Opinion

From Chris Mitchell to Boris, life under leaders new and old at The Australian

simon canning-picLife working on The Australian under Chris Mitchell was never dull. Ex-Australian journalist Simon Canning looks at what has been and what is to come under new boss Paul Whittaker.

And so Chris Mitchell has gone, his departure from The Australian met with a measure of relief by those working at the coalface of the national broadsheet, mixed with a level of trepidation about the arrival of Paul “Boris” Whittaker.

In the pair, the master and his apprentice, there could not be two characters more different in their approach to achieving the same ends.

What those ends are, of course, depends on where you view The Australian from: internally it is seen as the paper of record for Canberra and the driver of the national debate; from Canberra a powerful arm of the most powerful media baron in the world to be feared and courted in equal measure; and from the perspective of rivals such as Fairfax and the ABC, it is a savage competitor willing to take no prisoners regardless of the concepts of editorial balance.

It was, in reality, all of these and yet none of these.

Retired: Chris Mitchell

Retired: Chris Mitchell

And there was perhaps no better place to witness Mitchell’s rule over the Oz and what the future may holds under the reign of Whittaker than the bunker of the Media Section.

I spent almost a decade on the Australian until 2012, including the five years when Whitaker was editor.

During that time it was easy to witness the transformation of the paper as Mitchell’s self-belief grew – a self belief that was supported by the fact that he knew just who’s show it was he was running.

He is the man who could read his master’s voice better than anyone and that allowed him the room to set the agendas that so angered The Australian’s critics on issues such as climate change and the NBN.

Running the paper from the cockpit of his office, Mitchell was rarely on the newsroom floor. Those on the newsdesk  were despatched with tips and suggestions – but rarely if ever directives.

Mitchell’s playing field was conference, where his intellect – if not quite as towering as then media editor Sharri Markson suggested in a fawning piece, where she said he was “truly an expert on most policy subjects, Mitchell has a photographic memory”, – would be displayed. He could sit quietly taking in a newslist, before ambushing the editor with a completely new take on a story, or tearing the premise to shreds with a simple analysis.

Bollockings from Mitchell were rare, but to be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps one of the flaws that did emerge in Mitchell was the belief of being right. As Markson noted in her piece, he pursued the stories others wouldn’t.

Despite some telling Mitchell that pursuing certain angles on stories was not sustainable, he held an editorial line on climate change, the NBN and supporting Kevin Rudd in the 2007 election – a move he later told Mark Day was a mistake.

But it was a double-edged sword  – The Australian Wheat Board scandal and the Haneef Affair are examples of the fact that that Mitchell would back his journos to the hilt for award winning stories.

urlwhere the bloody hell are you?My own experience after slamming the Tourism Australia ‘Where the Bloody Hell Are You’ campaign in The Australian was proof of that.

Despite pressure from TA managing director and future treasurer Scott Morrison, TA chairman Tim Fischer and Tourism Minister Fran Bailey to bring me into line, and the fact TA was an important commercial partner for the paper, nothing was ever said.

Mitchell’s other flaw was his hatred of the internet as an interloper on the journalism The Australian was trying to sustain.

It was something he never quite got, with one former journalist on the paper noting that “Chris would have smashed the internet to pieces if he could”.

It manifested itself in the Media section’s damning coverage of Fairfax’s Digital First strategy.

Mumbrella was one interloper on Mitchell’s mind and in one meeting with the media team talking about future online coverage he suggested eight “exclusives” a day in the Media section’s web page was the way to deal with Mumbrella and other new digital players.

While that was never going to happen, The Australian became increasingly peppered with red “exclusive” banners.

One digital move Mitchell did support was the paper being the first in the country to launch on the iPad.

The evolution of the media section has been a barometer of the newspaper itself.

At launch under the guidance of Campbell Reid it strove for an independent voice that was vital for the the section’s success. This continued for several years under the guidance of Martin Beesley, the paper’s managing editor and a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, who was able to deal with Mitchell and pressures from other editors, as well as Mahogany Row (the top managers at Holt Street) as an equal.

However that independence slowly eroded as new editors took over what was seen as the most challenging section to edit in the building.

One by one, staff left the section and it shrank inline with the paper’s own advertising fortunes – although it had never been a revenue stream.

Paul 'Boris' Whittaker

Paul ‘Boris’ Whittaker

And so to Boris, and where he will take the paper.

Philosophically, nothing will change, and that is the point.

But from the perspective of the newsroom, life under Boris will be very different.

Known for rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck in, there will be none of the subtlety of Mitchell’s reign and he will be a common sight on the newsroom floor. His tabloid instincts – far stronger than Mitchell’s – will need to be kept in check.

In that light, the role of Editor Clive Mathieson, will be pivotal as a calm operator.

If Mitchell’s rule of The Australian was entertaining as a Machiavellian play, Whittaker’s time will be loud, abrasive and, if you see things from the right perspective, equally as fun.

  • Simon Canning is a journalist at Mumbrella and was a marketing and advertising writer on The Australian for nine years
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