Australian politics, society & culture

LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT

Payback: The Bullying Tactics of the Murdoch Press

The Australian is not a subtle newspaper. But it certainly has a genius for timing. Within hours of the publication of the Finkelstein report, which documents the widespread public disillusionment with the ethical standards and the political bias of the commercial media in Australia, one of its senior reporters, Ean Higgins, phoned me at work. He informed me that the Australian had gained information from a successful Freedom of Information request with regard to two Australian Research Council Grants I had supposedly received for two Quarterly Essays written very many years ago one for approximately $60,000, one for approximately $180,000.

Even Higgins’ questions to me suggested that he did not understand the ARC Grant system. I told him that the two research grants had by no means been used exclusively for the Quarterly Essays but had been the research foundation for a very large number of different kinds of publication. I promised to provide him with an account of the direct and indirect outcomes of the Grants. I also informed him that I intended to write on the matter of his paper’s self-evident vendetta against one of their critics and to ask questions for him to answer. He said that as my request was “unusual” he would have to consult his “editor”.

I told Higgins that I did not believe either he or his paper would report on this matter objectively and that I suspected their motives. My views on the political bias of the Australian and its editor-in-chief are documented in detail in my most recent Quarterly Essay, “Bad News”. But there was more to my suspicions than this. Higgins was personally responsible for a defamatory attack last year on another favourite target of the Australian, the Climate Change Commissioner, Professor Tim Flannery. Astonishingly, Higgins’ article (the Australian, August 6 2011) suggested that Tim Flannery had invented stories about climate change and rising sea levels to frighten elderly residents with properties on the Hawkesbury River for his own personal financial gain. Professor Flannery’s account of this incident is found in the Correspondence section of the most recent Quarterly Essay. Eventually the Australian was obliged to publish an unequivocal apology to Professor Flannery.

The apology read: “On August 6, 2011, the Weekend Australian published an article concerning Climate Change Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery and referring to an observation from the ozpolitic.com forum. The article suggested Professor Flannery’s public comments on climate change frightened elderly owners to sell coastal properties to climate change proponents. The Weekend Australian accepts that Professor Flannery’s comments were never intended in this way. The Weekend Australian apologises to Professor Flannery and his family for any hurt and embarrassment the article may have caused.”

I spent most of March 2 compiling a list of the direct and indirect outcomes of the two grants I had received, in one case twelve or so years ago and in the other ten years ago. In the first case, a study of twentieth century Aboriginal child removal policies and practices, the grant was in part used for travel to the state or territory archives of the Northern Territory (Canberra and Darwin), Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales; in part for accommodation during these visits; and in part for the costs of the thousands of pages of photocopies taken from these archives. I conducted part of this research myself. I also employed an experienced historian and colleague to do part of the primary research. All expenditure had to be carefully accounted for. As a result of this grant, I did not increase my salary by one cent.

In the other case, Higgins’ questions revealed that he had no idea how the Grant system worked. This Grant – known as a Linkage Grant – was structured quite differently from the earlier one. I supervised an outstanding thesis on asylum seeker policy at La Trobe University. Following the successful completion of the doctorate, the doctoral graduate and I applied for an ARC Grant for the study of asylum seeker/refugee repatriation. In the application it was made clear that he was to conduct much of the research, albeit under my supervision as what the ARC calls the Chief Investigator. The bulk of the funds under this Grant were to pay him a full-time salary. In addition funds were made available under the Grant to enable him to travel to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to investigate the fate of those asylum seekers who had been repatriated by the Commonwealth Government in recent years. The Grant was supported by six major Australian NGOs with an interest in the asylum seeker/refugee question. Under my guidance and close supervision, between 2003 and 2005, he undertook innovative, original and dangerous research of a kind never before conducted.

We worked under this Grant towards three separate outcomes – a general book-length politico-moral account of the question of refugee/asylum seeker repatriation; a book-length study on the fate of the repatriated asylum seekers, to be written by him following his research trip to Central Asia and the Middle East; and a public policy monograph on refugee/asylum seeker repatriation at the conclusion of the research. As all three tasks were essentially fulfilled within the three years, in addition we worked together on the most detailed study of the case of what might be called “repatriation in reverse”, the incarceration at the Baxter detention centre of the mentally-ill Australian resident, Cornelia Rau. For this part of our work, he and I travelled to the Baxter Detention Centre and to Glenside Hospital, the psychiatric institution in Adelaide where several mentally ill asylum seekers from Baxter Detention Centre were now inmates.

My letter to Higgins documented in detail the outcomes of the two Australian Research Council Grants the details of which the Australian had obtained under a Freedom of Information request. They had led, directly or indirectly, to the publication by me and my research associates, of five books or book-length studies, with one more still to be published next year; of one public policy monograph; of a 40,000 word online document collection; of several book chapters and academic journal articles; of very many influential newspaper and magazine articles in the Washington Post, the Monthly, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Courier Mail; and the participation of one of the research associates in an influential and prestigious television series. This is an outcome of which I am genuinely proud.

After Higgins’ call I spoke to my friend David McKnight who has just published a penetrating book on the politics of News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch: Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power (Allen & Unwin). He is presently the subject of a vendetta pursued by both the Australian and Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute on account of a five-year Grant he received in 2006 from the Australian Research Council, at the time under that well-known Bolshevik Minister, Julie Bishop. For every cent McKnight spent on this project an accounting has been made to the Australian Research Council. In the pursuit of McKnight, the involvement of Henderson on a question of public accountability is particularly ironic. The Sydney Institute receives very large amounts of money from several corporations and other vested interests. Henderson absolutely refuses to reveal the identity of his funders. In the past, before he decided to conceal his donors, we know that Henderson was funded generously by Larry Adler’s FAI Insurance. When the National Companies and Securities Commission conducted a raid on its offices, Henderson used his column in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age to launch a vitriolic attack on its Chairman, Henry Bosch.

When McKnight spoke with Higgins asking if he too had been the subject of a Freedom of Information request into his ARC Grant, Higgins admitted that indeed he had. Obviously embarrassed, Higgins tried to defend himself on the grounds that at the Australian he was merely at a low level on the “food chain”.

Self-evidently, the Australian was pursuing a vendetta against both of us – in my case because of the Quarterly Essay, “Bad News; Rupert Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation”; in McKnight’s case because of the publication of Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. In a country where the Murdoch press controls, according to two recent calculations, between 65% and 70% of the market for state-wide and national newspapers – a control over newspaper circulation and therefore an influence over national political opinion that the Finkelstein inquiry shows to be unprecedented throughout the Western world – anyone who has the temerity to offer a critique of the Murdoch Empire must be ready to be pursued by its national enforcers – the editors and go-to journalists at the Australian. For most people this is intimidating. This kind of intimidation is the reason powerful bullies so often succeed.

David McKnight and I are both academics and experienced journalists. McKnight wrote for years for the Sydney Morning Herald and worked for the ABC’s Four Corners. In my case, I have written hundreds of articles for both the Murdoch and Fairfax press since 1987. I informed Higgins that I intended to write on the matter of the latest vendetta the Australian was now pursuing against us. In my last email, I informed him that I was writing this piece not only for my blog but also for the Drum. As I intended to write about this matter, in my role as an investigative journalist, I asked Ean Higgins a number of questions to which I requested a written reply.

These were the questions: On what date was the Freedom of Information request concerning my ARC Grants submitted by the Australian? (I was trying to discover whether it was made after the publication of “Bad News”.) What was the reason for the request? (I wondered if they would try to disguise their obvious political motives.) As Higgins had informed me that other ARC Grant Freedom of Information requests had been submitted by the Australian, in addition I asked: How many requests have been submitted? What are the names of the academics and scholars being pursued by the Australian? What are the grounds for pursuit in these and not other hundreds of instances?

Not only did Higgins refuse to answer any of these questions. In his last email (March 5) he demanded new information: the details of all payments made to me as a result of the books, essays and articles I had written on the stolen generations and refugee matters between 2000 and 2012. On what ground, I now inquired, could he demand that I answer his questions – which I had already spent most of a day doing – but he refuse point-blank to answer mine?

I am still waiting for the Australian’s answers to my questions. Here however is my answer to Higgins’ second round. Most of the substantial pieces I wrote between 2000 and 2012 which were informed by my ARC research received no payment. As a result of the ARC Grants I received not one cent of additional salary. For those essays and articles where I received standard commercial rates, over twelve years I was paid about as much as a senior barrister is paid for a few days in court. Moreover the ARC has no rule that discourages those receiving Grants from publishing books or articles at standard commercial rates. Quite the contrary. It intends that, where appropriate, the research it funds will reach an audience beyond the closed circle of academia. Scores of excellent commercial books are published as a consequence of the receipt of ARC Grants. The nation is not poorer but richer as a result.

The Australian is of course not interested in the vast majority of the authors who receive grants from the ARC and publish commercial books – those who write for example on literature or military history or Australian nineteenth century gardens. It is exclusively interested in harassing those it regards as left-wing intellectuals and, a fortiori, the critics of the Murdoch Empire against which it wishes to use its vast resources and influence to intimidate and to wound and if possible to discredit. In cases like this, when one of its editors whistles, its well-trained team of attack dogs – Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Miranda Devine, Tim Blair et hoc genus emerge from their various kennels, teeth bared, snarling, moving in for the kill. This is the kind of culture that now prevails in the media corporation that dominates between 65% and 70% of the Australian newspaper market.

The Finkelstein inquiry into media ethics in contemporary Australia was sorely needed. This little incident underlines why.

It is time for fellow democrats in Australia to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Murdoch press in general and in particular to the bullying tactics of its most important general staff – Chris Mitchell’s editorial team at the Australian.

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David McKnight writes:  Last Friday I contacted the journalist Ean Higgins, and asked him whether the newspaper had done an FOI search on my research grant on News Corporation. Ean Higgins had told me that he 'assumed' that the paper had done an FOI search and added that he wanted to question me about my research grant the following week.  On the basis of this conversation I concluded that the Australian had done an FOI claim on my research grant as well as those of Robert Manne. I passed this on to Robert Manne who used this and let me check the article before publication. Today, after a request from me to clarify, the editor of the Australian has  said that his newspaper has not carried out an FOI claim on my research grant. I apologise for the misunderstanding. 

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