It doesn’t take long for a top reporter at the Australian, with a regular presence on page one, to become the target of a front-page story in the combative national broadsheet.
It was just two months in the case of social affairs reporter Rick Morton – who resigned after publicly criticising the paper he had worked on for seven years. After exiting the Oz, Morton joined a growing line of ex-journalists critical of the way the increasingly rightwing paper operates.
This week he was attacked by former colleagues on Twitter, as well as on the news and opinion pages. A feature Morton wrote for the Saturday Paper, headlined “Murdoch media fuels far-right recruitment”, was subjected to the blowtorch approach favoured by the Oz when attacking perceived enemies of Rupert Murdoch.
The Australian’s former deputy editor and now columnist Nick Cater called it a “vile anti-Murdoch hate speech dog whistle” on social media, referring to the reporter as “Ben Morton”.
Morton’s sin was to report on an unpublished academic paper from Victoria University which, among other things, identified the sources of articles that were being shared most by far-right Facebook groups. “The soon-to-be-published research shows violent extremists latch on to and are ‘emboldened’ by news coverage and columns, which they see as adding credibility to their cause,” Morton wrote.
“The Australian, with an audience many orders of magnitude smaller [than the first three sources] and its content locked behind a hard paywall, is the fourth most shared content source among far-right groups in Australia.”
The Australian was quick to strike back, claiming in a front page “exclusive” that Victoria University had “rejected” Morton’s story and had denied that the research concluded “News publications fuelled far-right sentiment”.
It’s true an explicit link between News publications and far-right sentiment is not made, and the research does not mention News Corp or Murdoch by name, but it does list the publications which are most shared – the Australian comes in fourth behind the Daily Mail, Nine digital and YouTube.
Weekly Beast has obtained a copy of the research (which sadly for the Oz they could not get their hands on) and it may be even worse than the picture Morton painted. When all News outlets are added up they make up the largest source of content shared by the far-right groups on Facebook. News Corp, including Sky News and all the mastheads, makes up 7.2% of shared content, ahead of the Daily Mail on 7.1%, Nine digital on 6.6% and YouTube on 2.2%.
As for the university rejecting the Saturday Paper’s report, that is not clear-cut either. In a carefully worded statement in response to questions from the Oz, the uni confirmed that its research found that “mainstream media content was used extensively by far-right groups”. The lead researcher, Debra Smith, recommended Morton’s “powerful” article in a tweet on Saturday.
Morton told Weekly Beast: “I’m genuinely glad the Australian has taken to the front page to distance itself from hate speech. I hope it continues.”
In an aside to the Saturday Paper saga, critics piled on to Morton on Twitter, pointing out that he wasn’t a cleanskin when it came to writing articles which fuelled the far-right, including two on one of the Oz’s targets, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, in 2017.
Morton received a largely sympathetic hearing when he said he regretted writing the articles in question.
Break from Breakfast
After 11 years as ABC News Breakfast host, Virginia Trioli said goodbye on Friday to take up Jon Faine’s breakfast shift on Melbourne radio.
Trioli was always her own kind of breakfast TV host and she went out with typical style, on her birthday. Wearing a gold-flecked dress, she farewelled her loyal audience with a quote from Vladimir Nabokov – “the refuge of art” – and a performance by students and graduates from Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music.
The Oz may have been busy defending itself from outside attacks, but it was also intent on opening up ugly new divisions.
As if its obsessive reporting on Victoria’s Safe Schools program wasn’t enough, the Oz announced it had set up a special gender section, featuring almost entirely negative stories about transgender youth, with headlines such as “Gender reassignment? They’re castrating children”.
The section was condemned by writer Benjamin Law, who offered to donate the cost of a subscription to the Australian to the Gender Centre for every person who cancelled the Oz.
Another protester was freelance music writer Sophie Benjamin, who severed her ties with the Oz as a “small gesture of solidarity as an ally and fellow community member during a time where trans people’s rights to exit are continually being debated”.
Subs surface in NZ
More than 20 Australian production and subediting jobs have been abolished by Pagemasters in a move designed to cut costs for News Corp.
News Corp’s Queensland regional newspapers and the NT News have had their subbing outsourced to Pagemasters, a division of AAP, after it sacked most of its production staff.
Pagemasters told staff it was moving their jobs to New Zealand next month because of the “cost to the client”.
“Without making this change, Pagemasters would have lost the work for these regional newspapers altogether,” the manager said. Because the jobs were classified as casual, the journos are not entitled to any compensation. At a time when Nine newspapers are moving their subbing back in-house after the New Zealand experiment failed, it does seem a backward move.
Hitting the roof
Australia’s Clean Energy Regulator was forced to issue a statement correcting stories in the News Corp papers about its report on the standard and safety of rooftop solar installations.
The regulator said some of the reporting of its solar panel inspection results was “in our view … not an accurate interpretation of the data”.
“The standards set in our inspections program are very high and the inspections are thorough,” the regulator said.
Clean energy website One Step Off the Grid said the regulator’s report had revealed a small year-on-year rise in the number of “sub-standard” and “unsafe” installations. The Australian interpreted the rise as “One in five solar units defective” and the Daily Telegraph as “Complaints rise to one a day, as report reveals a quarter of home installations are faulty” while the Courier-Mail called on the energy minister, Angus Taylor, to shut down rooftop “solar shonks.”
Sky News Australia host Rowan Dean did not want to listen to the authorities when they said mental illness was behind Tuesday’s stabbing in Sydney, which left one woman dead and one injured.
Police commissioner Mick Fuller said the attacks were not being treated as a terrorist attack but the 20-year-old did have “some ideologies in relation to terrorism” and the joint counter-terrorism team would examine if the terrorism threat needed to be reassessed.
The Spectator Australia editor said the “hairsplitting” between mental illness and terrorism was “laughable and an insult” to our intelligence. Dean far preferred the conclusions reached by far-right commentator Katie Hopkins in the UK that it was an act of Islamic terrorism.
“However this guy was radicalised, it’s terror,” Dean told Peta Credlin on Sky. “This is Islamic terrorism, this is what Islamic radicalism is designed to do, that’s the recipe.
“He’s yelling around ‘Allahu Akbar’ and waving around a knife, that’s enough evidence you need that he was inspired by the ideology of radical Islam, which sets out to inspire mentally ill individuals and non-mentally ill individuals to go and murder people.”
Farewell to a prince
A memorial for Graham Freudenberg, legendary speechwriter for Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, will be held on Friday 23 August at Tattersall’s Club in Brisbane.
Freudenberg, who died last month aged 85, was a central figure in the Labor party for more than 40 years, writing for federal Labor leaders Arthur Calwell, Whitlam and Hawke and the New South Wales Labor premiers Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth and Bob Carr.
The former prime minister Paul Keating said Freudenberg was a “literary prince” whose death ended “a lifetime of fidelity to the precepts of the Labor party and every uplifting thing he understood it to be about”.
Contact [email protected] for more information on attending the memorial.