Remarks - Launch of Making Headlines, by Chris Mitchell

Transcript
30 Sep 2016
Sydney
Prime Minister
E&OE

I’m thrilled to be here today, particularly to launch Chris’ book but also to talk about journalism and talk about it in a room that has so many memories for me.

When I was a mere boy, 20 and 21, I came to work here as a political correspondent. I had a rather eccentric collection of media outlets paying my way - one was Nation Review, one was Radio 2SM and the other one was Channel 9. And the Parliament was I think a far more informal and eccentric place in those days. This was actually the Parliamentary Library. It wasn’t often frequented and I found it a very quiet place to do a lot of my work, particularly preparing for my law examinations and essays [Laughter] because I was supposed to be at law school which is just down the road. So this has got a lot of memories.

I want to say this about Chris Mitchell before I go onto my speech. What comes out of every page of Chris’ book, which will annoy many, many pages will annoy people, irritate people and so forth – that’s what controversial books do - but what comes out of it is a real love and a passion for newspapers. This is a guy who loved every minute of his professional life as a journo. He loved newspapers - he loved the feel of them, he loved the work they do, the leadership they show – he is an impassioned editor. In a time when the industry is under challenge, it is worth bearing that in mind. That passion is a great value.

In Making Headlines, Chris has delivered a crisp plain English account of the dynamics of politics and the media in Australia.

He takes us through some very cogent analysis of many of the big political developments across the past two or three decades: the republic referendum, the war in Iraq, the struggle against violent extremism, our national struggle to address Indigenous disadvantage, the challenge of balancing Budgets, the global response to climate change, the phenomenon of Hansonism, and the spectacular implosion of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

I don’t want to be accused of being a spoilsport, but I may have to plead guilty to that, I am not going to get into some of the very frank assessments about a number of my predecessors – I will leave that to others.

It is better that it is Chris Mitchell who making the headlines today, not me, so this will be an uncontroversial speech.

I do that because I want to reflect on another very important aspect to the book, and it is the focus Chris brings to the challenges facing modern media in the internet age, and the imperatives for the media industry, particularly newspaper companies, if they are to secure a strong and successful future.

Given his experience for a decade or more at the helm of one of this nation’s most prestigious newspapers, his views are very much worth heeding.

Chris came to newspapers at the age of 17, turning down a dentistry scholarship to accept a cadetship on the Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph.

He left his job at the peak of the industry at the very premature age of 60. I can’t imagine why he did that, seems far too young to step down from a big job.

That very much suggests a lifelong labour of love.

Now as many of you may know, I was very nearly lured down the same path. When I was a kid, and I was in England around 1975 I first made the acquaintance of Harold Evans, the legendary editor of The Sunday Times who I might say I bumped into in New York only a week or so ago with his wife Tina Brown, as energetic and as fit and dynamic and interested in the affairs of the world and about walk across town at the age of 88. So it was fantastic to catch up with Harry.

Anyway, Harry was a great inspiration to journalists at the time because of the insight and investigative journalism The Sunday Times had.

And he heard me give a speech at a university debate in England and actually sent a note round to this young journalist, just imagine yourself at 20, 21 and a note from Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times: “Please call on me in the Gray’s Inn Road tomorrow.” I mean it was like getting a summons from God. Extraordinary.

Anyway, I went round there he encouraged me to have a lifetime career as a journalist and I told him I was studying law, he told me I should drop my legal studies immediately – he said: “If you persevere with them”, I see former Chief Justice Spigelman there, he said: “If you preserve with them, you will be bored out of your wits. You could end up becoming a judge”, and he shuddered. And then he shuddered again and he said: “Or worse still, you could become a politician.” Well at least I avoided the bench.

The years of journalism, the great hey days of journalism are being remoulded with technology.

Chris writes bluntly about the challenges and the failings of his own industry. He offers some very keen insights into the impact of digital disruption on the newspaper industry.

The proliferation of new internet media platforms, particularly for advertising has begun to strip much of the value of the lucrative revenue streams of display and classified advertising.

It’s not so long ago when we used to talk about classified advertising, particularly the Fairfax broadsheets, as rivers of gold. Well those rivers of gold are not flowing anymore. That has affected the whole industry and it is massive disruptive challenge.

The frustrating thing for journalist and I see so many of you here today, the frustrating thing for you is that there are more people reading your copy than ever before. You are reaching more eyeballs than ever before or ever could have been conceived possible and yet the revenue is not there in the way it was.

Chris notes in his book: “Anyone watching news consumers on a train to and from work in London, New York or Sydney cannot fail to notice how rare it is to see a newspaper today. Reading on smartphones is ubiquitous.” And it absolutely is.

I notice someone is trying to get people to chat to each other on the Tube in London – good luck getting them out of their smartphones.

He takes us through the range of responses from the established media industry, including the great debate over paywalls.

Some publishers started giving away their best content, afraid of appearing like dinosaurs if they did not. And Chris writes: “It took Rupert Murdoch to stand up in 2009 and say enough was enough. Good journalism is expensive, and people need to pay for it.”

This struggle for survival, as Chris also notes, may be never-ending.

The fight for the future of newspapers carries implications for how the affairs of our nation are reported, how people inform themselves in a democracy and how our society reflects on itself.

In the noisy, frenetic world of internet media where barriers to entry have never been so low and competition so intense - how can media outlets continue to invest in the quality journalism so vital to democracy?

Chris writes of the importance of the quality and uniqueness of content as the way to differentiate a newspaper and its websites in the digital mass media. People will pay for news and commentary and analysis he contends, and I am sure he is right, if they cannot get it anywhere else.

We worry also about the trends towards an industry too often prey to shallow analysis, a blurring of ethical standards and focus on the ephemeral rather than the substantive. Again Chris talks about this, about the frenzy and the fury of the echo chamber of Twitter, for example.

At the recent UN leaders’ summit in New York, there was high-level discussion of what has been called post-truth politics - the phenomenon of politicians relying on claims that sound right but simply aren’t true. There was a big feature in The Economist a few weeks ago called “The Art of the Lie” which pulled a lot of these issues together.

As you know, there has always been this phenomenon of politicians drawing very long bows and saying, exaggerating, saying things that are untrue. I’m not suggesting there is anything new there.

What we are starting to see, and you see it, I believe we saw it in the last election with the so-called Mediscare, you see it increasing in other places of the world where the range of political discourse has become so disconnected from reality. And even though the media calls it out, the politicians have the ability to access consumers directly in a manner than reinforces their prejudices.

You know we’ve gone from a world in which the media is curated.  And if you think about it, newspapers always, while you have in some very big markets like London, you have newspapers that have clear ideological lines, generally in most markets newspapers, and of course broadcasters, had to play it down the middle. Not necessarily because they want it to be fair and balanced, well they always asserted that they did but because they had to appeal to a broad range of customers because otherwise you couldn’t get the advertising base.

But increasingly as we move into a world where narrowcasting is possible and this of course began with cable television and the internet has absolutely supercharged that, we run the risk that everybody in effect gets the news service that they want, that confirms their prejudices, confirms their disposition rather than challenging it to a balanced analysis.

Now this is an issue that we are grappling with. As usual technology has moved ahead of our ability to understand it and indeed reimagine a civil and a balanced discourse that is going to lead us to the right policy outcomes.

I believe that the fourth estate has a very privileged role in our democracy. You’ve heard me say this again and again that the work that journalists and editors do is just as important in maintaining our democracy as the work we do as members of Parliament or ministers or Prime Ministers or judges. It is absolutely critical.

Without the commitment to truth, fairness and accuracy we won’t get the intelligent, well-informed, rational public policy discourse Australians are entitled to expect and it is getting harder to get that across. Harder than ever before.

Now having been on both sides of the media, I have a deep and enduring respect for the role that newspapers play and that journalists play and that the media plays.

I, again, I just conclude by saying that I am touched by, deeply touched actually, by the passion that you show Chris, in this. You are a tough guy and you’ve always represented yourself as being a tough guy and so you should be as an editor, a strong leader. But you also have a very big heart and a great love for this industry.

I remember as a young man being so entranced by it - just the noise and the vibration of the pressers in a big newspaper, the excitement of late-breaking news. All of those, you know, the eccentrics that fill every newsroom, of course not at The Australian, of course.

[Laughter]

It is unique in the world.

[Laughter]

It is a wonderful romantic business.

It is under great challenge but a great newspaper, a great newspaper today under Paul’s leadership forging ahead on foundations built by many others including Paul Kelly – who is here today – built by many others but led by Chris Mitchell at a critical time in our nation’s history. Led with great insight, great intellectual ability but also a great love and a great passion for the industry, for the institutions and above all the people that make them happen.

So I am delighted to be here and I hope your book does very well and does not disappoint the publisher because, you know, she makes her authors feel very guilty if you don’t recover the advance.

[Laughter]

So well done and good luck, good luck to this book and to its salesmanship headed by Louise.

Thank you very much.