Australian Financial Review betrayed by numbers after Samantha Maiden misfire

This article is more than 1 month old
Amanda Meade

Female writers make up just 18% of Fin’s front-page stories. Plus: Gerard Henderson corrects ratings claim

Paul Kelly and Michael Stutchbury
The editor-in-chief of the Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury, right, pictured with the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
The editor-in-chief of the Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury, right, pictured with the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Last modified on Fri 9 Apr 2021 02.22 EDT

The Australian Financial Review’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, has been doing his best to mop up the mess from the paper’s misfire on Samantha Maiden, which led to the AFR being accused of rolling out misogynist tropes in its coverage of female reporters in Canberra.

In one letter to the editor, which Stutchbury replied to publicly in the form of an editorial, the subscriber said Stutchbury needed to “hold [himself] to account about the bias of some of your journalists”.

Gender equality on the paper might be a good place to start.

Weekly Beast can reveal some telling statistics that show that Stutch’s business daily is very much an editorial boys’ club despite his reassurance to staff after the much-criticised Aaron Patrick article that the newsroom was “committed to maintaining a safe work environment in which everyone has the opportunity”.

Our analysis of the Fin’s front page between 1 April 2020 and 30 March 2021 shows that men hog the vast majority of bylines. Female writers make up just 18% of front-page stories compared with the men of the Fin who have the lion’s share at 82%.

The first woman to appear in the list of top 20 front-page hitters is senior resources writer Angela Macdonald-Smith, who comes in at 14th with a total of 14 front pages.

Topping the list of front-page stars is political editor Phillip Coorey, who had 149 page ones, which is almost three times as many as the next guy, Matthew Cranston, with 54. Cranston, the economics correspondent, is based in the Canberra bureau with Coorey.

This gender imbalance is not new. A 2019 study found that the AFR, and the Australian, were the worst performers when it came to women in bylines on opinion pieces.

In an editorial this week Stutchbury said there is much that he and others “can learn from the disgraceful behaviour revealed by the fearless reporting of Samantha Maiden and the other mostly female journalists.

“However, I can assure you that the Financial Review and our reporters take these issues extremely seriously.”

Rally tally

However, in his editorial, Stutchbury repeated the claim that some of the female reporters listed by Patrick – Laura Tingle, Louise Milligan, Katharine Murphy, Amy Remeikis, Lisa Wilkinson, Karen Middleton and Jessica Irvine – were “activists” because they spoke at rallies.

“Those among the group have gone on national television to say they are ‘really angry’ or have appeared on stage at rallies,” he said.

Last week Stutch told Weekly Beast that activism seemed to be a reasonable observation to make “of journalists who speak at rallies”. But only one of the female journalists he listed appeared at the rally. Others, such as Murphy and Middleton, covered the Canberra protest as working journalists.

“I was referring to Lisa Wilkinson addressing the crowd at the Canberra rally,” Stutch told Beast. “Can I repeat that this is not a criticism.”

For whom the Pell tolls

The ABC receives hundreds of FOI requests from journalists each year, and almost all of them are from News Corp and Sky News Australia.

For example, one request earlier this year was for: “Any emails, text messages or WhatsApp messages sent by or to [media advisers] Nick Leys or Sally Jackson mentioning ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Australia Day’ between December 1, 2020 and January 28, 2021”.

Perusing the latest log of FOI releases, Weekly Beast found a pithy response from ABC news chief Gaven Morris to an all-staff email disaster of the highest order. The correspondence was released by the ABC in response to an FOI request.

Late last year an ABC staffer sent an email to everyone in the newsroom with the intemperate and nonsensical suggestion that the coronavirus should be awarded a Nobel prize “if it killed (George) Pell”.

“I would have voted Covid for the Noble [sic] Prize if it killed Pell,” he said.

Morris came back with some strong words, indicating that the employee would be dealt with by his managers and he needed to delete his “appalling” response and get off the emails. “It contravenes almost every editorial and email policy and we’ll follow up tomorrow,” Morris wrote.

For his part the correspondent said he didn’t mean to reply-all and the ABC had “taught him to be better than that”.

Hendo’s axe-grinding mishap

Conservative commentator Gerard Henderson has been even grumpier about the ABC’s output since he was dropped by Insiders a year ago. His favourite line is “the ABC remains a conservative-free zone” and he bangs on about it for hundreds of words every week.

The executive director of the rightwing thinktank the Sydney Institute, Henderson still has his opinion column in the Australian, and he also publishes a weekly blog, Media Watchdog, which the Oz republishes on its website.

An assessment of Henderson’s output in Media Watchdog in 2020 shows that 54.4% of the 496 articles were about Aunty. And none of them were positive.

There was some relief from the tedium though when Henderson’s enthusiastic criticism of Aunty resulted in a correction.

“For starters, A Current Affair outrated 7.30 by around 90,000 viewers,” Henderson wrote. “Moreover, it is not clear how influential ABC current affairs programs are these days.”

Oops, no it didn’t. Henderson: “As 7.30’s executive producer Justin Stevens pointed out on Twitter, 7.30 outrated A Current Affair on Thursday 25 March. The figure given above was for Wednesday 24 March.”

You have to wonder why the taxpayer-funded Reserve Bank is giving $10,000 a year to Henderson’s outfit when he is so focused on bringing down the ABC, another taxpayer-funded outfit.

The Reserve Bank has been paying $20,000 a year to the Sydney Institute and another right-aligned policy thinktank, the Centre for Independent Studies, for more than a decade, as revealed by Shane Wright in the Age.

Culture warrior rewarded

It’s fair to say Daily Telegraph editor Ben English might not have appointed James Morrow as the paper’s federal political editor for his political reporting chops. The co-host of Sky Australia’s Outsiders program on Sunday mornings is better known as a rightwing commentator, opinion editor and food critic and does not have a history in the corridor of power in Canberra. In February, Morrow was appointed to the top political spot on the Tele over political correspondent Clare Armstrong, who has impressed the gallery with her solo reporting gig for more than a year.

An American native, Morrow first popped up in local media in 2002 with an opinion piece in the Oz about how Australia is a nanny state with its ludicrous laws like “no hat, no play” and a ban on cigarette advertising. He wrote conservative commentary for the Tele and the Oz until landing the job of opinion editor on the tabloid three years ago.

It may appear to be an odd appointment but if the Tele wanted a culture warrior as political editor it’s a great appointment.

To wit Morrow’s defence of assistant minister for women Amanda Stoker this week: “Australia’s new assistant minister for women has a message for left-wing activists and Twitter keyboard warriors: Our lives will never improve if you don’t stop tearing down women for having the ‘wrong’ beliefs and instead focus on making things better for everyone.”

Q+A question marks

The ABC’s Q+A with Hamish Macdonald has received a drubbing in the press recently for its lacklustre ratings.

Although the ABC counters by saying the figures only look worse because audiences were elevated by lockdown last year, an analysis by TV Tonight shows the ratings have dropped when compared with the same period in the past two years.

Moving to the earlier timeslot of 8.30pm on a Thursday, as revealed by Weekly Beast, was supposed to revive the flagging format but fewer viewers have tuned in. With a new 2021 low of 228,000 metro viewers this week, an expensive live show like Q+A may not survive the next programming cull.

But the ABC says Q+A’s average national audience is more than 430,000 people so far and they’re happy with how it’s performing. “The ABC is committed to the program,” a spokeswoman said. “Q+A was in its former timeslot for 13 years and it has been in its new spot of 8.30pm Thursday for a few weeks.

“The panels have been terrific and the discussions have been informative and agenda setting. There’s lots more ahead for Q+A this year.”

Bomb-throwers return

Monday’s public hearings for the Senate’s media diversity inquiry chaired by Sarah Hanson-Young is shaping up to be another interesting one, following the political bomb-throwing by Kevin Rudd and former News Corp photographer Anna Rogers at previous hearings.

Rudd’s fellow Murdoch antagonist Malcolm Turnbull is up first, followed by Mia Garlick from Facebook, and then media executives Andrew Lancaster (WIN TV), Ian Audsley (Prime TV), Alistair Feehan (Imparja), Bruce Guthrie (New Daily), Peter Fray (Crikey) and Andrew Jaspan (founder of the Conversation).

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