Robert Manne, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation (Quarterly Essay N0 43, 2011)
These days I keep up with the Murdoch commentariat mainly at second hand, most regularly by way of the delightfully caustic Loon Pond, where someone identifying as lapsed Catholic ‘Dorothy Parker’ from Tamworth holds a satiric mirror up to their venomous name-calling, impassioned defence of the rich and powerful, and self-serving illogic.
I guess everyone knows what kind of beast the Australian is, though it’s striking how reluctant people are to say so in public. On the Book Show just last week, for example, someone said that it was perceived ‘rightly or wrongly’ to be right wing, and Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief, describes it as centre right. Robert Manne’s essay grasps that nettle and at the same time demonstrates that people have good reason to be cautious in calling a spade a spade in this matter. He has done a careful analysis of a number of case histories: its impassioned promotion of Keith Windschuttle, an amateurish historian with an agenda, to a major player in Australian culture wars; its unremitting support for the invasion of Iraq, and complete failure to acknowledge having got so much wrong; the bullying of Media Watch and the ABC until Australia’s only major non-commercial source of news and opinion was running scared; the bizarre attack on science and reason in its coverage of climate change; its elevation of itself to key political player in first supporting and then campaigning against Kevin Rudd; and, most appallingly of all, its sustained attacks on individual tweeters, one for correctly reporting a negative public comment from a former Australian employee, the other for what was manifestly a joke that would have been cleared up by a simple apology if the Australian hadn’t made it the subject of no fewer than five front page stories.
I had to stop reading every now and then to go out and get some fresh air.
This wouldn’t matter so much in, say, the Green Left Weekly, though I doubt of the GLW would ever be so vicious in attacking someone who wasn’t a high-profile millionaire. But Rupert Murdoch controls a huge percentage of the Australian print media, and the Australian is his heftiest newspaper. I learned in this essay that at some press conferences in Canberra more than half the journalists are from the Australian, that the members of what Robert Manne calls the political class read it without fail, that it is influential out of all proportion to its actual circulation.
People who depend on the Australian for their national and international news in print (and it is after all the only major national newspaper we have) need to read this essay. As always, Manne’s writing is lucid, his tone judicious even at his most combative – and he does get combative. I believe there have been no fewer than eight vigorous replies in the newspaper. I read only one, and if the others distort Manne’s arguments as blatantly as that, it’s all the more important that readers of the Australian read the actual essay.
Strikingly, one line of attack has been to say that Manne is arguing for censorship, for closing down debate. Yet Paul Kelly, the Australian’s editor-at-large, pulled out of a scheduled debate at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last week, and no one from the Australian could be found to stand in for him. So actor Max Gillies read the bulk of Kelly’s published response. You can see the Slow TV of the ‘debate’ here. You can read Manne’s ‘deconstruction’ Kelly’s published response on Manne’s blog, here. I have no idea why Kelly and the rest declined a debate, but if my arguments had been taken apart so very deftly I would probably remember a previous engagement too. All the same, it’s a bit rich to accuse someone of wanting to shut down debate and then refuse to engage in a debate with them outside the protective confines of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship. Even more striking is the Australian‘s report on the Australian‘s no-show – at this point I weaken and give you a link: the journalist seems to be suggesting either that this was an excellent prank on the part of Kelly and Co, or that it would have been completely unreasonable to expect Kelly and/or others to actually face the big bully, who threatened to use reason at them.
This must be the most vigorously discussed Quarterly Essay yet. I wonder what editor Chris Feik will do for the correspondence section in the next issue. I imagine he will need to allow some space for the Australian‘s apologists (though they may well decide to ignore that opportunity as well). I hope he will also find space for comment along the lines of Tad Tietze post on the Overland blog, which while appreciating Manne’s careful accumulation of evidence, goes on to offer interesting observations from a left perspective.