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Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan

More information about Michelle Grattan can be found in the AWAP register.

Specialising in political journalism, Michelle Grattan has written and edited for many significant Australian newspapers. Her long and distinguished career in journalism began in 1970 at the Melbourne Age, where she is currently (2008) the Political Editor.

Michelle Grattan studied politics at the University of Melbourne, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours). She worked as a tutor in politics at Monash University before joining The Age in 1970. From 1971, Grattan was working in the Canberra press gallery for The Age, and became the newspaper's chief political correspondent in 1976. She received the Graham Perkin Award as Australian Journalist of the Year in 1988. That same year, she delivered the Arthur Norman Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism. The lecture, 'Reporting Federal Politics', examined the difficulties of being a senior political journalist. Political journalism, said Grattan, was deadline-driven. It meant 'dealing with instant history: catching the moment, making quick judgements'. The political journalist had to learn to work in the small, insular world of the press gallery; to penetrate bureaucracy; to avoid the tactics of propagandists, including press secretaries and ministerial staff; and to maintain the delicate relationships between themselves and the politicians who could make or break their stories. Above all, they had to avoid being pulled into the fray, being coerced, or taking sides: 'objectivity is an impossible dream', Grattan admitted, but at the very least 'we should think in terms of "fairness"... presenting the debate in a balanced way'.

In 1993, Michelle Grattan left her post at The Age to take up an appointment as editor of The Canberra Times, making her the first female editor of a metropolitan daily newspaper in Australia. She served as editor for two years before returning to The Age as political editor in 1995. With twenty-five years of experience then behind her, Grattan had much to say in debates around the perceived impending doom of the Australian newspaper. In September 1995, she delivered the Walter Murdoch Memorial Lecture - 'Headline, Deadline, Bottom Line: The Case for Good Journalism' - in which she acknowledged that newspaper circulation rates were dropping; papers were under threat from more technologically sophisticated forms of media; the roles of editor and marketer were increasingly blurred; newspaper companies were transforming from family-owned operations to major conglomerates; and, perhaps most critically, newspapers were not necessarily producing 'first-rate' journalism, 'the kind that tells people what they would not otherwise know, tweaks the tails of the power wielders, turns over rocks to stir the dark life beneath'. Though newspaper staffs had broadened, including more women, for example, they had also become more homogeneous. Newsrooms were inclined to be 'politically and journalistically correct', said Grattan, but too much 'sameness' was a danger.

Three years later Grattan was delivering another paper, this time to an audience at the University of Queensland's Department of Journalism, where she had accepted an honorary appointment as Adjunct Professor. Here Grattan openly criticised what she termed the 'ascendancy of commercialisation in Australian newspapers'. In contrast to the late 80s when editorial independence was 'the hot talk of Australian journalism', the late 90s were witness to a worrying degree of censorship and collusion. The country's newspapers were under the control of a small number of dominant men - most notably the Murdoch and Fairfax operations - and media companies were hand-in-hand with government and business. Of Murdoch's company, News Corp, Grattan observed: its 'national and international interests are so vast that no day can pass when one bit of the empire is not faced with the task of reporting on another section of the empire'. Large media companies had taken to employing 'high level political operatives' who held sway with the government. Meanwhile, some journalists were compromising themselves by accepting formal stakeholder status in the media companies employing them. Editors were being re-branded as publishers, responsible for appeasing advertisers, employers, and the readership: 'The modern editor thinks of his paper as a supermarket for readers, selling a guide to modern living, as much as a conveyor of news and views'. The 'journalistically brave' editor who offended a political power centre had far less protection than he once had: he could be (and frequently was) easily replaced.

As a respected journalist and household name, Grattan has played a significant role in influencing public opinion. She has published material on the Australian Labor Party specifically (Managing Government: Labor's Achievements and Failures, 1993), but critiques both major parties based upon policy and personal conduct (see 'Selfish cry from a man who no longer gives a damn' following Mark Latham's attack on the Labor Party, The Age, 19 June 2005), and she wrote the biographical chapter on former Prime Minister John Howard in her edited collection, Australian Prime Ministers (2000). Grattan approves of those who stand up for a worthy cause, and have the political gumption to bring it to fruition. In 1989 she co-published (with Margaret Bowman) Reformers: Shaping Australian Society from the 60s to the 80s, profiling fourteen Australian reformers from Gough Whitlam to Katharine West. The profiles, the authors hoped, would 'add a human dimension to abstractions like "social change" and "reform"'. In 2000, Grattan edited Reconciliation: Essays in Australian Reconciliation.

Grattan had joined The Australian Financial Review as a columnist and senior writer in 1996. In 1999, she was appointed chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, but returned to The Age once again as a political columnist in 2002. In January 2004, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her long and distinguished service to Australian journalism, and in March of that year became political editor and bureau chief for The Age. In 2006, Michelle Grattan received the Walkley Award for Journalism Leadership.

Barbara Lemon


Image courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation