QUARTERLY ESSAY 43 Bad News

 

Correspondence

Nick Cater

Given the tone of Robert Manne’s recent interventions in the national debate, his study of the Australian was unlikely to have been entirely complimentary. Nevertheless, the newspaper cooperated in the hope that Manne might return to his earlier, more scholarly style and deliver a fair and honest assessment of the masthead he anoints as the country’s most important.

It is clear from his Quarterly Essay, however, that guilt had been predetermined: a crime had been committed, Chris Mitchell’s fingerprints were all over it, and the hours of transcribed interviews Manne conducted with the Australian’s senior staff could best be described as “helping police with their inquiries.” Transparency is a wonderful thing, but opacity is cheaper, and if your appraiser has his mind made up, you’re going down anyway.

For thirty years or more, Manne has distinguished himself through his rare determination to exercise his intellect in the town square. There is no sign he intends to relinquish his position as public intellectual, but with this essay his thinking has retreated further into the cloisters. He has become ever more abstract, aloof and contemptuous of his interlocutors. I mean no disrespect by suggesting that Manne needs to get out more.

To give credit where it is due, nothing from the interviews was quoted out of context. In fact nothing was quoted at all, as Manne explained to Peter van Onselen in a Sky News interview: 

I didn’t find any of the things that [editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell] said sufficiently sharp or interesting to quote directly … I internalise what people say and if other people want me to have a different style, so be it … But I didn’t feel the need to quote directly.1

The Media Alliance Code of Ethics instructs journalists to do their utmost to give “a fair opportunity for reply” and warns against suppressing or distorting “relevant available facts.” It makes no provision for internalising a rebuttal. Manne, however, is not a journalist and loves his loaded adjectives too much to adopt the pretence of objectivity. He has become a polemicist who press-gangs the evidence into fighting for his cause. In the postmodern manner, the testing of thesis against antithesis, a method that has served scholars well since Socrates, is old hat. 

It is replaced with a zealous reductionism that elbows complexity aside in the rush to nail everything to the mast.2 Readers familiar with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World will be acquainted with the genre. Extraneous evidence is expunged and contrary arguments ignored to reach the conclusion that, since the sun comes up each day at roughly the same time as the Australian lands on the lawn, Mitchell poses a threat to the planet’s rotation.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. Before reading Manne’s essay, I was unaware that an editorial published in March 2010 that recommended abandoning the cap-and-trade emissions proposal in the absence of international agreement was one of two that brought down Kevin Rudd. The second, on 22 June 2010, argued that the government’s attempt to sell its mining tax had blown up in its face.

“Three days after this editorial, Rudd was gone,” Manne writes. “At the Australian it was now time to gloat.”

The animosity between the prime minister and his caucus is inconsequential to Manne since the friction he presumes to have existed between Rudd and Mitchell explains everything. Nor does Manne allow that the failure of the Kyoto process, the Coalition’s revival under Tony Abbott or Rudd’s declining popularity played any part in the events of 24 June 2010. Instead, the malevolent puppeteers of Holt Street pulled the strings that sealed Rudd’s fate. In Kurlansky’s world, Norway’s destiny is shaped by the habits of fish. In Manne’s world, Labor’s destiny is shaped by the Australian’s perfidy.

“The unrelentingly personal and ideological campaign it waged against Rudd in the months between February and June 2010 undoubtedly helped crystallise opposition to him inside the caucus and the party. In this way, the Australian was a very important catalyst leading to his fall,” he writes.

Quarterly Essay 43 is in itself a classic example of the “unrelentingly personal” narrative; Mitchell is named no fewer than 127 times and referred to as editor-in-chief on a further sixteen occasions in 115 pages. The Australian’s former editor Paul Whittaker is mentioned only five times, twice in reference to “riding instructions” he is supposed to have been given by News Limited’s chairman and chief executive, John Hartigan. By contrast, Rupert Murdoch’s enforcer, the Machiavellian, monomaniacal Mitchell, bows to no man in this implausible portrayal of a newspaper going rogue. Anyone familiar with the industrial task of publishing 310-plus editions a year, maybe 12,000 broadsheet pages and thousands more pages of magazines and supplements, will spot the plot’s absurdity. In civilian life, the potential of hundreds of individuals cannot be harnessed to achieve a collective goal by bullying, as anyone who has run a medium- to large-scale business or studied a unit of industrial sociology would attest. 

What weight should we give then to the allegation that the Australian is waging a neoliberal “ideological campaign” or the accusation that we are caught in “a truly frightful hotchpotch of ideological prejudice and intellectual muddle”? One of the main indoctrination tools, we are told, is a short daily feature called “Cut and Paste”: “Everyone who reads the Australian knows that daily mockery of opponents is one of the most potent means by which the paper’s ideological and political agenda is advanced.” One imagines George Orwell’s long, windowless hall, with its double row of cubicles and endless rustle of papers, where Tillotson sits with a folded newspaper on his knee, murmuring into the mouthpiece of speakwrite. 

Manne should know better than to play the neoliberal card. In an interview with Terry Lane on ABC Radio National in June 2005, he told Lane: “I have never studied economics formally and found, pretty quickly when I began to argue about economic rationalism or neoliberalism, I found myself out of my depth.” Years of intellectual laziness have corrupted the meaning of “neoliberalism” to such an extent that its original meaning – a set of economic principles also known as the Washington Consensus – is rarely understood. Suffice to say, it is neither an ideology nor a term the Australian would embrace. Good economic policy is simply policy that works, which is why mainstream economic liberalism has set the course not only for the Australian but for every Australian prime minister (including Rudd, despite his protestations), every US president and every British prime minister for thirty years or more. If Manne insists on wading into deep water, he might explain which of the Australian’s economic principles he contests: fiscal discipline, an aversion to indiscriminate subsidies, moderate marginal tax rates, market-determined interest rates, trade liberalisation or competitive exchange rates. Otherwise he should take his own good advice, as expressed to Lane: “I should stay with things that I know pretty well.”

In keeping with the essay’s declaratory tone, however, the reference to neoliberalism is not an invitation to debate, but an axiom for malevolence. That is the extent of the intellectual investment Manne is prepared to make. There is no need to break into a sweat since, in the world Manne inhabits, everybody knows that Mitchell has debased a once-respectable newspaper by taking it for a walk in the political fringe-lands. It falls into the category of knowledge sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, a matter a clan takes for granted. A more consequential study of the Australian’s culture, examining forty-seven years of archived back pages, would reveal that the Australian is, pretty much, what it always has been: a newspaper with a classical liberal outlook, a non-partisan supporter of national progress that takes a sceptical view of what everybody knows.3

The Quarterly Essay represents a substantial investment in the nation’s cultural capital and the series is a credit to its publisher, Morry Schwartz. Its forty-third edition, however, highlights the genre’s limitations. The essay’s disclaimer – “Many aspects of the paper are not analysed” – admits its restricted scope. Should we, as requested, read it as “deep analysis”? Or is it, as someone rather harshly suggested, the world’s longest tweet? 

Manne has selected articles, from more than 1000 pages printed a month, that touch upon “ideologically sensitive questions.” He would deny he is out to settle old scores, yet the “ideologically sensitive” questions follow a predictable pattern. They are causes he has staked his personal reputation upon: Aboriginal history, climate change, foreign intervention and the future of social democracy. He ups the stakes by playing the morality card: You don’t have to be stupid to get caught on the wrong side of the argument, you just have to be bad. No wonder he is irritated to see his arguments challenged in the pages of the Australian, particularly those things that everybody knows. Open-minded readers would recognise this process as a robust contest of ideas. To Manne, however, each news story, commentary piece or letter contesting his view is an ideologically guided missile with his name written on it. Hence the Australian did not “debate” the so-called history wars, it “pursued the claims” of historian Keith Windschuttle with “partisan ferocity.” Manne’s argument is not with the Australian but pluralism.

He does acknowledge the newspaper’s “vital role in alerting the general public to the breakdown of conditions of life in the remote Aboriginal communities not only in the Northern Territory but across the country.” For once, however, his concern is about the voices he claims we did not publish, rather than the ones we did: “the neglect of such voices itself represents a kind of distortion.” Manne cannot have expected this statement to go unchallenged. If he cares for a list of the Aboriginal commentators we have published, I will arrange for our library to send him one, but he knows as well as I do that both in number and in column centimetres they amount to many more than the total of every other mainstream newspaper combined.

Manne acknowledges the Australian’s opinion page was “reasonably balanced” in the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq; however, he considers the “tone” of editorials and commentary by foreign editor Greg Sheridan “significant and revealing.” What do they reveal and why is it significant since the Australian’s support of the invasion of Iraq is a matter of public record? It is “significant and revealing” perhaps that Manne quotes Sheridan, but not Paul Kelly, who under the headline “The Hapless Persuader” highlighted the weaknesses in John Howard’s case for war in March 2003. “He has failed to mount a persuasive argument that a war to disarm Iraq is an imperative now when the risks are so vast and the national interest could be prejudiced,” Kelly wrote. Manne was right the first time; the opinion pages were “reasonably balanced.” Once more, his quarrel with the Australian’s editorial position can be summarised in four words: He does not agree. 

Manne acknowledges that “the claim the Australian acted as an apologist for the Howard government is wrong” but takes us to task for our unreliability as a cheerleader for Kevin Rudd. The professor is affronted that the Australian contested Rudd’s February 2009 essay, which blamed extreme capitalism and neoliberal governments for the global financial crisis. Manne, who does not pretend to be an economist, cannot allow that the Australian does not, and never has, advocated a crude, unrestrained free market. The Rudd government’s decisive first-round response to the credit crisis earned the prime minister our Australian of the Year Award.

Manne simply asserts as fact that our objections to government economic intervention on issues such as home insulation and the school-building program were ideological. Editorials from that period make it abundantly clear that our concern stemmed from prudence, not principle. Manne agrees that the criticism of the home-insulation scheme was “neither ephemeral nor trivial.” He disagrees, however, with our assessment that the school-building program was expensive, rushed and wasteful. In our view, wasting up to 12 per cent of the $16 billion spent on the Building the Education Revolution is a problem. Manne disagrees; end of story. 

Once the neoliberal explanation has collapsed in a heap, Manne is obliged to call upon his infinite capacity for astonishment. He is “astonished” that the Australian’s editor-in-chief should ask journalism academic Julie Posetti to retract allegations of unprofessional behaviour; Mitchell publishes an “astonishing” editorial criticising the ABC’s Media Watch; “astonishingly,” a story was published on the nuclear industry. Yet Manne still has not learned that the Australian is not his kind of newspaper and laments the “astonishing” imbalance of its opinion columns, its “astonishing” pro-mining bias and the “astonishing” attempt to wreck the Labor–Greens alliance. 

When the astonished Manne draws breath, the moraliser takes over, condemning a “disgraceful saga of protracted character assassination” against fellow academic Larissa Behrendt. The Australian’s coverage of the Behrendt–Bess Price tweet controversy is “truly foul” (he offers no such condemnation of Behrendt’s tweet). Behrendt is the chief victim of injustice and the Australian is her persecutor, further evidence of a “bullying culture” driven by the “bullying behaviour” of the editor-in-chief. He cannot allow that the Australian merely contributes to debate, or give any weight to our editorial judgment: 

The Twitter exchanges reveal the split between urban and remote Aboriginal leaders over Canberra’s intervention in dysfunctional communities. Behrendt’s comments are made against the background of a bitter struggle between these two groups for power and the authority to speak for Aborigines. Behrendt and those who joined her on Twitter oppose the intervention but that is really a proxy for a fight over turf, resources and the direction of indigenous politics.4

On climate change, the charges are grave: the paper is accused of undermining “the central values of the Enlightenment, Science and Reason.” The motive? “Emphasis should be placed on the role of ideology in rationalising the defence of mining interests and helping to subvert reason.” The passive sentence construction betrays an author unsure of his ground. 

To arrive at his findings, Manne adopts a “complex methodology”: he downloads every climate change article between January 2004 and April 2011, including “Cut and Paste” columns, and reads them. He tells us that 180 pass muster and are therefore deemed to be “favourable to climate change.” Some 700 are deemed “unfavourable,” thus demonstrating that the Australian favoured the unfavourable by a ratio of four to one. Later, Manne ups the charges to a ratio of ten to one, for reasons that are not properly explained. Peer review is impossible since Manne does not share his raw data and the judgments are puzzling. Regular contributor Bjorn Lomborg, for example, who is convinced that man is contributing to climate change but is unconvinced that the Kyoto process can solve the problem, is judged a denialist. Yet Frank Furedi, condemned by Manne in August 2008 as “a leading climate change denier,” disappears from the list of Most Wanted Repudiators. 

Broadly, Manne complains of “dozens” of “denialist” articles by twenty named “denialists” over seven years. In his later contribution to the Weekend Australian, he raises that to “scores.” By my count, the number of articles written by the accused is: Bob Carter (6), Michael Asten (2), Lord Monckton (2), Ian Plimer (4), Jennifer Marohasy (4), Garth Paltridge (1), Dennis Jensen (2), John Christy (reprinted from the Wall Street Journal) (1), David Evans (3), David Bellamy (1), Nigel Calder (reprinted from the Sunday Times) (1). There were joint-bylined pieces: one by Richard Lindzen, John Roskam and Ullrich Fichtner and another by Bob Carter, David Evans, Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth. That’s a total of twenty-nine, which means Manne was right about “dozens,” though not about “scores.” Roughly speaking, it represents one “denialist” argument for every 350 published opinion pieces. 

The final pages of Bad News should be read as a tragedy: an academic who once published respectable books finds himself down on his luck in Conspiracy Corner, the two-dollar shop for irrefutable arguments. News Limited “represents a threat to the flourishing of an open democratic culture.” Rupert Murdoch is “a highly political individual with a powerful set of ideological beliefs.” His company has “a stranglehold over the daily press” and “must be challenged” since it has the capacity “to influence … the vast majority of less engaged citizens.” A plot “to do something” about the Labor–Greens alliance, hatched at a secret meeting of editors and senior journalists in the US earlier this year, “poses a real and present danger to democracy.” The Australian hides behind “the guise of a traditional broadsheet newspaper” but is in fact the “national enforcer of those values that lie at the heart of the Murdoch empire: market fundamentalism and the beneficence of American global hegemony.” It relies on a “hidden financial subsidy from the global empire” and is used by Murdoch as a “means for influencing politics and commerce in the country of his birth.” Not everyone at the Australian is part of the conspiracy; there are some real journalists, but Manne “will not name them for fear of doing them harm.” 

The narrative carries the hallmarks of what David Aaronovitch calls “voodoo history,” a genre of conspiracism in vogue in Western countries in which books alleging secret plots appear on the shelves alongside scholarly works by noted academics.5 There is a threat to our very way of life (democracy) by two or more sinister individuals (Murdoch and Mitchell) driven by a dark force (neoliberalism) and with the power to manipulate not just their immediate underlings (the staff) and the masses (less engaged citizens) but the people who run the country (the Labor government). A secret meeting (the Carmel gathering) is held to hatch the plot (the overthrow of the Gillard government). 

Sadly, if I am right, then this reply to Manne’s essay, the metres of newsprint columns devoted to answering his allegations and the interviews given to assist his research have been a waste of time. Conspiracy theories are resistant to reason, since their authors are skilled at blocking contrary arguments. Worse still, once the theorist has promoted himself as the one who understands the true order of things, he is obliged to keep the narrative alive for fear of suffering catastrophic reputational damage. Tucked away in the notes at the end of his essay, Manne admits he was approached to write for the Australian in February 2009. In conversation with me on stage at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, Manne further acknowledged my open invitation to contribute whenever he wants on whatever subject he wants. 

Nick came down to Melbourne, he offered me space in the paper. Our personal relations, I want to say this publicly, he’s been courteous, he’s published anything that I suggested. I don’t want to write for the Australian because I want the Australian to change and I don’t want to give it legitimacy by writing for it.6

Had Manne written for us on climate change once every six weeks, his contributions would have outnumbered those by the listed “deniers” by two to one. His refusal to do so is one thing, but his subsequent complaint that our coverage lacks balance draws me reluctantly to the conclusion that Manne is not acting in good faith. 

The Australian’s first edition – on 15 July 1964 – threw the newspaper open to “thousands of friends who, as the thinking men and women of Australia, will have a profound influence on the future. You are welcome to this company of progress.” It saddens me that Manne has rejected the invitation with such bad grace.

 

Nick Cater has been editor of the Weekend Australian since 2007 and a senior editor at the Australian since 2004. He edited the 2006 book The Howard Factor.


1. The Showdown, Sky News Australia, 20 September 2011.

2. See Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995.

3. See Philip Roth’s soliloquy on what everyone knows in The Human Stain, Vintage, London, 2001. 

4. The Australian, 15 April 2011.

5. David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories, Jonathan Cape, London, 2009.

6. Manne in conversation with the author, Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, 7 August 2011.

CONTINUE READING

This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World.


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