What to make of Australia’s Newest Newspaper

The times have long been ripe for The Saturday Paper. With News Corp Australia accounting for nearly two thirds of national newspaper circulation, and with Australia’s credibility as a liberal democracy taking some hard hits overseas, due in part to the lack of diversity in the national media, there has for some time been a growing feeling in educated and left-wing circles that some form of new, independent, progressive national news service ought to be launched.  The appearance of the Guardian Australia website last year went some way towards plugging the gap. What simpler way could there be to solve the problem, after all, than just importing the major British left-wing newspaper and modifying it for the Australian market? Yet Melbourne publisher Morry Schartz, who is the man responsible for The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay (via his Black Inc. press), has gone one better: launch an entirely new, homegrown weekly newspaper all of our own. The first edition of The Saturday Paper came out today.

Tucked away on page 14 is a manifesto.[*] It sets out a list of values and qualities that the editors feel are currently lacking in most of their competitors: “confidence, inquisitiveness, independence, occasional folly, passion, insight, moments of rage, frequent surprise, a skinned knee here and some delicacy elsewhere”. It claims that the paper has “no agenda and no single view”. It speaks of being “a newspaper for a country more serious than it is often credited with being,” and it sets out lofty objectives: to “make a virtue of knowledge that is broad and deep,” to “drag news out of the narrows into which it has been forced,” and to “chronicle, unsparingly, the age in which we live”.

So: how does The Saturday Paper live up to these aspirations? To begin with, it sends a clear signal right at the outset that it will not shy away from controversy: it devotes its first-ever front page story to the asylum seeker debate. “‘It was barbaric’: How we got to Manus Island” is the headline to a piece by chief political correspondent Sophie Morris, tracing the history of Australia’s offshore detention centres and addressing the long-term causes of last week’s riots. Despite what the mission statement says, the whole paper clearly approaches current affairs from a position some way to the left of most other Australian news outlets. This lead story does not explicitly condemn offshore processing, but it is definitely a lot more critical of the policy – not to mention a lot more sympathetic to detainees – than one would expect from any News Corp paper. There is also an article on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, long a key concern of left-wing activists and civil libertarian groups but rarely to be found even mentioned in the mainstream media until now.

A few big names appear among the contributors. The redoubtable David Marr (who recently wrote a Quarterly Essay on the same topic) offers a hostile comment piece about Cardinal George Pell. Malcolm Turnbull has written a hymn of praise to the art of journalism, which concludes by wishing The Saturday Paper the best of luck. And novelist Richard Flanagan contributes a heavy-handed satirical piece in which he calls for asylum seeker boats to be bombed and all refugees slaughtered. He even uses the phrase “modest proposal” – just in case his inspiration wasn’t clear, you know.

The paper is let down by its too-heavy focus on Australia at the expense of the rest of the world. Its first edition appears at a moment when Ukraine is undergoing a historic upheaval, one that might transform the landscape of international power politics – not to mention bringing enormous misery to a great many Ukrainians. The Saturday Paper awards the matter a single sentence in a news round-up at the start, and otherwise ignores it. That is both wrong and surprising, especially given that the paper’s target reader would seem to be the kind of educated person who can be expected to take a reasonable interest in overseas affairs. Instead, the international section consists of three articles on topics directly related to Australia: the aforementioned TPP analysis, a short piece on Kim Beazley’s doings as our ambassador to the United States, and an even shorter piece on the probable state of Indonesian-Australian relations after the upcoming Indonesian elections. When the manifesto states that the paper will tackle “the great task of explaining Australia,” that would seem to mean that its attention will extend only as far as the country’s borders – and, of course, to Manus Island and Nauru.

This aside, however, The Saturday Paper is an admirable endeavour that maintains a high standard of journalism throughout. Given time and persistence, it could mature into an Australian counterpart to the UK’s Independent: a left-leaning but broadly unbiased outlet for intelligent journalism, with a particular focus on redressing the imbalances and blind spots of the other major newspapers. That would be a very welcome thing.

[*] The placement is, I think, significant. New papers that feel it necessary to give mission statements have traditionally put them on the front page, as though the paper itself were more important than the news. The Saturday Paper exhibits no such hubris.

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