The Burchett Hill Bugle is by its own admission "one of the four most illustrious newspapers in the world", the others being the Guardian, the New York Times and the Bugle's own sister daily, the Sydney Morning Sneer. Founded in 1852 in the heady days of the gold rush as the anti-government scandal sheet The Port Phillip Colony Scuttlebutt and Gossiper, the Bugle became respectable in the starchy 1880s. Its reputation as the nation's pre-eminent journal of record dates from its acquisition by the Fairyflax family in 1914 and the inspired appointment of legendary editor Arthur Mange, whose first editorial, "Believe The Bugle: There Will Be No War", is still spoken of with awe in the newspaper world.

"Mange believed firmly in C. P. Scott's dictum, 'Comment is free but facts are sacred', says the current editor, Adrian Finkelstein, who, like so many of his staff, cut his journalistic teeth at Manning Clark University as a campaigning reporter on the student union paper Shoutdown. "We have held faithfully to that principle, although adapted appropriately to our own times. Scott's idea of 'facts' was one that no serious journalist today accepts, when postmodernism has taught us that there are as many versions of the same 'fact' as there are narratives in which to relate them. But we still strive in the Bugle to give space to all facts that have a legitimate claim to be reported and are not the product of reactionary propaganda."

As for comment, Finkelstein has recruited or inherited a first-rate editorial staff, all of whom give their opinions freely and at length in the Bugle's news pages. Controversy is never allowed to stand in the way of truth. Chief political correspondent Annabel Harridan, for example, recently wrote a fearless critique of the Prime Minister in which she concluded that "it would be a tragedy for the country if Julia Gillard were not re-elected", given that "in ability and vision she towers head and shoulders over such lesser holders of her office as Curtin, Chifley and Hawke." This received a telephonic screech of protest from the subject of the comparison, excoriating correspondent and editor for "publishing arrant misogyny" in making "past male prime ministers the benchmark". Unabashed, Ms Harridan wrote a revised assessment the following day likening the Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher - blue-pencilled before publication by Finkelstein as "as insulting as comparing her to Gina Rinehart" - and then a third piece in which she compared Ms Gillard, very much to her advantage, as "a Queen Victoria, straddling the events of her century" and likening her "wise consort" to Prince Albert for good measure. This was allowed, principally because Finkelstein, whose education has been entirely in "relevant" topics in the media studies course at Manning Clark, had never heard of the royal personages.

As befits a serious newspaper engaging with contemporary priorities, the most senior reporting post on the Bugle is that of the environment correspondent. Jake Fry, the anti-logging protester who when not chaining himself to trees fills this role, shows a fair-minded commitment to his job that would put many a more experienced journalist to shame. Far from condemning or mocking "denialists" of anthropogenic climate change he does not allow that such people or the views they hold exist. His extensive reports, usually covering pages one, two and three, are filled with the proceedings of publicly subsidised scientific conferences at which "peer-reviewed experts", serenely undisturbed by any disagreement other than to the extent of the cataclysm, outbid each other in projections of the apocalyptic doom about to be unleashed in retaliation for mankind's cruelty to the environment. Rational and courteous, Fry responded to an open letter addressed to him by visiting "sceptic" Lord Monckton last year by sticking pins all over it, cutting it into tiny pieces, returning the shreds to the envelope with some of the contents of his "partner's" cat's tray and reconsigning the whole to the sender with the additional superscription "Crap deserves crap, so-called 'Lord' Smartfart" scrawled over the address on the envelope.

High costs are always a problem on a daily paper but Finkelstein is doing something about them. He has just signed a breakthrough deal to reduce expenses in one of the areas where they are heaviest by "outsourcing" foreign news to the media unit at Burchett Hill's central mosque, which is happy to provide the service for free. Readers' complaints that of the few recognisable English words in the copy supplied, "Israel", "pig", "infidel" and "Satan" account for about ninety per cent, have been rejected by the editor as "vexatious". As a further cost-cutting measure, three leader writers have been made redundant and replaced by Imam Ibn al Choppa-hedoff Poofa, chief functionary at the mosque and now unpaid daily "guest editorialist" on the Bugle and religion correspondent. A "Sharia News" with details of public denunciations ("virtual stonings" as Imam al Choppa-hedoff describes them) has been added to the Bugle's special sections on business, television, cars etc. In the "Eating Out" supplement the reviews are never of any but Halal restaurants.

To expand editorial content without further unnecessary expense the Bugle has entered a syndication agreement with Melbourne publication The Monthly at discounted rates, thanks to the generosity of the latter's owner, speculative builder Morry Schonkhauser. The Monthly will supply a series of incisive "think pieces", the first of which, "Why Robert Manne is right about everything" by Robert Manne, appears in the Bugle this week.

Literary editor Sophie Haitch, brought to the Bugle from another respected Melbourne magazine, Meanjin, casts her net widely. She has made it a rule that only books by Aboriginal lady authors are to be reviewed (a new "Australian Classics" edition of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson was banned from review as the work of a "dead white male"). Published female Aboriginal writers are not over-abundant and Haitch has extended her range of acceptable authors by conferring, in the spirit of the Bromberg judgment, "attributive" Aboriginality on various prominent litterateuses, among them Helen Garner and, retrospectively, Dymphna Cusack and Maie Casey. One female writer who pointed out that her ancestry was entirely Irish was accused by Haitch of "hate speech", on the grounds that to deny the "honour" of being considered Aboriginal was "offensive and hurtful" to people who prided themselves on being genuinely of that race.

Perhaps the most admired contributor to the Bugle is not a journalist but an artist - Doodlig, the paper's cartoonist. Finkelstein regards him as "sublimely gifted, a genius who transforms the strokes of his pen into philosophy." Doodlig's distinctively minimalist drawings, all jots and squiggles - so that it is not always immediately clear what they are about - have won him many fans for what Finkelstein calls his "uniquely whimsical view of the world". In one celebrated example of his unique whimsy, Doodlig likened Australia in the Howard years to Auschwitz ("both begin with Aus, you see," says Finkelstein), with John Howard depicted as a dwarfish swastika-bedecked commandant in jackboots, grinning evilly beside a couple of squiggles labelled "Bath House" into which he was kicking a group of figures in chains marked "Dissent". This cartoon - "vintage Doodlig" - is the editor's personal favourite and hangs on the wall of his office.

This then is a quick tour d'horizon of the kind of journalistic excellence readers have come to expect from The Burchett Hill Bugle. But - take heed. It is also an alarm call, given that business interests judged by the editor to be "unsympathetic" to the paper's editorial freedom have begun to make inroads into the company's shareholding. "It would be intolerable," declares Burchett Hill's mayor, Greens Party Councillor Les Rhiannon, who himself contributes a regular column to the Bugle, "Around the People's Municipality" - full of sound advice on dobbing in neighbours who aren't recycling their rubbish correctly and how to destroy the share value of "anti-environmental" industries - "if elements of the fascist far right were able to trample on democracy and seize control of this iconic national asset." Councillor Rhiannon has set up a "fighting fund" to buy Fairyflax shares for the Greens Party and thus "keep the Bugle's authoritarian, I mean authoritative, voice loud and clear in the public square as a beacon of free comment and editorial integrity."

18 February 2013

There are other news stories from Burchett Hill in Argus here ("Municipal News"), here ("A Feast of Reason"), here ("On the Street Where You Eat"), here ("The One Day of the Year"), here ("The Glorious First of May"), here ("Support for the Arts"), here ("How May I Not Help You?"), here ("Our Very Own Olympics"), here ("Marriage Reform in Action"), here ("A School Story"), here ("A Voice in the World"), here ("A Blow Against Misogyny") and here ("Let Justice be Done").

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