OVER at Jonathan Green’s little fun house, a sub-editor who worked at the Phage laments Fairfax’s decision to be rid of his former colleagues, a move he sees as the death of a noble occupation. The author, Mic Looby, is probably a lovely fellow and his dismay at finding devotion to his craft no longer quite so valued by a hard-pressed employer is entirely understandable. When Mrs Bunyip announced that there had been one too many tender tutorials with young, firm female undergraduates and that, beginning immediately, she would be residing elsewhere, the level of shock and surprise at the Billabong would have been entirely comparable.
Time’s passing brings a different perspective. In the Professor’s case the initial dismay eventually gave way to an appreciation that, in matters marital, there had indeed been wrongdoing. If those text messages had not been allowed to remain in the mobile phone’s archive … if father-fixated slips of things had been warned to stop inflaming spousal suspicion with their lovelorn lurking by the Billabong’s front gate … if only the wrong name had not been uttered in supreme passion’s sleepy aftermath …
Life is full of regret, and perhaps time will also lend Looby a more expansive view, not least that the sub-editors Fairfax is about to let go must bear at least some responsibility for their own ouster. Yes, yes – they are the grey little men and women whom readers never knew existed, but whose skills, we are being told in numerous laments, put the cut and polish on all those wonderful pieces of “quality journalism.” Here is how Looby puts it:
Touchingly, at the meeting on Tuesday, senior Fairfax sub-editors were singled out by name by their colleagues. They were declared irreplaceable fonts of knowledge, encyclopaedic authorities on everything from house style and grammatical technicalities to newsworthiness and ethical dilemmas. In today’s newsroom, the Fairfax bosses were told, great subs are priceless.
But is that really the case? Did any Fairfax sub, about to be axed or otherwise, ever raise a protest that some stories – quite a few, actually -- were unfair, biased or written with the ink of preconception? When those subs passed into print a Leunig cartoon equating Israel with Nazi Germany, did one of those champions of excellence utter the key words, “Look, this just isn’t on. We shouldn’t be publishing this.” As it happened, it was then-editor Michael Gawenda who impaled the duck botherer's nastiness on a spike, but did a decision so obvious, so needed, really have to go all the way to the top before a sense of decency and responsibility manifested itself?
When green-dyed reporters insisted that the world was melting, temperatures soaring and blamed everything from dust storms to bushfires to cyclones on global warming, did a single sub-editor ask for the hyperbole to be flattened? Indeed, when nasty cold spells obliged the adoption of “climate change” as panic’s tocsin, did a sub demand a paragraph or two by way of explanation? When an entertainment writer slipped the line “And that, some might argue, is precisely what makes [Andrew Bolt] so dangerous” into a chin-stroker on the Larissa Behrendt racial defamation action, did some adult think to cut it, thereby saving the newspaper from the embarrassment of having its innate prejudice laid bare?
They may have done, but if the Fairfax newsrooms operate along similar lines to the faculty lounge at Sydney Orr University, the chances are that protests, if any, were muted. Such silence is understandable. It is always easier to get along by going along – until, inevitably, the going stops altogether.
It is a sad thing when people lose their jobs and once-grand businesses wither, but it will not be entirely the fault of the Fairfax board when the final edition of the Phage is dropped outside the newsagents’ doors. Those “encyclopaedic authorities” will be owed their share of blame as well, if only for the diplomatic silence of some who should have known better.