October 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Fierce creatures

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Terrifying and unpredictable, or benign and sweet-natured? Not to be trifled with, or a legitimate source of wonder? We can learn much from Steve Irwin's death about the behaviour of that strange, capricious, mysteriously abundant yet increasingly endangered species, the newspaper columnist.

In life, Irwin had always been good for a column or ten. In praising him, the columnist established demotic credentials, verifying their breadth of taste and sense of humour. In deploring him, one could assert independence of thought, imperviousness to fashion and contempt for John Howard - all in one delirious stroke. And any view on a larger-than-life figure, especially one who combined their childrearing and animal husbandry so idiosyncratically, is bound to find nodding agreement among some or other group of readers.

For columnists, however, nothing became Irwin so completely as the manner of his death: from it flowed opportunities to philosophise about conservatism and elitism, national character and national image, even our sunburnt country's beauties and terrors. Whether readers were any wiser about Irwin by the end is debatable; they were, perhaps, wiser about the columnists. It was Marx who famously remarked that people learning a new language habitually translate it back into the one they already know: it is a phenomenon much seen on the op-ed pages of Australian newspapers.

The chief protagonist of Joanna Murray-Smith's new play, The Female of the Species, is Margo Mason, famous for a long-ago feminist tract and now churning out unfelt provocations for an audience she holds in contempt. Any resemblance between her and Germaine Greer is purely intentional. Some theatregoers might have found the caricature crude, even mean-spirited - although perhaps less so after reading Greer's response to Irwin's death, written within hours of the news and published first in the Guardian and then in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Greer boldly challenged Irwin in his own domain, nature, disputing his conservationist's credentials: "There was no habitat ... that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle. Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress." Such cringing pantheism, of course, required ignoring Irwin's extensive efforts to acquire habitat precisely in order to preserve it, and his obviating the need for people to disturb nature by bringing it to them. But the veteran provocateur did lots of ignoring, for the real subject of the column was not Irwin but Greer.

This was the gospel according to St Germaine of Assisi: "Those of us who live with snakes, as I do with no fewer than 12 front-fanged venomous snake species in my bit of Queensland rainforest, know that they will get out of our way if we leave them a choice. Some snakes are described as aggressive, but, if you're a snake, unprovoked aggression doesn't make sense." If you asked where snakes came into this, you missed the point. Their purpose was to create a group to which Greer belonged - "those of us who live with snakes" - and from which the reader was excluded, thereby allowing unhindered pontification.

Nor was this bizarre anthropomorphism - ascribing logical faculties to snakes, dissuaded from unprovoked aggression not by instinct but by syllogistic reasoning - the last. There followed the assertion that "the animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin": the animal world, after all, is well known for its cycles of revenge. Greer probably chalked up Peter Brock's death four days later to a belated retaliation from viciously exploited hydrocarbons. Finally, Greer conjured the awful prospect that Irwin might have created "a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes too small" set on becoming "millionaire animal-loving zoo-owners". It takes a peculiar perversity to spit out the phrase "animal-loving zoo-owner" with the same contempt as one might enunciate "slum landlord" or "arms dealer".

Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun could twist a recipe for risotto into evidence of an intellectual fifth column; the fulminations of a "professional harpy" were no challenge. Indeed, they became a means to round up the usual suspects, having been published "in left-wing newspapers such as the Age and the Guardian". Bolt then elided correspondence rude about Irwin from the letters pages of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald with the remarks of likeminded ABC talkback callers to provide further confirmation of the trahison des clercs he sees everywhere: "You may see this simply as more proof that ideology - especially a left-wing one - has so hardened hearts as to exclude compassion." And if you'd read that far, you probably did.

The thrust, as so often, was "They hate you." "They" being those who read Fairfax newspapers and listen to the ABC: members of the "cultural class", who feel threatened by "blokes in workboots who shout ‘crikey'" and "cringe to think cultured foreigners might take them ... to be just like Irwin". This was boilerplate Bolt, leaping from letters page to morning radio, vaulting contradictions in a single bound - such as that Irwin's exhibitionism also irked conservatives (PP McGuiness wrote in support of Greer to Crikey), and that Irwin won lavish praise from Bob Brown and disciples (or, as Bolt calls them, "our new green believers, who insist man is Nature's slave"). Bolt is a skilful columnist who writes lean and muscular sentences in the tradition of William Connor, the Daily Mirror's deliciously vituperative "Cassandra". But such columnists are, in their way, as narcissistic as Greer: They might look down on you, dear reader; but I am on your side.

Once the extremes had been staked out, others could present themselves as voices of moderation. In case anyone thought him in the elite camp, John Birmingham, in the Australian, trashed Greer as a "childless former Celebrity Big Brother contestant", a "barking maddie", a "feral hag" and a "poorly sketched caricature of a harridan": "In one poisonous discharge of bile, Greer has condensed the ill feelings of a whole class of Australian sophisticates who found Irwin's cartoon imagery uncomfortable and even humiliating, given his global exposure." Mind you, the closest approximation to straw sophisticates that Birmingham could find were "three IT guys at a conference at my hotel", whom he heard dissing Irwin as a "cashed-up bogan". Nonetheless, our admiration for Irwin's stoicism was solicited: "Irwin was very much aware of the mixed feelings the inner urban elite had for him, but if it hurt his feelings, he never let it show."

By contrast, the Age's Tracee Hutchinson felt the biggest victim was Greer, put through the "modern equivalent to the witch-hunts of Salem", although the only witch-hunter named was Birmingham, for having the temerity to describe Greer as "childless": "I had thought better of him." Because Tracee is childless, too - and it's all about Tracee: "As a childless product of The Female Eunuch generation, Germaine Greer's influence on my life has been profound. The book predated me but its influence loomed large in the decisions women of my generation embraced. The women Helen Reddy told to roar. And we are, to a large extent, a terrifying entity. It is for this reason I have empathised and identified so strongly with the prevailing sentiment of what underscored Greer's perspective as it shone like a beacon of reassurance and likemindedness in an Australia - and a world - still dominated by an overwhelmingly male sensibility." A top-heavy way to describe a topsy-turvy world, where a man's death and a family's grief is of small account compared to the ordeal of being described as "childless".

For the Irwin family's grief was mentioned perfunctorily, if at all, amid this opining, the event being somehow less significant than the opportunity it afforded columnists to do their shtick, cultivate their persona, or simply emote. The impression was that the death was squeezed into already half-written columns, clichés hurtling into position, to borrow George Orwell's phrase, like iron filings to a magnet. The frenzy was understandable: with the increasing fragmentation of mass culture and the ever-growing ranks of opinionistas, grist for the commentary mill is spread ever more thinly. But the commentary on Irwin's death might almost have been that of a species in crisis.

It may seem counter-intuitive to describe columnists as endangered: every modern newspaper seems to pullulate with opinion. But nothing appeared on op-ed pages in the aftermath of Irwin's death that could not have been bashed out by fair-to-middling bloggers with a grudge or two. And, nowadays, comment is so cheap, plentiful and diverse that newspapers are being priced out of the very market they helped foster - indeed, by themselves propagating blogs, ostensibly to democratise comment but actually because it represents cheap content, they contribute to its decline. Maybe newspapers should be concentrating on what the online world as yet lacks the concentration of resources to deliver ... that thing, y'know, they used to do ... what was it, again? ... ah yes, journalism. It's so crazy it might just work.

Whatever the case, changes are in the offing. The online philosopher-king Glenn Reynolds observes: "Those who have lived within the comfortable big-media cocoon have done so not because they possess unusual talents, but because they have had access to the tools for disseminating news and opinion, tools that were until recently so expensive that only a favoured few could use them." Are the Punch and Judy antics on our op-ed pages symptomatic of anxiety? After all, stingrays aren't the only creatures that attack when they feel threatened.

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