Loyal viewers of the ABC’s Media Watch could be forgiven for thinking the usually independent-minded guardian of Australian news coverage was hijacked by right-wing property developers. On Monday September 8, less than one week before NSW local government elections, broadcaster Jonathan Holmes accused an independent community newspaper in Ryde of only covering an anti-development point of view to the detriment of an unpopular, sitting Mayor. God forbid.
For more than 90 years The Weekly Times (TWT) has served residents and small business owners in the North Western Districts of Sydney — making it one of Australia’s oldest surviving independent community newspapers. For the last 33 years, TWT has been owned by John Booth, an old fashioned newspaper publisher, who has been in a David and Goliath battle with the pro-development Liberal Mayor, Artin Etmekdjian. This year Ryde’s Mayor used his casting vote to break a six-six tie, approving a controversial plan to award a large chunk of publicly owned land to Lend Lease for redevelopment. Under the plan, Council would have given the transnational corporation 60 per cent of the publicly owned Ryde Civic Centre along with a $5.8 million cash down payment to Lend Lease, and a $35 million loan to build high rises at the site. Council also agreed to spend $15 million relocating its offices during the reconstruction. Many local residents were outraged by the terms of the deal.
The controversial proposal was put on exhibition in August of last year. When the matter appeared before Council, the anti-developer block of councillors stalled the sale of publicly owned real estate by seeking to have the General Manager removed by complaining to ICAC about the backroom deal and by staging walk outs when Council votes were called, thus facing Supreme Court action. Through it all, TWT published angry letters from local readers opposed to the deal and took a pro-community, anti-development stand, which no doubt irked the pro-big business Mayor.
At the end of last year the Mayor retaliated against TWT’s coverage by using his casting vote to break another six-six Council deadlock. As a result of his vote, Council advertising for Ryde Council moved away from TWT, a locally owned and operated newspaper to the Cumberland newspaper chain, owned by News Limited, the Australian subsidiary of an international media conglomerate, registered in the US state of Delaware. It should not come as a surprise that the same block of councillors who voted to give Lend Lease public land for redevelopment at the expense of small locally owned retail tenants would also vote to shift Council advertising away from a small local community newspaper publisher.
But that did not concern Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes. No doubt tipped off by Liberal Party sources in the lead up to a heated local election, Holmes thought he smelled a rat, implying the owner of TWT was acting out of financial self-interest by refusing to support politicians who put large corporate interests above the local interests of Ryde residents. God Forbid.
In the end, local voters in Ryde had the last say. Opposed to ugly high rises in their suburban area and no doubt deterred by the experience of neighbouring Willoughby Council, who is projecting a $110 million deficit after a similar redevelopment in Chatswood, the voters threw out the sitting Mayor, instead giving an anti-development Council an outright majority. If TWT had anything to do with the election outcome, all the more power to the local press! With any luck the new Council will return local advertising revenues to the locally-owned newspaper generating local news coverage and jobs, while supporting the local economy. In the meantime, Jonathan Holmes should go back to picking on the big boys.