certainly, Fairfax is exceedingly grateful for the banks’ advertising expenditure (and is suffering consternation over Harvey Norman pulling the advertising plug over some perceived slight to that retailer’s self-respect), but there has to be more to it than merely the advertising dollar.

It’s a common culture. Sorry Paddy Manning, you’re from yesterday’s school of journalism. There will be young newcomers without your hang-ups to take your place. And every journo still at their desk will read the wind and help sail us into the future on calm seas.

(* Editor's note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly dated Paddy Manning's sacking as May 8. It is now correctly listed as April 8.)

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