New Pencils Need Sharpening

15 May 2020
New Pencils Need Sharpening - Featured image

This article from the Autumn 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by marketing professional and former editor, Paul Mitchell. 

A while back, a respected, long-serving and generally affable Australian university professor undertook a sixhour round trip to a regional area to talk about newspaper cartoonists.  

He lectures on electoral politics—among other things—and at his country gig radiated a reassuring and erudite tone and manner of delivery that made audience members feel confident they were in good hands.  

After the lecture, an enthusiastic few stayed back to speak to the professor, quizzing him further about his entertaining and informative presentation. During his talk, an off-the-cuff remark concerning where Australian newspapers sit on the political spectrum piqued my interest. Not wanting to be ‘that person’ who hijacks a public event for their own purposes, I resolved to delve deeper back stage, as it were.  

The professor generously afforded me several minutes of his time, during which I learned he considered Melbourne’s The Age newspaper to be politically neutral. A suggestion The Age in fact occupied an editorial position and general direction most definitely on the left was met with courteous, but assured dismissal.  

Might this warped version of reality from a position of authority again highlight what university students are exposed to during their politically formative years?  

That the majority of Australian university students and ultimately graduates lean overwhelmingly to the left is hardly breaking news. We have seen a procession of examples to highlight the point, most recently the IPA and its Generation Liberty team lodging a claim with the Queensland Human Rights Commission regarding the QUT refusing a market day stall application because the applicant failed to align with the values of the university.  

But how does this phenomenon play out in the newsroom?  

During my 17 years as a newspaper editor, I employed somewhere from 30 to 40 university graduates—most majoring in journalism, some in ‘media and communications’. And, by and large, the majority have been solid kids: respectful, eager to learn, keen to do a good job (initially at least), and grateful to be handed their first paying job in the media.  

My views on how well prepared these graduates are for newspaper careers were aired publicly in mid-2018, when a hastily pulled-together, hole-filling opinion piece for The Murray Pioneer—conceived out of frustration—briefly rocketed me into the unfamiliar spotlight of national media.  

The piece centred on The Pioneer’s general knowledge/current affairs quiz, given to every journalist applicant who progresses to the interview stage. The newspaper item featured an example of the test questions and outlined the spectacular, amusing and some might consider frightening lack of general knowledge among the six main contenders for a vacant position with the paper. 

I posted the page on Twitter, and after it was picked up and retweeted by a few journalists, soon came calling. Their subsequent story included a quote where I described some candidates as being “comically underprepared” to work in the real world, among other less-than-complimentary descriptors.  

The article went viral and soon an obscure country newspaper editor was appearing on the Ben Fordham Live show, on Sky News (interviewed by former Pioneer journalist Chris Kenny), in The Australian and on ABC Radio, among other media outlets.


Fortunately, not all university graduates have been as clueless on general knowledge, and as mentioned in the story, the quiz results—just two of the six hopefuls were able to name the Federal Opposition Leader, and one nominated then-PM Malcolm Turnbull for the role—may have just been the result of a “bad batch”.  

But it’s definitely a thing.  

The tendency for wannabe-journalists to be progressive voters is in fact much stronger, more predictable and consistent than ruminations on general knowledge and current affairs.  

From an employer’s perspective, ‘aspiring journalists are progressive’ seems to be a default position. I have never—and will never—employ or not employ someone based on how I suspect they vote, but almost all the successful and unsuccessful candidates I have encountered, numbering in the hundreds, lean left. I’ve often wondered if a less lopsided mass might mitigate some of the imbalanced groupthink we see across much of Australia’s mainstream media.  

Another part of the interview process is asking what media all candidates typically ‘consume’ daily. At least half blithely list their favourite social media sites, usually Facebook, but those who actually realise the question is about news providers, not platforms, invariably answer “the ABC”.  

The second most popular answer would be The Guardian, surely a disproportionately high response, given the media outlet’s popularity in Australia?  

The odd one might mention a state-based Murdoch paper and/or its website, but I cannot remember the last time anyone named the nightly TV bulletins from Channels 7 or 9—which is unfortunate, as those two programs regularly top the national freeto-air ratings—let alone Sky News or The Australian. Should that be happening? 

Sifting through the journalists’ applications can also be revealing.  

Many of those with some experience of published pieces—often voluntary submissions for websites—clearly feel submitting op-eds on the stupidity of conservative leaders and generally conservative politics more broadly will impress the decision maker(s). Again, they are judged on the quality of their articles, not the angles their stories or opinion pieces traverse, but the decision to include such items is questionable.  

And so to the newsroom, and the recent UK election. Boris Johnson was re-elected, saving the UK from what many believe would have been a disastrous reign under Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, a confessed democratic socialist.  

If implemented, Corbyn’s radical policies would have changed the UK forever—many believe negatively. Johnson may be far from perfect, but he was always a significantly safer pair of hands than Corbyn. 

Yet, a couple of bright, young journalists reacted with dismay on election day in late December when news of the Tories’ spanking win started filtering through.  

“Not Boris Johnson, no…” one lamented. Yet neither of them had the slightest idea what Corbyn represented, or even what a socialist believes. In fact, an informal whip around a couple of offices suggested none of the trained and qualified journalists had the slightest idea about socialism. Should that be allowed to happen?  

A similar scenario plays out with Donald Trump. ‘Orange man bad’ was the go-to reaction, even when another socialist— Bernie Sanders—was still a chance to pinch the Democrat nomination. Never Trumpers, essentially, no matter how bad the alternative.  

Given the media coverage—and Trump’s mannerisms and behaviour—that reaction from the mainstream population is not unexpected, but should journalists and aspiring journalists be more aware than that? Or at least more questioning?  

The same black-and-white views are applied to most any politician or public figure you can name.  

Andrew Bolt, Peter Dutton: Bad.  

Julia Gillard, Greta Thunberg: Good.  

It’s that simplistic. And the truth is that, politically speaking, many young journalists don’t know their left hand from their right.  

The message is ‘expect more of the same in the future’, but if you feel the urge, keep pushing for balance—or even better, for journalists to keep their opinions out of their news reporting. That should be happening 

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