The Australian Capital Territory’s chief minister, Andrew Barr, has declared he hates journalists and is “over” the mainstream media.
The chief minister’s extraordinary attack comes after years of deteriorating relations with the territory’s sole newspaper, the Canberra Times.
Barr has at various points refused to deal with its local political reporters, expressed certainty about its imminent demise and spoken gleefully of cancelling his subscription to what he describes as a “daily rag”.
But he appeared to broaden his attack on the mainstream media last week, while speaking at a private event for communications specialists.
A recording of his speech was leaked to the Canberra Times.
“I think I’ll begin with some pretty frank statements that may or may not shock some people in the room,” Barr said.
“I hate journalists. I am over dealing with mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke. And it will be only a matter of years before it closes down.”
Barr was articulating his government’s communications strategy, which seeks to bypass traditional media and place increased reliance on direct communication with voters, including through social media.
In recent years, the Canberra Times has investigated relationships between government officials and property developers, helping prompt the establishment of a local anti-corruption and integrity commission.
Its scrutiny of Canberra’s light rail project in the lead-up to the 2016 election also infuriated the Barr government, which believed the coverage was one-sided.
Anthony Whealy, a former NSW supreme court justice and chair of Transparency International, described the comments as “very concerning”.
“In a democratic country, once you shut down, muzzle or sideline the media, then I think you pave the way for corruption and maladministration to flourish,” Whealy told Guardian Australia.
“We’re not a country in which that sort of thing happens. But you see it happening in China, in Russia, in Turkey, where there’s not a free press at all. This is just a tip of an iceberg that we’ve got to be very cautious about.”
The chief minister has not responded to an interview request from Guardian Australia. But a spokesman told Fairfax that Barr was trying to motivate the communications specialists to think differently about getting their message out.
“The chief minister was challenging communications professionals to challenge us, inspire us and go beyond the ordinary and think of new ways to reach our diverse community, given the decline of the traditional media,” he said.
A spokesman for Fairfax Media, which owns the Canberra Times, said people who are held to account by the media “often find it not to their liking”.
“It is worth remembering the profound words of the United States supreme court in its landmark decision on media freedom to report – for the protection of ‘the governed not the governors’,” the spokesman said.
The paper has, more often than not, editorialised in support of Labor governments during ACT elections. The 2016 election was a notable exception.
One of the more memorable recent attacks by Barr on the Canberra Times took place in 2016, when the then opposition leader, Jeremy Hanson, questioned Barr over a “smell” that hung around his government. Hanson cited the paper’s reporting.
“I reject most of the assertions in your question, and I think most of them pertain to the tired old opposition leader … [and] a tired old journalism outfit that is in a decaying … form in terms of readership and interest,” Barr responded.
The comments in turn prompted a withering response from the former Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford. “Barr’s model of modern government is decaying and out of date, and he has not adapted to the times or to circumstance. I expect this news organisation will be around, in its multiple forms, as he goes out the door.”