October 5, 2011

The Australian newspaper

Out of Control: More Bad News

By Robert Manne
Out of Control: More Bad News

Before my Quarterly Essay on the Australian was published there was some discussion about what it should be called. Before “Bad News” my preference was for “Out of Control”. A brief account of how the Australian has responded to my critique will explain why.

The best way to capture the mad quality – and indeed quantity – of the Australian’s response to “Bad News” is by providing a diary of the articles, editorials, blogs, letters to the editor, ‘Cut & Paste’ items and the one cartoon that the Australian has published over the past month. If the response seems fantastical to those who do not read the Australian I promise that what follows is not satire.

September 3. “Bad News” is published. Extracts have already appeared in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Cut & Paste’ suggests how Fairfax might have marketed the extracts: “The paper employs many of the best journalists in the country … a truly outstanding newspaper.” This is in fact a misquotation. The passage in question reads: “the Australian employs many of the best journalists in the country. I will not name them for fear of doing them harm. It only requires a different editor-in-chief and owner for it to become a truly outstanding newspaper.”

September 4 – September 9. The Australian is silent. I am beginning to wonder if its restraint will help undermine the thesis of the essay.

September 10. The silence (sort of) breaks. ‘Cut & Paste’ is devoted to the essay. Clive Hamilton in Crikey is quoted on the Australian’s “eerie silence”; Adam Brereton in New Matilda on my dull prose and foolish thesis; Tim Dunlop in the Drum on my “hopelessly inadequate” conclusion about replacing Mitchell and Murdoch (which was in fact tongue in cheek); and Gerard Henderson in Media Watch Dog who has argued that the contents of the latest edition of ALR disproves the claim about the neo-conservatism of the Australian’s foreign policy during the past ten years

September 14. Paul Kelly writes a critique of the essay in the Australian of almost 2,000 words. It ranges widely but at its centre is the claim that I am a pompous moralist who desires to censor necessary national debate – on climate change, genocide in Australia and the vital national issue of Larissa Behrendt’s bad joke tweet. Given that I have long been a public admirer of Kelly’s political histories, Kelly’s fury comes as a surprise.  Kelly and I are due to debate “Bad News” at the Wheeler Centre in a week or so. The occasion now seems certain to be very tense. Apart from Kelly, ‘Cut & Paste’ quotes from the essay where I argue that even those who loathe the Australian recognise it cannot be ignored.

September 15. Paul Kelly’s critique becomes the ‘Talking Point’ of letters to the editor. John Kidd argues that my “intellectual arrogance” is “breathtaking”. For “top people” The Australian is a “must read”. John McCarthy advises Kelly, Mitchell and Murdoch to “relax”. It is not only the Australian that I don’t like. It is also the Australian people and their “mores”. Tom Biegler tells us he is “trying to suppress” his “indignation” after having read Kelly. It is clear that he has failed. He has been truly “insulted”. Marc Hendrick dismisses my “flim flam” criticism which he thinks fits me for the role of “grand media commissar”. George Bennett thinks my essay will contribute to the “unnecessary media inquiry”. What is remarkable about these letters is that it is clear none of the authors has actually read the essay. Such are the intellectual standards at the Australian. Bennett even refers to it as my “Quadrant essay”. Perhaps the letters editor has had a late night. ‘Cut & Paste’ is also full of “Bad News”. Margaret Simons, one of the leading media analysts in the country, is described as a “former gardening correspondent”. A snatch of a public conversation at Byron Bay with the editor of the Weekend Australian, Nick Cater, is published in which I explain my decision not to give the Australian “legitimacy” by writing for it. What I mean is that I have no desire to be wheeled out as an alibi every time the Australian is justly criticised for being so right-wing. The Australian calculates that the comment will infuriate its readers.

September 16. Three more letters. For the first time one letter is on my side. I complete a blog called “Deconstructing Paul Kelly

September 17. As promised/threatened, two pages of ‘Inquirer’ are devoted to the attempted demolition of “Bad News”. At the end of reading them all I am relieved. The only error discovered in the essay is that in one case I got the name of a journalist wrong. Greg Sheridan (934 words) and Graham Lloyd (1238 words) claim that I misrepresent the evidence. In both cases the example they concentrate on proves precisely the opposite. Lloyd on climate change is particularly inept. Sheridan, affecting a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, is particularly vicious. Mitchell (3028 words) is full of simple factual errors and politico-psychological misunderstandings. Stutchbury (937 words) mainly disputes the role of the Rudd Government’s economic stimulus. Culture warrior Chris Kenny (1121 words) is all over the shop. He maintains that the Iraq invasion is arguably a success. Nicholas Rothwell’s heart  (1282 words) seems not to be in the task. He does not mention “Bad News”. In addition to the 8,000 or so words in ‘Inquirer’ there is a hostile but more thoughtful 3,000-word blog from a postgraduate student, Matthew Lamb. There is also an editorial. It claims that the Australian was offered extracts of “Bad News” and that in “bad faith” I reneged on the deal. This is an outright lie. I have never forgotten how the paper used the extract rights to the Latham Diary it had bought to try to destroy Mark Latham. In addition to these 11,000 words there are several more hostile letters to the editor. Three concentrate on the ‘Cut & Paste’ item of two days before. A bitter old enemy from my Quadrant days, Hal G P Colebatch, hinting at my supposed grandiosity or perhaps narcissism, asks why I think my opinions matter to anyone but myself. Bill Leak contributes a cartoon. It shows me sitting on a toilet reading the Australian, shitting.

September 18. I email Nick Cater with whom I have always had a courteous relationship: “I assume I have a right of reply in next Saturday’s Oz. If my assumption is correct, could you let me know how many words I have?” Later in the day I receive a discourteous response. In part it read: “You told me publicly last month that you would not “legitimize” the Australian by allowing us to publish your work…My advice would be to submit a letter to the editor…” I am astonished. I follow this advice with a very brief letter pointing out that I had been refused a right of reply to what by then has amounted to about 12,000 words of attack on “Bad News” in the Australian. The brief letter is published next day. David McKnight emails me. He has offered an op-ed to the Australian. Nick Cater rejects it with the following words: “It’s correspondence closed as far as oped is concerned. I think we’ve tried our readers’ patience enough.” David replies: “Some may think it a little hypocritical since one of your accusations against Manne was that he wanted to close down debate.” Again I am astonished. Not only have I no right of reply. Cater has put in writing that no op-ed column defending me will be published. As the divisions of the culture war deepen, it seems that the conventions that once governed public discourse are abandoned or forgotten. I discover through one or two inquiries that even some small-l liberals with an interest in the media are not shocked by the illiberal behaviour of the Australian.

September 19. The Australian publishes a series of letters to the editor the like of which I have never before seen. The lead letter is by an ageing Cold Warrior, Peter Kelly. He is the man who sold the nonsensical story about Manning Clark’s Order of Lenin medal to Chris Mitchell when he was editor-in-chief at the Courier-Mail. Kelly argues that I had three mentors – Frank Knopfelmacher, Bob Santamaria and Hugo Wolfsohn. Santamaria was never a mentor although I admired him until his death. Wolfsohn and I were never even friendly. Kelly concludes his letter with these words: “Knopfelmacher once said to me on the phone. ‘Manne will betray us all.’ Had Mitchell known of these prophetic words, he would not have originally believed that Manne was interested in truth”.  Another letter from L.J.O’Donoghue concludes: “Clearly, given the rampant narcissism evident in the work, the professor must have dictated it to a stenographer. He wouldn’t have had a free hand to write anything.”  A third letter by Ralph Hoskin argues: “The Oz has conducted a well-orchestrated campaign, in its own defence, against Robert Manne. This has demolished his credibility and implied doubts about his sanity.” I wonder idly whether it is lawful for a paper to label someone a natural betrayer, a masturbatory narcissist, and also, most probably, insane. I am aware that the Professor of Astrophysics, Michael Ashley; the Professor of Law, Martin Krygier; the Professor of Public Ethics, Clive Hamilton, and the authors, James Boyce and Mark Aarons, have all written letters defending me. None has been published, although Martin’s will eventually be published online.

September 20. Three more hostile letters are published. Paul Clancy argues: “I know it’s poor form to enjoy another’s discomfort, but your hanging and quartering of pompous Robert Manne in the Weekend Australian was delicious. His quartering by the editor-in-chief was just ambrosial.”  The news arrives that without explanation Paul Kelly has withdrawn from the debate at the Wheeler Centre. The Australian declines to nominate a replacement. Guy Rundle suggests that Max Gillies read Paul Kelly’s op-ed instead. I decide to write a long letter to John Hartigan, Chairman and Chief Executive of News Limited. I make it clear that I am not complaining about the volume of criticism that has descended upon me. I am however complaining about the fact that the paper will not publish letters or opinion columns in my defence. More importantly, I am complaining that I have been offered no right of reply. If I am denied a right of reply I will take the case to the Press Council.

September 21. The Australian publishes a ‘Cut & Paste’ item. It juxtaposes general comments of mine originally published in 2006 on the impact of climate change, which included comments on Greenland, with a contemporary controversy over the extent of melting of the Greenland ice-sheet. It is typical of the paper’s mendacity. Despite the op-ed page being closed because readers’ patience had supposedly been exhausted, another opinion column on “Bad News” is published, this time by Janet Albrechtsen.  

September 22. Parallel negotiations are taking place. Nick Cater has acknowledged error in the Australian’s editorial. The editor of the Quarterly Essay, Chris Feik, sends a letter for publication. Eventually the negotiations over it break down. Chris Feik is informed that instead the paper will publish a “clarification”. A reply to my letter to Hartigan arrives, ostensibly written by the Corporate Affairs Manager at News Limited, Greg Baxter. It is four tight pages in length. The letter explains that Clive Hamilton will not be published because of his behaviour during earlier dealings with Chris Mitchell. It explains that David McKnight will not be published because Chris Mitchell does not hold him in high regard. It claims that my essay had not reached the ethical standards required to warrant a right of reply and that as a consequence I had “abdicated” all my rights. In a final non sequitur, however, the letter suggests that if I contact Mitchell I will in fact be offered a right of reply, so long as my reply reaches the industry’s “best standards”. I email Baxter asking if I might publish his curious letter on my blog. He refuses permission. An email arrives from Cater. Have I agreed to exercise my right of reply? An email soon after arrives from Mitchell; it is 2.00 pm. Am I going to reply? I have 1,000 words. Can I have my piece in by 6.00 pm that day for next Saturday’s paper?  I email back. I regard 1,000 words as unfair and inadequate but I am happy to wait until the following Saturday for publication.

September 23. The Australian publishes its “clarification”. It argues that it had previously “implied” that the paper had been offered extracts and concedes that the implication was wrong. Even that is untrue. The editorial in question argued that the Australian had been “assured the paper would be offered extracts”. The claim was not implied. It was stated as a fact.

September 24. Has the tide turned? A fair review of “Bad News” by Matthew Ricketson is published. He concludes: “I found the essay persuasive overall but don’t take my word for it. Read it and make up your own mind.”

September 29. A brief lull ends. Last night I spoke with David Marr at Gleebooks. To my astonishment, Jared Owens reports on the meeting: “Newspapers should refrain from publishing the opinions of average Australians, reporting only the views of a “core” of experts in key debates, academic Robert Manne has said.” This is not something I said. This is not something I even remotely believe. Several people who were at the meeting make contact expressing their astonishment at the blatantly false report. At once however the report enters the blogosphere. There are scores of references to my viciously elitist views. No matter what I now do the mischief is permanent. Once more, ‘Cut & Paste’ is devoted to “Bad News”. Moss Cass is lampooned for writing favourably about the essay. It is pointed out that in the only review of “Bad News” on Amazon.com I have been likened to a member of the Spanish Inquisition.

September 30. Owens’ false report has encouraged three more abusive letters. All suggest that I am “elitist and undemocratic”.

October 1. My right of reply is published alongside yet another column attacking “Bad News”, this time by Peter Van Onselen. He claims that I did not approach my subject with an open mind as a genuine academic should. Does he not realise I have been reading the Australian closely for the past three decades or more? My brief letter in response to Owens is published. But a critical sentence – “Several of those who attended the Gleebooks event have contacted me to express their shock at the misrepresentation – has been excised. In the Weekend Australian’s editorial it is stated baldly: “Unlike Robert Manne, we do not believe that informed, intelligent commentary should be banned from any debate simply because it does not come from experts in the field.”  By now the idea that I am an elitist enemy of free speech has become part of right-wing folk wisdom.

October 3. Four more hostile letters and a hostile ‘Cut & Paste’ item are published. David Straface argues that: “The Australian continually humiliates Robert Manne by publishing his opinions. This is the real reason the Left despises free speech.”  I decide for amusement to take a count. In a month the Australian has published thirty-three letters. Two were friendly. Thirty-one were either hostile or viciously abusive. In a month, the Australian has published about 25,000 words on “Bad News”. Apart from the two short letters and the right of reply I was granted only because I made it clear I intended to take the case to the Press Council, the only reasonably friendly piece published by the Australian was the review published by Matthew Ricketson.

There is, in my view, no other serious newspaper in the English-speaking world that would have responded in the mad, obsessive way the Australian has responded to the publication of “Bad News”. It is as if the paper has been determined to prove my thesis true, namely that it is not only the principal enforcer in this country of the core values of the Murdoch empire – market fundamentalism and American global hegemony – but also that it is now so boastful and bullying in character that it cannot rest until it feels that those who have dared to criticise it have been crushed. In addition, the response has confirmed another hypothesis of the essay: the paper’s cult-like character. The manic response of the Australian to “Bad News” makes it clear that even its most senior journalists cannot bring themselves to tell its editor-in-chief that his behaviour is not only doing harm to his personal reputation but is helping to destroy the credibility of their paper in the eyes of the observing, discerning public. 

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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