Comment: The article below was written by a reporter (unnamed) at the Courier-Mail and published on Crickey.com.au on 11th February 2003
The article reveals a disturbing insight into the mind of the man who was editor at The Courier-Mail at the time the paper lodged the complaint against me with the DPP and ran a series of defamatory articles (including one by Mitchell's Jewish wife Deborah Cassrels) following the publication of my book "Murder by Media, death of democracy in Australia". "Murder by Media" exposed the paper for what it was under Mitchell... self opinionated trash!
Red under Chris Mitchell's bed
The Australian's new editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, is known for his right-wing views and aggressive style. A Brisbane insider paints a controversial picture of what can be expected from the national daily in the future with a look at his time in charge of the Courier-Mail.
Media Watch opened for business this year with a brief look at Chris Mitchell, a minor piece that nonetheless did highlight the new editor-in-chief of The Australian's paranoia and his fascination with spies.
But it didn't offer much for those wondering about the more bizarre aspects of national daily since his arrival, nor did it give much of a clue about what to expect in future.
Those clues are easily found - look north and study the tragic performance of The Courier-Mail under Mitchell's editorship, his posting immediately prior to The Australian and 'expect more'.
The key to understanding Mitchell is to know that he is a right-wing social engineer who happens to be a journalist.
The kinder view might be that he is an editor in the European tradition, where newspapers determindly serve one political camp or another, but that would be to ignore the extent to which Mitchell strives to shape the world according to his view of how it ought to be. And the extent to which he seeks to become a player rather than a mere observer and interpreter.
The obvious starting point for any Mitchell critique is the Manning Clarke 'agent of influence' debacle.
This was nothing less than an attempt by Mitchell to re-shape the way Australians see themselves, by undermining the work of the historian who has been the biggest influence in shaping our current view of ourselves.
It backfired totally. Mitchell's aim was to convince the world Clarke's work was at best tendentious - shaped either directly or indirectly by the Soviet Union and communism, and therefore flawed and unreliable; at worst that he was a red in our bed trying to seduce us all over to the sins and failings of a left-wing world view.
Three points emerged from this exercise. Firstly Mitchell is avowedly anti-communist - a legacy of his mother's experience having lived in eastern Europe under the Soviets - and that he is still fighting the Cold War (memo to Chris: it's over) rather like those tragically out of touch Japanese soldiers who occasionally emerged from the jungle decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Secondly, Mitchell pays no heed to the advice contained in old adage 'when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging'. He persisted with this dead donkey long after the most forgiving of his staff felt anything but acute embarrassment and left Brisbane still telling people, both in private discussions and in public forums: 'watch this space'. (Second memo to Chris: waiting, waiting.)
All of which underlines the point that Mitchell is a social engineer first and a journalist second - and this was his downfall in the Clarke episode.
The beat-up in the original story, that Manning Clarke was a Soviet 'agent of influence', perhaps a spy, who'd been awarded the Lenin Medal for his services to the Soviets would never have made it to the paper if the normal journalistic rigor had been applied.
Trouble was Mitchell desperately wanted the story to be true, certainly much more than he tested it as an editor should to make sure that it was true.
Put simply, this story was to serve the broader Mitchell social agenda. He was using The Courier-Mail as his own 'agent of influence'.
One example. About 12 months after the original story, Steve Austin was filling in as presenter of ABC Local Radio's Morning Program and interviewed Steven Holt about fresh material he'd obtained from the National Archives that Holt believed discredited further The Courier-Mail's original story.
The next day, a brutal opinion piece by the paper's National Editor Peter Charlton (then based in Sydney so presumably taking his riding instructions from Mitchell) savaged Austin for the interview.
Interestingly, Mitchell refused an invitation to be part of the discussion, although it would have been difficult to cover some a complex issue in three minutes. Nonetheless, Charlton tore into Austin, essentially for failing to adequately prosecute The Courier-Mail's line in his questions to Holt, which was neither true, nor of course was it Austin's role as an ABC presenter.
Over and over, on numerous other issues, the lessons of the Manning Clarke episode repeated themselves. Another example of the way Mitchell used, if not abused, his media power was a series of attacks on prominent lawyer and civil liberties campaigner Terry O'Gorman.
O'Gorman was a regular critic of the Courier, mostly for its reporting of criminal cases and copped it in the neck many times for his efforts. There are numerous examples in the Courier files, but the most instructive is a bizarre feature penned by Matthew Fynes-Clinton alleging that O'Gorman was part of a Brisbane 'Irish Mafia', though what this group was meant to be up to was never made clear.
However, Mitchell did give Terry O'Gorman plenty of opportunities to criticise the paper. The other point is that O'Gorman is a defence lawyer who runs Robertson O'Gorman Solicitors (they even have the same phone number) and therefore occasionally has a vested interest in some of the positions that he pushes.
Mitchell's view of the world sits comfortably with parts of the now defunct DLP (the reds are coming, the reds are coming) policy platform, but with his rabid support for the free market replacing the benign community collectivism exposed by both the DLP and its guiding philosopher-saint, B.A. Santamaria.
However, Mitchell is a known agnostic and his second wife is Jewish.
In Mitchell's world, the '60's social revolution is the most dreadful scourge to have struck humanity since the plague and he seeks to roll it back and correct its errors at every opportunity. After Giles Auty left The Australian as its art critic, the Courier picked him up as its corrector-in-residence of all things '60's.
And check out the features The Sunday Mail has run on the icons of that era - Muhammad Ali or John Lennon for example. Tragic right-wing revisionist rubbish.
In the Mitchell world, 'greenies' are dangerously misguided fools who swallowed too much '60's left-liberalism and are a threat to Western prosperity.
The greenhouse effect? No such thing. A wild conspiracy dreamed up by apocalyptic Greenies in concert with scientists pushing for funding.
Mitchell said as much to Brian Williams, then the Courier's environment reporter, and to Gordon Collie, lest he erred by mentioning the greenhouse effect in reports on droughts and variable weather in his rural stories.
Aboriginal issues and Australian frontier history has been one of Mitchell's pet agenda's of late, although there is never a shortage of pet agendas 'chez Chris'.
The white denial industry will never want for a home while Mitchell holds the reins of any publication. He has long championed anthropologist Ron Brunton, in fact helped to make him one of the respectable faces of white denial.
His latest champion is Keith Windshuttle, long a favoured son of the Courier, along with others such as Michael Duffy and Andrew Bolt.
While on the subject of Brunton, he could always be relied upon to push some of Mitchell's other barrows, like the 'green menace', (although what this has to do with Ron's area of expertise is not obvious). This resulted in one barking mad column where Brunton called for organic food to be labelled as 'poo food' (I'm not making this up) to counter the 'frankenfood' label being applied to GM products.
In fact, the paper's opinion page under Mitchell and its then editor (Tess Livingstone, author of the recent George Pell hagiography) was a conservative choir, with the ocassional dissenting voice allowed in to make it look respectable.
Chris Pearson, now in the Oz stable of columnists, was always welcome.
There was some input from the left. Peter Botsman was a regular contributor, Terry Sweetman wrote mid-week and Tony Koch had a column every Saturday. When she was there, Julianne Schultz wrote regularly for the paper, and Noel Pearson had a Saturday column during Mitchell's first two years at The Courier-Mail.
On reflection, perhaps the DLP tag is not the most accurate for Mitchell, who was close to, and occasionally dined in Brisbane with figures from Opus Dei. Check out the writings of one Father Chifley and other conservative Catholics in the opinion page file. However, Mitchell is not a Catholic and has never been a member of any religious organisation as he's an avowed atheist.
Therefore, perhaps Mitchell's agenda could more accurately be described as a National Civic Council agenda, as it certainly was on occasion.
Two spring to mind. In one instance, the Courier indulged itself in the media equivalent of witch-burning after discovering that a women's centre owned by the Catholic Church was being used by women exploring spirituality outside the confines of the church dogma (basically New Age stuff) and that groups offering advice to lesbians and women seeking abortions operated out of the site.
Even more striking was the campaign Mitchell ran against a proposed new school curriculum, the Study of Society and the Environment.
Imagine the surprise of teachers at private Brisbane Catholic Schools, who regularly receive NCC material, when they saw the Council's alarmist line on the curriculum (that it was a dangerously left-wing secular attack on our white Christian heritage with too emphasis on deconstructing our society and not enough on lauding its achievments) repeated regularly in the Courier during a long drawn out (aren't they all), boots and all campaign.
Mitchell supporters argue that the position the paper took on the Studies of Society and Environment curriculum was backed overwhelmingly by readers of the paper. Supporters were not limited to Kevin Rudd but also included the man who had drawn up the curriculum for Wayne Goss when he was premier - Ken Wiltshire from the University of Queensland.
Queensland Greens Convener was at the time a lecturer in education at Griffith University but had his offer to supply an opinion piece opposing the Courier's stance on the issue knocked back. 'We are not running anything on that line', he was told. Blatant huh?
One notable little by-play associated with the issue was the fact that the Courier somehow managed to obtain a letter then Labor right-wing backbencher-on-the-make Kevin Rudd had written to his State counterpart critical of the curriculum.
Rudd (a notoriously socially conservative God-botherer) and Mitchell were close (in the way the Rudd is ever anxious to be close as possible to powerful media players) - which may explain this otherwise concerning lapse in Australia Post security. HIs letter was given front page treatment - good for the Mitchell campaign; good for Rudd's profile.
This relationship could also explain the occasional appearance on the Courier's opinion pages of Kevin's teenage daughter Jessica Rudd, with at least four pieces over about 2 years. While perhaps one of them might have been worth a run given its context, the rest were bland and boring school girl essays (what else from a school girl?) but with the conservative bent Mitchell is so fond of.
Of course, Rudd was not the only member Queensland Labor right-winger Mitchell was close to. All of Labor's 'boys club' was feted in the paper, which brought on the Courier's most embarrassing failing since Manning Clarke - it's egregiously flawed coverage of the Shepherdson Inquiry.
That inquiry shone the spotlight onto the background activities of Labor's AWU faction of 'whatever it takes', up to and including criminal activities, the faction used in the mid-90's to get the numbers for its efforts to build a supposedly impregnable political foundation for the right to use both at the State and Federal level.
(Remember when then conservative Labor Premier Wayne Goss and a coterie of AWU mates including Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson and Kevin Rudd was going to descend on Canberra, taking over from the NSW Right?)
In the lead up to the inquiry, factional leaders and Labor fellow-travellers around Brisbane privately sought to convince media figures that it would amount to nothing much; that it there was nothing much to find and that any illegal electoral enrolments were all the work of one Lee Birmingham.
In my opinion, Mitchell bought it hook line and sinker and ran the right wing Labor line in the face of ever-mounting evidence that in fact there was a history of this sort of activity within the AWU, and a culture that supported and encouraged it. (Read Shepherdson's final report.)
There were occasional flourishes but, in my opinion, never enough rigour to the coverage. The Courier-Mail was instrumental in the standing-down of the deputy premier, Jim Elder. At the time, it had a large team of reporters going through electoral rolls in the seats of certain key AWU figures. Mitchell supporters argue that were it not for this reporting, there is every likelihood at least Jim Elder and Mike Kaiser would still be Members of Parliament. And allegations about Wayne Swan were published in The Courier-Mail before the ABC ran them.
Of course the fact that Mitchell had appointed Dennis Atkins (ex-Goss spin doctor-in-chief and close mate of AWU factional heavy-weight Wayne Swan) as the paper's Canberra political editor would not have helped to shift the paper's coverage.
(Crikey has already reported on this relationship and Atkins' strange reporting of Swan's cash payment to the Democrats in 1996 in an earlier posting from its 'Queensland Bureau'.)
And so, over and over, the Courier ran, in various guises, the laughable line from AWU heavy Bill Ludwig that it was all the work of one 'rotten apple'; that the illegal activity had begun when Birmingham entered the party and stopped when he left.
Worse still , the Courier (check out the Bottom Line file from the time) constantly attacked ABC Local Radio journalists like Andrew Carroll who were running the analysis (totally vindicated in the end) that this activity was systemic in the right.
Because of its Mitchell inspired blindness, the Courier missed endless yarns broken on Carroll's program and came embarrassingly late to others. In fact, it has still to get it right on the culpability of Labor State Secretary at the time, Mike Kaiser.
In another example, the Courier ran a article penned by ex-Canberra reporter Craig Johnson suggesting that Premier Peter Beattie was making the situation worse for Labor by beating it up with repeated pledges to kick rorters out of the ALP.
History soon buried that argument under Beattie's landslide in the shadow of the Inquiry, but it was a strange line at the time given that former Deputy Premier Jim Elder had already been forced to stand down and other MP were implicated at the time. How could Beattie's approach make that mess any worse you might well ask?
And so it goes one and on. Mitchell directs his paper's coverage and will influence what his journalists write more than any editor in recent history. Certainly more than any broadsheet editor.
On the other hand, it must be said that Mitchell's persistence can also be a virtue in that he is not afraid to push an issue, something better Courier hand's like Hedley Thomas has used to great good effect. (Witness the current double jeopardy campaign.)
But it comes at a price. And what's written here is but a taste of what Queensland readers put up with under Mitchell. (Don't get me started on his campaign against the Brisbane Powerhouse and its Festival of Ideas! Always a campaign.)
There is a book in Mitchell's time at the Courier, or at least a thesis for some journalism academic.
Let's hope David Marr's tentative foray on Monday night means that Media Watch will keep one eye on his efforts at The Australian. They bear watching.