May 29, 2017

The standards that ‘Quadrant’ seeks to uphold

By Robert Manne
The standards that ‘Quadrant’ seeks to uphold
Roger Franklin’s comments on bombing the ABC Ultimo studio reflect a much deeper problem

On the morning following the Islamic State–inspired terror bombing in Manchester, and with the recent episode of Q&A fresh in his mind, Roger Franklin, the online editor of Quadrant, posted an article with the following words:

This morning, mere hours after Jones’ guests pocketed their ABC taxi vouchers and repaired to hotel rooms paid for by taxpayer dollars processed through the Sydney Writers Festival, mere children were torn to pieces on the other side of the world.

Life isn’t fair and death less so. Had there been a shred of justice, that blast would have detonated in an Ultimo TV studio. Unlike those young girls in Manchester, their lives snuffed out before they could begin, none of the panel’s likely casualties would have represented the slightest reduction in humanity’s intelligence, decency, empathy or honesty.

Franklin had taken particular exception to the physicist, Lawrence Krauss (whom he initially called Richard), who had pointed out that there was a greater chance of being killed in the US by a falling refrigerator than in a terrorist attack. Franklin described Krauss as a “smug stick insect and tireless self-promoter”, a “warmist shill”, a “loathsome creature” and a “filthy liar”. In one sentence, Franklin imagined Krauss’ final moments with particular relish. “Mind you, as Krauss felt his body being penetrated by the Prophet’s shrapnel, bolts and nails, those goitered eyes might in their last glimmering have caught a glimpse of vindication.”

This article delighted the News Corp columnist and blogger, Andrew Bolt. “Roger Franklin is magnificent in his anger at this Q & A sophistry.” Magnificent. Later, Bolt updated his comment. “My goodness. They took it seriously? They seriously believe someone will act on Franklin’s satire?” Later still, Bolt wrote, “I guess, on reflection, that Franklin should not have – satirically – said he wished the blast went off at Ultimo instead of Manchester. It is certainly not what I would have written.” Finally, all Bolt’s comments, like Franklin’s, were removed, Bolt “having lost the argument with himself”, as Guy Rundle nicely put it.

Franklin most likely assumes that the articles for Quadrant Online are read exclusively by the army of right-wing bigots who pass their time shouting comments on articles published by the Australian. This turned out to be mistaken. The managing director of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie, was very disturbed by what Franklin had written. Clearly she failed to see the (non-existent) satirical dimension in Franklin’s piece. Perhaps she was unaccustomed to the vicious tone that the right now characteristically deploys in its prosecution of the culture wars.

Guthrie alerted the federal police, assured the ABC staff at Ultimo that she had their safety in mind, and wrote an unusually tough letter to Quadrant calling for the removal of the article and for an apology. “To take issue with our programming and our content is one thing. But to express the wish that, if there were any justice in the world, the horrific terrorist bombing in Manchester would have taken place in the ABC’s Ultimo studio and killed those assembled is a new low in Australian public debate.” The minister of communications and the arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, was even blunter, describing the Franklin piece as “sick and unhinged”.

The response of Quadrant’s editor-in-chief, Keith Windschuttle, passed rapidly through three stages. When Nick O’Malley of the Sydney Morning Herald phoned Windschuttle, the conversation ended before he had a chance to ask a question. “You’re talking bullshit. Don’t call back.” At this time, Windschuttle either could not see anything wrong with Franklin’s article or hoped the incident would blow over without further fuss. Later, he appears to have intervened. The sentence that argued that if there was any justice in the world the Q&A studio ought to have been blown up was replaced by, “What if that blast had detonated in an Ultimo TV studio?” Still later, Windschuttle sent Guthrie a letter of apology, “I have instructed that the article and its comment should be withdrawn completely from our website. Even though I do not share all of the interpretations expressed in your letter, I accept your assurance about the offence it caused you and your staff. You have my unreserved apology for any concerns it might have given you.” Although Windschuttle acknowledged that the article was “intemperate” and “a serious error of judgment”, he apologised for the offence it had caused but not its content, and assured Guthrie that Franklin had been “counselled”. Apologising for causing “offence” and “counselling” offenders are courses of action that right-wing culture warriors usually greet with ribald humour.

In his letter to Guthrie on 24 May, Windschuttle argued that Franklin’s “intemperate wording falls considerably short of the standards Quadrant seeks to uphold”. This was also the opinion of one of Quadrant’s board members, Nick Cater, a former editor of the Australian, who appeared on ABC’s The Drum later that day. Normally, Cater lamented, he would have taken pride in his association with Quadrant. On this occasion he was “not quite as proud”. Since 1956 Quadrant had been a magazine of “great renown”, “highly respected” for its “intellectual rigour”. Quadrant’s online editor’s lurid imagining of mass murder at Ultimo and of the last thoughts of one of the Q&A panel members as his body was torn apart appeared to Cater, as it did to Windschuttle, a one-off aberration.

Even though I was the editor of Quadrant between 1990 and 1997, in recent years I have only very rarely read articles in the printed magazine (except for those concerning the stolen generations against whom it campaigned obsessively under the editorship of Windschuttle’s predecessor, Paddy McGuinness). I have almost never read its online extension that began publication in 2008. Until last week, even the name Roger Franklin meant nothing to me. After reading his article on the Manchester bombing, however, my interest was piqued. What were the lofty intellectual standards of Quadrant Online that Franklin’s most recent contribution had inexplicably and embarrassingly betrayed?

Franklin has conveniently collected all his contributions to Quadrant Online in a single archive. By the time I discovered it, his Manchester terror bombing article had already disappeared. I thus began my voyage of discovery with a piece Franklin had published on 20 May entitled, ‘An Autoerotic Exercise in Aboriginal Art’, an attack on both Fairfax and what he called “the dribble of adoring inanity with which [the Age] anoints Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie”. I gathered from this article that Franklin detests both “Fairfax” and contemporary art. Nothing unusual here. It was however another sentence that caught my attention. According to Franklin, Rennie’s “exercise in automotive onanism evokes the traditional art of the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay tribe, whose members would amuse themselves by sketching circular patterns in the dirt with sticks and other sharp bits of whatnot”. Apparently, undisguised contempt for the pre-invasion indigenous culture are consistent with the lofty intellectual standards of Quadrant under its present board and editorial team.

I read next an article called ‘Climate Clowns on Parade’, published on 20 April. This piece was an attack on the organisers and supporters of the march for science that had recently taken place in Sydney and other cities throughout the world. I learned from this article that Franklin thought he knew better than almost every relevant scientist and every learned scientific society, that concerns about climate change were what he called “alarmist nonsense”. Once again, there was nothing unusual here. One of the most startling facts about contemporary right-wing Anglophone political culture is the war that has been declared on one major branch of science. There was a time not long ago when Quadrant would have defended science against the deconstructionists in the humanities faculties of the Western university. Now it is in the vanguard of the anti-science movement. What was however unusual was Franklin’s attack on one of the march’s supporters – Julie McCrossin. To her many self-evidently laughable qualifications – “comedienne, look-at-me lesbian and former ABC compere” – Franklin included one that stopped me in my tracks: “cancer memoirist”. I googled and discovered that Julie McCrossin had recently been treated for a condition I unhappily understand too well – throat cancer – and had decided to speak in public about what she had gone through as a way of helping those similarly afflicted. Apparently, then, merriment at the expense of someone who has suffered from cancer and then written or talked about the experience is consistent with the rigorous intellectual standards upheld by Quadrant under its present board and editorial team.

I turned next to a Franklin article written on 10 March following the death of the man Franklin called “our greatest cartoonist”, Bill Leak. This involved praise for Leak and disdain for two members of the Human Rights Commission, who had fielded the complaint made against his cartoon depicting a drunken Aboriginal man who can’t recall the name of his son. The sanctification of Leak and demonisation of his critics was standard right-wing culture warrior stuff. Less standard was the extravagance of the language Franklin used about the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs (a former professor of international law), and its race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane (the son of Lao refugees, and a distinguished political philosopher). “Filtered truth and rank hypocrisy” were their “stock in trade”. They were without even an “ounce of decency”. From them “who could expect anything more than yet another twisted and mangled narrative of self-serving shlock”. Their “simplistic narrative of victimhood” and their “foul obfuscation” of a “grim truth” had helped only their “bank account and career”. They were indeed “low specimens”. Franklin had met Leak recently. He was “a touch grey and more than a little tired”. He spoke “with a certain weariness of the ordeal by lawfare and smear in which you, Ms Triggs and Mr Soutphommasane, quite deliberately and unjustly immersed him … Now he has been stopped, this giant of an Australian, his worth and his stature confirmed by the moral dwarfism of his persecutors”. By implication, they had killed him. Apparently this kind of incendiary language is consistent with the rigorous intellectual standards of Quadrant.

So apparently was an article that was highly amused that an accusation of child sexual abuse had been levelled against Cardinal George Pell by “a pair of convicted bash artists and substance abusers”. Or another that called Australia’s former Chief of Army, because he has had the temerity to oppose sexism in the military forces and society, “a martinet in command of the right sound bytes” with “the substance of a scarecrow – nothing but straw and mouse droppings dressed in the tired rags of others’ re-cycled rhetoric”. Or yet another that described Waleed Aly as someone for whom “there is no cliché or vapid truism that cannot be buffed into a faux profundity at a touch of those oh-so-reasonable, un-accented lips”, and whose wife, “Mrs Aly”, was “a Muslim convert who tented-up upon embracing Aly”. I read without surprise a description of an interview of Tim Flannery conducted by Tony Jones as “a lunatic fabulist being pleasured by a sycophant”, another concerning Yassmin Abdel-Magied who was described as “the fun face of Islam, the girl with the lampshade on her head”, and yet another that commented on Mark Scott’s “school-yard standards of dog-buggering levity”.

By now Franklin’s world view and prose style were becoming all too familiar – cascading hyperbolic wall-to-wall sneering at the currently conventional anti-political correctness targets: the ABC, especially Q&A, Fairfax, climate change warmists, the Human Rights Commission, Muslims, Waleed Aly, Tim Flannery, multiculturalism, anti-sexism, anti-racism, gay pride and so on. Finally after many such articles, I arrived at one involving an elaborate and incoherent fantasy, based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, concerning the supposedly misleading press reports of Gillian Triggs’ appearance before a Senate estimates committee. Recalling the fate of Kafka’s insect, “flicked into the garbage by the cleaning woman’s broom”, it offered the then Australian prime minister the following advice with regard to political journalists. “The purposelessly blind cockroaches of the Fourth Estate warrant not even that slim degree of consideration. So, Mr Abbott, if you have finally come to appreciate you will never get a fair hearing nor unbiased reporting, why not just step on them?” Why not indeed. The article was called, “The Exterminator Is Overdue”. For any conscientious reader of his Quadrant Online articles, Roger Franklin’s most recent fantasy – about a cleansing terror bombing of the ABC’s Ultimo studios – ought to have come as no surprise. He has good reason to feel betrayed by the suddenly scrupulous Keith Windschuttle and Nick Cater.

Quadrant Online embroiders its content with a quote from Tony Abbott. “This fabulous publication has done more than any other in this country to nurture the high culture of Western civilisation.” The thing that frightens me is that Quadrant’s current crop of editors and readers might actually believe this to be true.

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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