By Margo Kingston
April 1, 1995
WHEN the managing director of The Canberra Times, Ian Meikle, told Michelle Grattan on Wednesday afternoon that she was sacked as editor of The Canberra Times and should leave the premises, he suggested a monetary settlement. Grattan refused. “I don’t want to salve their consciences,” she said privately later.
It’s one of the things those who admire Grattan learn to accept without demur. The extremism. The strict and idealistic private code of ethics.
Grattan, 49, did not even have a contract. She left her position as chief political correspondent of The Age after the 1993 Federal election as one of the most powerful and respected political journalists in Australia to join a provincial, under-resourced paper without even discussing how much she would be paid. (She appalled her deputy, Jack Waterford, soon after joining when she asked him what would be a fair salary.)
Grattan – workaholic, fanatically devoted to journalism to the extent of never taking holidays except to tidy up her latest book on politics, who will wake up ministers at 3 am to check a fact – is an extraordinary woman.
Having negotiated her exit from The Age amid a frenetic 1993 election campaign, Grattan started work immediately as editor of The Canberra Times. She had embarked on a journey which, two years later and despite her intense will to succeed, would end with a brutally honest admission of defeat on Wednesday night:
“The experiment has failed.”
Asked whether she would take a break, she replied: “Work is the best remedy.”
GRATTAN had been disturbed for some time that her paper, The Age, was taking a direction she could not accept under its new editor, Alan Kohler, who was determined to change her dominant role on the paper in Federal political coverage.
She was thrown by the loss of certainty of her pre-eminent place in The Age, whose values she had come to symbolise, and believed, perhaps wrongly, that Conrad Black’s management wanted to drive her out.
Grattan saw her chance to break free when The Canberra Times editor, David Armstrong, suddenly resigned for an overseas post. She approached the owner, Western Australian businessman Kerry Stokes, and offered herself for the job. Her vision was a serious paper with national influence.
She believed she was risking all and that failure would destroy her reputation. She was not prepared to fail. Her demands: a five-year commitment and Stokes’s promise to fund six more reporters. Stokes desired a national profile and East Coast respectability. He said yes.
Grattan refused to take what would have been a six-figure redundancy from The Age. “I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of saying I was redundant,” she said then.
The Canberra Times news staff and management were profoundly shocked, as was The Age. Canberra is still a small town, The Times having a circulation of 41,000. The editorial staff is dominated by people who had joined young and intended to stay for life.
It was a family, doing what they could, and succeeding sometimes, to achieve quality no other paper with their circulation even wanted to achieve – but an unambitious paper nonetheless. Read the rest of this entry »