September 17, 2011

The Australian newspaper

Deconstructing Paul Kelly

By Robert Manne
Deconstructing Paul Kelly

Update: Since writing this, Paul Kelly has pulled out of the debate at the Wheeler Centre. The event is still going ahead.


On September 14 Paul Kelly wrote the first considered response from a journalist at the Australian to my Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’. The carelessness revealed was genuinely surprising. This can only be demonstrated by a reasonably detailed critique.

The central general claim of Kelly’s piece is stated early: “[T]he startling feature is Manne’s fixation on repressing stories and debates he doesn’t like. He is a moralistic political censor.” The two key instances, where I have revealed my moralistic censorious nature, are in my discussions of the Australian’s handling of the climate change debate and its role in what is called in 'Bad News' “the making of Keith Windschuttle”.

In a very obvious way the Kelly accusation is rather strange. Unlike most academics in Australia and elsewhere, I have participated vigorously in public debate throughout my career. From 1988 until 2005 I wrote regular columns in several newspapers, including in the Australian when Paul Kelly was editor. Between 1990 and 1997 I was the editor of Quadrant. Ironically during that time I was criticised by the Right for the breadth of the debate I encouraged over the economy and indigenous affairs. The fact that I had strong views on many matters did not mean that I refused to publish certain views on the Right – from John Stone on the economy or Ron Brunton on indigenous affairs – with which I disagreed.

However even if my involvement in debate was a cunning subterfuge and all the while I harboured a secret wish to close down national debate, how does Kelly imagine that I think I might be able to implement my dark desire? As editor-in-chief of the Australian, Chris Mitchell has millions of words at his disposal to do with whatever he wants. Paul Kelly has open access to speak his mind in the Australian and elsewhere. Not only have I no capacity to silence people such as Mitchell or Kelly. I have never expressed the slightest desire to do so.

If Paul Kelly had read 'Bad News' carefully he would have seen that on the question of the regulation of bias or opinion I explicitly say: “In Australia, newspapers are regulated by the laws against defamation and racial hatred and the complaints processes available to citizens and corporations through action before the Press Council. I cannot imagine and most likely would not support any additional legal or quasi-legal means for the monitoring or the punishment of press bias.” In regard to the problem of bias or what seems to me wrongheaded opinion the only weapon I have at my disposal, or indeed wish to have, is criticism, which is what I made use of in 'Bad News'. To confuse tough criticism with a desire to censor or to close down debate, as Paul Kelly does, represents deep intellectual confusion.

However to say that that one believes in the vital importance of debate to national life does not entail the view that all questions ought to be open for debate. Editing a journal or a newspaper involves making judgments about what is worth discussing and debating and what is not. If Paul Kelly was once more editor of the Australian would he publish articles advocating rape or suggesting that the Earth was flat?  Would he publish an article which praised Hitler as a humanist or which claimed that Charles Darwin was a charlatan? It is easy to think of hundreds of similar examples. Some opinions are worthless. Some are self-evidently wicked. Of course some cases are more complex than the examples I have selected. Does Kelly really think that someone who thinks articles expressing opinions of the kind just mentioned ought not to be published is acting as a censor who wishes to stifle debate?

This brings us to Kelly and the question of the Australian and climate change. In 'Bad News' I criticised the Australian for publishing scores of articles by contrarian scientists who denied the consensual core of climate science accepted by, for example, every relevant scientific association in the United States. I also criticised it for publishing an even larger number of articles by laypeople who stridently denied the consensual core of the climate scientists but who had not passed even a first year exam in one of the relevant scientific disciplines. In publishing such articles the Australian, I argued, had waged war on science and reason and helped create general public confusion on what many regard as the most important question of the coming decades.

The essay was based on a series of simple, clear distinctions. The first was the distinction between the consensual core of climate science and the many questions where there is ongoing scientific debate. The second was the distinction between those who are qualified to contribute to the ongoing scientific debates and those without scientific understanding who have little option but to accept the authority of those with genuine knowledge. The third was the distinction between those questions concerning which rational laypeople have no alternative but to rely on the view of the climate scientists and those questions – how nations ought to respond to what the scientists are telling them – where it is not only right but also vital that citizens engage in vigorous political debate.

In his article in the Australian, to my considerable surprise, Paul Kelly seems not to have grasped distinctions as clearly stated and as straightforward as these. He begins by paraphrasing my case about the inevitability of our reliance in this area on those with expertise. “[Manne] says we have no option but to rely on experts”. He does not agree. He obviously does not accept my proposition that it is absurd for laypeople to engage in a debate about an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated area of knowledge of which they are entirely ignorant. Perhaps he would favour a debate between himself and me next Wednesday at the Wheeler Centre on some of the finer points of climate science.  

In addition, Kelly seems to think that there is no way of knowing who is an expert in the field of climate science. As he asks: “Who decides who is an expert and who is not?” In asking this question, Kelly somehow fails to recognise that in a hundred fields we have successfully made decisions of this kind. Contemporary societies have no difficulty in deciding that there are indeed experts in law, medicine, architecture or engineering. They have no difficulty in finding a way of deciding who they are. If someone develops a cancer they go to a qualified oncologist. If a country decides to build a bridge it relies on the expertise of qualified engineers. We do not wonder if there are indeed experts in treating cancer or building bridges or if there is any way to decide who they might be. Climate science is no different. In 'Bad News' I suggest that in general those who can be regarded as experts in the field of climate science are those who have received postgraduate training in one of the relevant disciplines and who have published in one or other of the relevant peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Yet Kelly’s misrepresentation of my position goes even further than all this suggests. In 'Bad News' I was at pains to distinguish between the scientific questions about global warming where debate between laypeople is absurd and those political questions where vigorous debate between laypeople is vital. In his article Kelly claims that I have argued that there should be no debate of any kind about climate change and that his “paper’s offence” was “its refusal to shut down debate”. This is an extraordinary assertion designed to deceive. In my argument the Australian’s “offence” was in part its failure to accept the conclusions of consensual climate science and in part its failure to acknowledge or to see what laypeople can rationally debate and what they cannot.  Either Kelly cannot follow simple logic or he has misled his readers.

Let us examine Kelly’s second example. 'Bad News' argues that the Australian was critical in the process of “the making of Keith Windschuttle”, the historian who, in the first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, characterised the British settlement in Tasmania – responsible for the destruction of indigenous society in the space of thirty years – as among the most gentle in the history of the British Empire. He characterised the Aboriginal people who fought for their lands and way of life as common criminals and as agents of their own demise.

In 'Bad News' I argued that there were two main reasons to deplore the role played by the Australian in the making of Windschuttle, something, incidentally, that Kelly does not deny. Windschuttle is undoubtedly the most reactionary Australian historian since the 1960s whose work threatens to revive the oldest and most lamentable Australian attitudes regarding the indigenous dispossession: moral indifference and racial denigration. He is also a very bad historian. His claim, for example, that it is “clear” that only 120 indigenous Tasmanians were killed is based on two entirely ridiculous assumptions—that no Tasmanian Aborigine died of wounds and that for every indigenous death there exists an extant documentary record.

Kelly claims that my criticism of the Australian for the making of Keith Windschuttle is based on my belief that it is improper to even contest the idea that genocide was at the heart of the founding of Tasmania and the other Australian colonies. According to Kelly, genocide is and ought to be a highly contested notion.  “[T]here is no justification whatsoever for Manne’s effort to remove it from debate”.  Kelly’s argument is a complete distortion of the argument advanced about Windschuttle in 'Bad News'.  Having pointed out that prior to Windschuttle the idea of genocide in Tasmania was conventional wisdom in both Australia and beyond, I continue: “Oddly enough, the conventional idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines had been the victims of a successful genocide was resisted by two of the scholars Windschuttle had most firmly in his sights. In her The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan claimed that the “conscious policy of genocide” had failed. Quite differently, in his An Indelible Stain?, Henry Reynolds argued that in Tasmania there had been no British government policy of genocide.” The point I am making is of course not that the question of whether or not there was genocide in Tasmania is beyond debate. It is obviously a matter for debate. Reynolds, for example, mounts a powerful case. My argument is, rather, that Windschuttle’s central accusation about the way in which left-wing historians use arguments about genocide to slander Australia is not only an inaccurate generalisation. It is completely misplaced even with regard to the two historians whose reputation he most wants to destroy. Once more, is Kelly really incapable of following an argument as straightforward as this?

Very few works of history enter national conversation. I am critical of the Australian not because I want to close down debate about genocide or anything else but because I regard the decision to foster a national debate about a book like Fabrication – deeply flawed on many different levels – as an ideologically determined failure of judgment of an extremely consequential kind.     

In his article Kelly argues that while I claim that Rupert Murdoch demanded from all his newspapers that they support the invasion of Iraq, I fail to account for the fact that over climate change Murdoch’s views did not prevail in his media empire. “On the Iraq war, for instance”, Kelly argues, “Murdoch is depicted as a global tyrant demanding all his papers back the war. On climate change, however, Manne attacks Mitchell for not following Murdoch’s position of ‘giving the planet the benefit of the doubt’…” There are two problems here. Firstly, Kelly seems to be denying the blindingly obvious fact that Murdoch did indeed oblige all his papers to toe the Iraq line. Does Kelly think all 175 newspapers of the Murdoch global empire arrived independently at the decision to back the Iraq invasion? Secondly, in this passage Kelly claims to have identified a contradiction in the argument of 'Bad News' of which, he implies, I am unaware. This is quite false. As I argue in 'Bad News': “In Tokyo, in November 2006, Rupert Murdoch announced his conversion to the cause of action over climate change… Unlike over the invasion of Iraq, however, on this occasion the emperor’s words did not bind the empire. In the United States, Fox News is the driving force of climate change denialism. Nor, despite its token agreement, did they influence the behaviour of Murdoch’s most important newspaper in Australia.” Not only is there no contradiction in my argument. The discrepancy between Murdoch’s dominance over Iraq and his leniency over climate change is a paradox or a problem to which I explicitly draw attention in 'Bad News'. Once more, why does Kelly misrepresent to his readers my plain words?

Kelly claims that most of 'Bad News' is based on editorials. It is true that because the Australian is a campaigning newspaper with a domineering editor who dictates daily the paper’s ideological line, editorials play a more important role in an understanding the Australian than would be the case with any other paper in the country. When, for example, I interviewed the current editor, Clive Mathiesen, he told me that when he was away from the office the first thing he read was the editorial. I was not surprised. In addition, because of claims made by Mitchell – namely that no matter what was contained in features and opinion pieces, the Australian’s editorials consistently supported the conclusions of climate science – an analysis of several years of editorials is necessarily at the heart of one of the key questions of 'Bad News', the controversy over the Australian and climate change. In many sections of 'Bad News', however – Windschuttle; Media Watch; the defamation action against Julie Posetti; the character assassination of Larissa Behrendt; the paper’s war against the Greens – editorials play only a minor or secondary role.

Finally, Paul Kelly is annoyed that I only referred directly to the interview with Mitchell and him on seven or eight occasions and even then only sometimes for the purpose of recording their rebuttal. This obscures the difference between a newspaper article and something of almost book length. Kelly should understand the difference. I can promise him that I listened carefully to things said to me by all the senior journalists at the Australian and that I learnt a great deal, especially about the cult-like atmosphere of the paper’s inner circle. I anticipated that many would be invited to express their disagreements with my analysis in the pages of the Australian when 'Bad News' was published. To put it mildly, my anticipation has not been disappointed.



On September 17 the Australian published, in addition to the earlier piece by Kelly, six long articles (including one by Mitchell of more than 3000 words), a lengthy blog, an editorial and a Bill Leak cartoon. In due course I trust I will be offered a reply of reasonable length. There is however something in the editorial that needs to be corrected immediately before it becomes part of the conservative attack dogs’ mythology (not that many of them are especially interested in the truth). On May 31 this year I sent an email to Chris Mitchell requesting an interview with him. He responded within two hours agreeing to the request. On June 1 Mitchell wrote: “[W]ould I be right to assume your piece was sold to Fairfax even before you approached me? If not, can The Australian bid for the rights to it?” I replied: “The question you raise of extract rights to the Essay is months away and will be handled not by me but by the publicist at Black Inc.”

Following this exchange I turned my mind to the question of extracts. Having seen how Mitchell used his extract rights to Mark Latham’s Diary I was determined that there would be no offer to the Australian. At my insistence when I went to Sydney on June 15 I was accompanied by the proprietor of Black Inc., Morry Schwartz, as my witness. The question of extract rights was not discussed, as Morry will attest. Imagine my surprise, then, when the editorial of September 17 claimed that at the meeting “Mitchell and editor-at-large were assured the newspaper would be offered extracts. That we were not suggests a lack of good faith…”  This is simply untrue. Given that Mitchell regards my writing as “crap” – strange really as I have had an open offer since February 2009 to contribute to his paper – my instinct about how he would use his right to extracts of 'Bad News' to damage the essay was obviously entirely justified.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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