Editor of The Daily Telegraph
Home Town: Sydney
You may not know Paul Whittaker but you do know his boss. The new editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph ran Rupert Murdoch's The Australian for four years before taking charge at the tabloid. And he's already causing a stir by laying into Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell.
"The Tele went hard on the previous NSW government but it's not going to give this one a rails run," Whittaker tells The Power Index. "Our readers are less patient than they were with the previous mob. They're just desperate to see something done."
With his blue-striped shirt, dark blue tie, steel rimmed glasses and pale blonde hair, Whittaker could be mistaken for a bank manager. But sometime in the past he must have been crossed with a pit-bull. Pugnacious, proud and confident, he's from the same breed as Murdoch's favourite newshound, Kelvin MacKenzie, ex-editor of the London Sun.
Certainly, the 42-year-old Walkley-winning journalist has already proved himself at The Australian to be adept at using a newspaper's power. After all, the Tele is the paper that all politicians fear.
"A bad relationship with the Telegraph sees you get a hiding every day," says a former NSW Labor premier. "That makes life hard. Their issues, not yours, dominate the political agenda, and you're forced to talk to them or compromise."
"Do you as a minister care more about what the Tele says than the Herald?" asks another former Labor premier, before answering his own question: "Yes, absolutely."
The Telegraph sells around 350,000 copies a day—150,000 more than the Sydney Morning Herald – and it claims to have almost 1 million readers, or twice the amount of listeners as the city's top-rating shock jock Alan Jones. But the Tele has a much broader audience than its competitors, so it can swing more votes. And it sets the daily agenda for commercial TV news and current affairs shows, where most people still get their news.
Whittaker was happy to talk to The Power Index, but he wanted our chat to be off the record. Which is ironic, considering his profession. He later agreed to approve a few quotes.
He talks non-stop for two hours straight: ideas, opinions and stories pouring out in a high-speed stream. It's a sign of how much he loves his job, perhaps, or how much he wants to get this reporter onside.
He drives the paper hard, he says, writing headlines, directing stories and setting the agenda for his 165 journalists. "The best editors have the best ideas," he says. "At The Australian we tried to do three or four things every day that no one else had got."
The Tele reflects the views of its readers, adds Whittaker, but it's clear he shapes and amplifies these views by hammering them home. "I call the issues as I see them," he tells The Power Index, assuring us he pursues his targets relentlessly. "Other papers run a story once and then let it drop. We're going to stay on the story".
Whittaker believes the Tele's duty in NSW is to pressure the government to move faster and further. And that's what he's been doing. At the end of August he ran a front-page headline, "Barrier O'Farrell", suggesting the premier was getting in the way of necessary reform.
Later that day, former NSW premier Bob Carr wrote on his blog, Thoughtlines, that the headline was "bound to fix the O'Farrell team with a 'do-nothing image'" which the Premier would find hard to shake off.
Two weeks later, Whittaker returned to the story with another banner headline, "Barry gets Nicked", highlighting Nick Greiner's message to O'Farrell that he needed to privatise electricity and sell state assets—and do it fast—if NSW was to pay for the infrastructure it so desperately needs.
So does the newspaper have enough clout to put a rocket under O'Farrell? "I think we can get his attention pretty quickly," says Whittaker.
But Barry ain't budging, yet. "I learnt in opposition that you can't keep the media happy, so you shouldn't try," he tells The Power Index. "We're not going to be rushed into things because the media or business think we need to go faster. The Cabinet is going to decide on the basis of evidence and facts."
On that basis, the Telegraph will only have its way if O'Farrell or his ministers lose their nerve. But stranger things have happened: this is the tabloid that crippled a couple of premiers during Labor's 16-year reign. And if O'Farrell continues to do nothing, the Tele may well get him in its sights as well.
Whittaker won't run a "campaign for regime change" against the NSW Lib, as Senator Stephen Conroy claims he is now doing against the Gillard government.
Nor will he be as hard on Barry as The Australian was on Kevin Rudd when he and Chris Mitchell were running that paper. In 2008, the Oz ran 115 front pages critical of the Rudd government, followed by another 176 in 2009, before claiming credit for his downfall in 2010.
And surely he won't be as aggressive as The Australian was with the Greens, whom the paper attacked in its news columns and declared "should be destroyed at the ballot box".
However, the Telegraph will undoubtedly be thumping the tub, having its say, and trying "to make NSW a better place" for its readers. "There is goodwill for the government," adds Whittaker, "but also big expectations."
As the Tele pursues this agenda, you may be relieved to know its editor sometimes lies awake worrying. "You run it, you own it, even when you're not there," he says. "If you put it on the front page you'd better be right because a lot of people are going to see it if it's wrong."
If the Telegraph makes a howler or is hauled up for bias, Whittaker promises to say sorry. It was his decision to run the Press Council's recent adverse judgement (about an unfair news story on the Greens) on page two of the paper. "You have to run it prominently, you can't hide it in the classifieds," he says. "If we make a mistake we've got to apologise ... If we want to be taken seriously we've got to take the Press Council seriously."
So was he always like that? It hardly seems likely. Humility and remorse were never much on view at The Australian, which still devotes huge amounts of energy to denying bias and pursuing its critics.
But maybe the shadow of a media inquiry and the recent blast about bias from Senator Conroy is having an effect. We'll have to see how long it lasts.