Tag Archives: Chris Feik

Robert Manne and the Australian

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.

Narkiness and trouble

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: selected writings 1970–2010 (Black Inc 2010)

I was looking forward to this book. Kate Jennings and I have a lot in common. We both hail from rural Australia, had diffident but dependable fathers, were skinny when young (she still is), did Arts at Sydney University in the 1960s. We both hate alcohol culture. We’ve both had people with Alzheimer’s in our lives. We were never part of the same set, but had friends in common. We met at least once, when one of those friends had us both to dinner, possibly with ill-conceived match-making intent. (I have only the vaguest memories of that meal, not much more than being pleasantly surprised to find that the formidable Kate was a country girl.) As I’ve mentioned before, I was there for her famous speech to a Vietnam Moratorium crowd on Sydney Uni’s front lawn in 1970, I also vividly recall her tremulous presence at Balmain Poetry Readings in the 70s. Both the front lawn speech and the poem I remember most clearly, ‘Couples‘ (‘couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or worse still, lack of ambition’), are included in this volume.

Apart from one essay, perhaps in The New Yorker, I didn’t read anything more of Kate’s writing until her 2002 novel about Alzheimer’s and Wall Street, Moral Hazard, her 2008 book about her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, and her recent essays in The Monthly, all of which I enjoyed. Trouble, a selection in lieu of memoir, looked like an opportunity to fill the gaps: how did the rage-filled, nervy radical feminist of the 70s become the consummately urbane, confident New Yorker?

If you’re looking for a review, stop reading now, because I gave up just after the halfway point. Jennings describes herself as prickly and graciously acknowledges that Chris Feik of The Monthly and Quarterly Essay ‘gently moderates [her] frequent immoderation’. But it wasn’t lack of moderation or prickliness that got me down. I diagnose at least a mild case of expat syndrome: I’ve grown older and regret my youthful foolishness, you’ve grown older and have mended your immoral ways, expats have grown older and think they were once foolish and immoral because of the immutable culture of their native land. The essays and interstitial pieces pour scorn on Australian feminists (so trapped in ‘theory’ and waffle), on Australian drunks (so representative of all Australians and so unregenerate), on Australian poets (so caught up in ‘infinitely ridiculous poetry wars’, and while she’s on the subject, one side of those wars is historically ignorant and engages in ‘appallingly damaging’ games of Chinese whispers) and, with no obvious sense of the irony, on the Australian proclivity to pour scorn (her word is derision).

She complains that an essay making sweeping statements about what’s wrong with Australian feminism was ignored (‘Clever tactic to silence criticism’), but since the essay names no names, quotes no quotes, and seems to be broadly ignorant of Australian socialist feminism, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women Behind Bars and lord knows how much else, I suspect the silence was embarrassed rather than clever.  She complains that her poem about Martin Johnston led to disapprobation being heaped on her, and that unnamed persons (a weaselly passive voice implies that it was the entire corpus of Australian poets) referred to her as the ‘execrable Jennings’, but an angry response shouldn’t have surprised her given that the poem virtually accuses unnamed people of taking ghoulish delight in Martin’s slow suicide by alcohol,  and if anyone used the phrase ‘execrable Jennings’ in public they managed to keep it hidden from Google. A former lover once threatened to sue her for a portrayal of him which she claims was a caricature that no ordinary readers would give a fig about identifying with any actual person. The story in question, included in this book, seemed to me a nasty piece of work that might as well have conte à clef as a subtitle: you don’t have to be a member of any in crowd to recognise Helen Garner (incidentally one of the people who don’t exist in Jennings’s version of Australian feminism). Poor Kate, always being misunderstood.

I could multiply examples of annoying moments:

The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud  combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a song popular in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy and I don’t give a damn.’

It may be nitpicking, but the song, as I remember it and confirmed by 30 seconds of research, goes like this:

We’re shameless hussies and we don’t give a damn
We’re loud, we’re raucous and we’re fighting for our rights
for our sex
and for fun
and we’ll win.

”Proud combativeness’? I would have thought the tone was more like  rowdy optimism. And KJ’s slip from plural to singular is surely indicative of something.

By the time I reached page 174 I realised the book wasn’t fun any more. On that page Jennings says a friend ‘complained that he had to keep backtracking to figure out what was going on’ in a detective novel she  is enthusiastic about, and I caught myself reading that as a sneer at her friend’s philistinism. Almost certainly it was nothing of the sort, but my cumulative annoyance had reached a level where I was reading with half my mind on the lookout for the next annoying thing. I even started cavilling at an occasional turn of phrase, and that had to be me not Kate, because she writes beautiful, concise prose. This book and I needed some space from each other. I may go back to it, but for now I’m going to read Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Sorry.