Bad News
QUARTERLY ESSAY 43

Bad News

Murdoch's Australian and the shaping of the nation

Robert Manne
 

Extract

When I decided to write this essay, the Murdoch global media empire was in rude health. By the time it was completed, the empire was badly weakened. The collapse of an empire is frequently triggered by a small event. In this case it was the revulsion felt by the British public after the discovery that reporters at the Murdoch tabloid News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone of a kidnapped thirteen-year-old girl later found murdered.

Because of a Guardian investigation, the British public learned that phone hacking was a common practice at News of the World. Les Hinton, the chairman of News International at the time of the hacking, resigned. Both Rebekah Brooks, the head of Murdoch’s newspaper division in the United Kingdom, and Andy Coulson, a former editor of News of the World, were arrested. Conspiracies often begin to unravel when conspirators turn against each other. James Murdoch, chairman of News International, gave evidence to a House of Commons committee. James assured the committee that he had believed only one journalist was involved in phone hacking when he signed a cheque for £700,000 in favour of a victim. Two disgraced News International employees, Tom Crone and Colin Myler, claimed that this was not true. They had shown him an email that revealed a widespread practice of hacking at News of the World. If James Murdoch is unable to disprove their allegation, his future at News is in doubt. Even more seriously, if it can be shown that Rupert Murdoch was told about the phone hacking by his son, his credibility would not easily recover. As I write, Rupert Murdoch’s control of his empire is shaky.

Rupert Murdoch is one of the most powerful people in the English-speaking democracies. His genius has been to discover different ways in which his two passions – a desire for money and a thirst for power – can be combined. In the United States, Fox News is not only one of his most profitable businesses. It has gained a great influence over the choice of Republican Party candidate for the presidency and has injected into the bloodstream of American political culture the poison of a strident populist conservatism. In Britain, somewhat differently, Rupert Murdoch has used his newspaper power to instil a fear into prime ministers and leaders of the Opposition, in part at least to advance his other, more lucrative, commercial interests. In Australia, the country of his birth for which he seems to feel an especial responsibility, he has discovered how to use the 70 per cent of the national and statewide press he owns to ensure that the values drawn from his right-wing political philosophy remain dominant within the political mainstream. Murdoch has presented a major problem for the democratic cultures of three Anglophone countries. In America it is Fox News, in Britain News International’s tabloid culture, and in Australia the direct political influence of his newspapers. For the moment Murdoch’s power has diminished, whether permanently or temporarily it is too early to say. Politicians who once courted him are now in flight. This situation provides an unexpectedly propitious climate for the evaluation of the political influence and the character of his most important political asset in this country, the broadsheet he created in 1964, the Australian. 

I took the decision to write this essay in September 2010. I had long been concerned with the role the Australian had played over the question of action on climate change. By then I was also convinced that this newspaper, which had played an important part in the unravelling of the Rudd government, would not rest until it saw the end of the Gillard government and the destruction of the Labor–Greens alliance. However, there was more to the decision than this. 

The Australian is in my view the country’s most important newspaper. Under Chris Mitchell it has evolved into a kind of broadsheet perhaps never before seen here. It is an unusually ideological paper, committed to advancing the causes of neoliberalism in economics and neoconservatism in the sphere of foreign policy. Its style and tone are also unlike that of any other newspaper in the nation’s history. The Australian is ruthless in pursuit of those who oppose its worldview – market fundamentalism, minimal action on climate change, the federal Intervention in indigenous affairs, uncritical support for the American alliance and for Israel, opposition to what it calls political correctness and moral relativism. It exhibits distaste, even hatred, for what it terms “the Left,” and in particular for the Greens. It is driven by contempt for its two natural rivals, the Fairfax press and the ABC, one of which it seems to wish to destroy altogether, the other of which it seeks to discredit for its supposed left-wing bias and to reshape. Both the Fairfax newspapers and the ABC are constantly attacked and belittled by the Australian. Yet at least until the Murdoch empire was weakened in early July 2011, for the most part they turned the other cheek.

The Australian is a remorseless campaigning paper; in recent times against the Building the Education Revolution program and the National Broadband Network. In these campaigns its assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then to seek out evidence to support it. The paper is also unusually self-referential and boastful, heaping extravagant praise upon itself for its acumen and prescience almost on a daily basis, never failing to inform its readers that it was the first to report something or the only paper to provide real scrutiny or intelligent interpretation. Related to its boastfulness is the Australian’s notorious sensitivity to criticism. It regularly explodes with indignation and rage when criticised. It also bears many grudges. The Australian never forgave former Victorian police commissioner Simon Overland, who once had the temerity to complain about its behaviour on the eve of an anti-terrorist raid in Melbourne. It did not rest until his career was ruined. Not even then. It also has an intensely aggressive culture, described to me by close observers as bullying or swaggering or macho. Chris Mitchell is determined that his paper will be talked about, a style that his editor, Clive Mathieson, described vividly in an interview with me as “elbows out.” In no other newspaper is the spirit of the editor so omnipresent, either directly through the editorials – the daily morning missives to the nation which he inspires – or indirectly throughout its pages. Mitchell is frequently interviewed by his own journalists. He uses those he most trusts to fight his battles with his many enemies. In a recent profile of him written by Sally Neighbour for the Monthly, David Marr described his uncanny ability to personalise everything he deals with as his peculiar “genius.” Because of the charismatic authority over his journalists exercised by Mitchell, and because of the costs that are paid by anyone in his paper who defies him, one very senior journalist likened the atmosphere inside the Australian to that of a cult.

The Australian is this country’s only genuinely national general newspaper, with a readership in every state and territory and in the capital cities, the regional towns and rural areas. Although its weekday sales are small – somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000 – it is extremely well resourced by its proprietor, able to employ many of Australia’s best journalists. As a consequence, as I learned in interviews with Senator Bob Brown and with senior members of the Gillard government, the Australian now dominates the Canberra press gallery not only in the number of journalists employed – at some press conferences half of those attending are from the Australian – but also in the aggression its reporters display and their capacity for teamwork in pursuit of their prey. Because of the dominant position it has assumed in its Canberra coverage, the Australian influences the way the much more widely read News Limited tabloids, like the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, report national politics and frequently sets the agenda of commercial radio and television and the ABC, even the upmarket breakfast program on Radio National. The Australian is in addition the only newspaper that is read by virtually all members of the group of insiders I call the political class, a group that includes politicians, leading public servants, business people and the most politically engaged citizens. Even those members of the political class who loathe the paper understand that they cannot afford to ignore it. Most importantly of all, as Mark Latham pointed out in a recent article in the Australian Financial Review, the Australian has now transcended the traditional newspaper role of reporter or analyst and become an active player in both federal and state politics. As such it exercises what Stanley Baldwin once called, in describing the influence of the great press barons of his era, “power without responsibility.”

An analysis of the role the Australian has played in helping to shape values and to influence national political life during the period of the Chris Mitchell editorship (which began in mid-2002) is thus long overdue. There is, however, little point in outlining the nation’s problem with the Australian generally or abstractly. Both its overbearing character and its unhealthy influence must be demonstrated. That is what I hope in this essay to be able to do through a series of detailed case studies – concerning the revisionist history of Keith Windschuttle, the invasion of Iraq, the criticism of the paper offered by Media Watch, the question of global warming, the rise and fall of Kevin Rudd, the Julie Posetti and the Larissa Behrendt affairs, and the rise of the Greens. 

Under Chris Mitchell the Australian has become one of the most important political forces in the country. No realistic account of power in contemporary Australia can afford to ignore it. 

THE MAKING OF KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE

Australia was founded on the basis of the destruction of Aboriginal society. As a result, no question has so haunted the national imagination. During the course of the long dispossession, historians described the process of destruction with emotions ranging from racist denigration and callous indifference to genuine pity. Following the dispossession, as the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner was the first to observe, the story of the destruction of Aboriginal society was excised from the history books in a psychologically complex process he described as “the great Australian silence.” Australia became “the quiet continent.” In the creation of the nation “no blood had been spilt.” It was only in the late 1960s and beyond – through the seminal Boyer Lectures delivered by Stanner, through the groundbreaking trilogy on the dispossession and its aftermath by the great scholar C.D. Rowley, and through the many books of Henry Reynolds – that the destruction of Aboriginal society returned from the period of repression to become a central question of Australian history.

In late 2002 Keith Windschuttle published the first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The book represented the first substantial challenge from the Right to the understanding of the meaning of the dispossession that had transformed national consciousness from the 1960s. Windschuttle chose to begin his history with Tasmania, where between 1803 and 1834 the entire “full-blood” indigenous population, thought by scholars to have numbered about 4000 or 5000 people, had either died or been exiled to Flinders Island. Tasmania was an interesting choice for the first volume. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the fate of the indigenous Tasmanians had stirred the European moral imagination more profoundly than that of any other indigenous Australian group. In 1943 Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist, coined a legal term for the idea of the total destruction of a people: genocide. Lemkin himself wrote extensively on the question of the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Before Windschuttle published the first volume of his Fabrication, not only in the scholarly textbooks but also in common understanding in Australia and beyond, the idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines had suffered genocide was an almost uncontested common wisdom. Oddly enough, the conventional idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines had been the victims of a successful genocide was resisted by two of the scholars Windschuttle had most firmly in his sights. In The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan claimed that the “conscious policy of genocide” had failed. Quite differently, in An Indelible Stain?, Henry Reynolds argued that in Tasmania there had been no British government policy of genocide.

In Fabrication Windschuttle argued that in the British settlement of Tasmania a mere 118 Aborigines had been killed. Far from it being a case of genocide, as the left-wing fabricators of Aboriginal history supposedly claimed, Windschuttle argued that the establishment of the colony was one of the most gentle in the history of the British Empire. There had been no Black War. The Aborigines had no concept of land or property. Their misguided attacks on the British settlers were nothing more than criminal acts motivated exclusively by the desire for consumer goods. Windschuttle could not deny that thirty years after the arrival of the British almost all the original indigenous people had died, with a tiny remnant exiled to Flinders Island. He attributed their sudden demise to their susceptibility to introduced disease and to the willingness of the menfolk to prostitute their women by handing them over to the British arrivals. Unhappily, the Tasmanians were so backward a people that they were unable to generate a leadership wise enough to renounce their ancient way of life following the arrival of the British settlers and seize the bounty of British civilisation so generously offered them. This summary might appear a parody of Windschuttle’s argument. It is not. 

Keith Windschuttle is not a fool. In his attack on earlier scholarship he landed some powerful blows. Nonetheless, the scholarship displayed in Fabrication was frequently of an altogether risible kind. Windschuttle argued that the Aboriginal Tasmanians had no concept of land or property. As Henry Reynolds has pointed out, he was unaware that the most important Tasmanian Aboriginal dictionary lists no fewer than twenty words for “country.” To show that the Tasmanian Aborigines had no grounds for complaint over food supply, Windschuttle argued that the British settlers stopped hunting native birds and animals in 1811. As James Boyce has shown, in fact an orgy of hunting continued for decades longer. Most importantly of all, Windschuttle’s claim that it is “clear” that a mere 118 Aborigines died a violent death at British hands (later revised to 120) is based on two propositions that would not pass the historian’s “laugh test,” namely that every Aboriginal death at British settler hands must be recorded in an extant document and that, after battle, no Aborigine ever died of wounds.

Even worse than the inadequacy of the scholarship, however, was the complete absence in Windschuttle of a sense of tragedy in the telling of his story, which gave the book a coldness. Compare words taken from the concluding passage in John West’s A History of Tasmania published in 1852 with a concluding passage of Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History. 

[The colonists] are charmed by their simplicity; they sleep among them without fear: but these notes soon change; and passing from censure to hatred, they speak of them as improvident, importunate, and intrusive; as rapacious and mischievous; then as treacherous and blood-thirsty … At length the secret comes out; the tribe which welcomed the first settler with shouts and dancing … has ceased to live … It was, indeed, a mournful spectacle: the last Tasmanian quitting the shores of his ancestors! Forty years before, the first settler had erected his encampment! A change so rapid in the relations of a people to the soil, will scarcely find a parallel in this world’s history … – John West

[W]e should see them as active agents of their own demise … The real tragedy of the Aborigines was not British colonization per se but that their society was, on the one hand, so internally dysfunctional and, on the other hand, so incompatible with the looming presence of the rest of the world … They had survived for millennia it is true, but it seems clear that this owed more to good fortune than to good management. The “slow strangulation of the mind” was true not only of their technical abilities but also of their social relationships. Hence, it was not surprising that when the British arrived, this small, precarious society quickly collapsed under the dual weight of the susceptibility of its members to disease and the abuse and neglect of its women. – Keith Windschuttle

It is very unusual for books in the humanities to become topics of the kind of extended national conversation only daily newspapers can sustain. Windschuttle’s scholarship was slipshod. His understanding of the tragedy that had overtaken the indigenous people of Tasmania compared unfavourably with a book written a century and a half earlier. Its enthusiastic reception needs to be explained.

The process of turning Fabrication into a major national event began at Chris Mitchell’s Australian. On the eve of its publication, Bernard Lane, the journalist assigned to cover the controversy, penned a flattering portrait of Windschuttle. This was followed by a column in which Windschuttle outlined his views. When Windschuttle’s book was launched by Professor Claudio Veliz, the Australian reported his speech uncritically, including his remark that in comparison with the brutality of the wars against the indigenous people waged by the Spaniards in Latin America the destruction of Aboriginal society had been like a “nun’s picnic.” The Australian reported a quotation in one of the books by Henry Reynolds that had been badly mangled, a point Reynolds readily conceded. The Australian (and not only it) pursued the claims Windschuttle made against Lyndall Ryan with partisan ferocity. Lane approached the vice chancellor of Ryan’s university and her publisher, Allen & Unwin, asking them whether they intended to take action against their employee and their author. It turned out they did not, although posing the question undoubtedly affected her reputation. 

The Australian had clearly made a decision to host a protracted debate on the worth of Fabrication. In the year following its publication, opinion columns and reviews were published on both sides of the debate in roughly equal number – on the one side Keith Windschuttle (on three occasions), Roger Sandall, Peter Ryan, Geoffrey Blainey, Frank Devine (twice), Peter Coleman and Janet Albrechtsen; on the other, Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, Bain Attwood, Dirk Moses, Stephen Foster, Martin Krygier with Robert van Krieken, and James Boyce. 

By this time the Australian’s own position on the Windschuttle controversy it had provoked was clear. Fabrication was in its opinion a highly significant work of history which had mounted a formidable challenge to the idea of colonial genocide in the foundation of Australia. As such, it had acted as a much-needed corrective to the exaggerated black-armband view of Australian history. In addition it had exposed the slovenly standards and the left-wing bias of humanities scholars in Australian universities. The Australian published a letter signed by Stephen Muecke, Marcia Langton and Heather Goodall, which expressed regret about the willingness of the Australian to foster a debate on so reactionary a book. In their typical “censorious” fashion, the Australian argued, left-wing academics were trying to close down significant national debates. According to the editorial line of the Australian, if Fabrication had a fault, it was mainly one of “tone” – a failure to recognise that there was a tragic dimension in the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Although the Australian had invited serious historical rejoinders to the questions raised by Fabrication, as soon as Whitewash, a critical anthology I had edited, was published, the project was characterised as the raising of a “posse” in an ad hominem bid to silence dissent. “The response of the academic establishment to Windschuttle’s work,” the Australian editorialised, “has been lamentable. It is supposed to be right-wing columnists who ‘hunt in packs’ but left-wing academics have done themselves proud with Whitewash in which 19 of them launch into Windschuttle’s supposed failings as a historian and a human being.” 

The role of the Australian in the creation of the Windschuttle debate can be demonstrated in the following way. Following Fabrication, Windschuttle published two further books: the first a revisionist history trying to prove that the White Australia policy did not involve racism, the second trying to demonstrate that the idea of the stolen generations was a myth. Because the Australian did not endorse them, both had minimal impact on the national imagination and the national debate. Yet because of its editorial enthusiasm for Fabrication, within a year of the book’s publication the Australian had turned Keith Windschuttle into a figure of national significance. Conservative Australians, including both John Howard and Tony Abbott, now embraced Windschuttle’s fundamental conclusion, namely that the injustice of the indigenous dispossession had been wildly exaggerated by left-wing academics. In recognition of his significance as a cultural warrior, Howard appointed Windschuttle to the board of the ABC. Windschuttle understood what he owed to the Australian. At the launch of Fabrication he expressed surprise and gratitude at the early reception of his book by the press. And in a speech to a Quadrant gathering in 2007 he spoke of “Chris Mitchell’s elevation to the editorship of the Australian” as one of the turning points in the Australian culture war, or as he put it, “one of the milestones in the process” whereby “a whole range of issues that had previously been taboo in mainstream publishing got an airing at last.” 

In an interview with me, Chris Mitchell claimed his personal relations with Windschuttle were remote and that his paper could not have maintained a prolonged debate about Fabrication or indeed any other topic in a social vacuum. Perhaps not. But the Australian had encouraged a debate about a book which had spoken of the kindness of the colonisers responsible for the deaths of almost all the Tasmanian Aborigines in the space of three decades, and which had characterised the victims as common criminals and as the agents of their own demise. Fabrication represented a kind of malign landmark in the intellectual history of Australia – a moment when the hard-won achievement of the generation of historians who built on the achievement of W.E.H. Stanner, C.D. Rowley and Henry Reynolds in opening eyes to the tragedy of the Aboriginal dispossession was called into question. Because of the decision taken by the Australian to host the Windschuttle debate, the character of the nation was subtly but significantly changed. 

It would be quite wrong to claim that the making of Keith Windschuttle was the only or even the primary contribution made by the Australian to the indigenous debate under Chris Mitchell. Under his editorship the Australian was responsible for two positive achievements. In particular through the reports of Tony Koch, Nicolas Rothwell and Paul Toohey, in their very different styles, the Australian has played a 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. In interview, Paul Kelly thought this was perhaps Mitchell’s greatest contribution as editor-in-chief. Very many people would agree with him. The paper has also provided one of the most intellectually courageous Aboriginal leaders of contemporary times, Noel Pearson, with a permanent forum for the expression of his views. 

Yet even here there have been great problems with the Australian’s coverage of indigenous affairs. By allowing Noel Pearson or those who agreed with him to become the sole interpreters of the breakdown within the remote indigenous communities, the paper adopted a position of what could be called univocalism. In the opinion pages there has been a near-complete absence of contrasting indigenous voices. Pearson is not the only indigenous intellectual. His views need to be tested and challenged. But there is more to it than this. Everyone involved with the indigenous community knows that opposition to Noel Pearson is very widespread. In a newspaper that has placed such an emphasis on indigenous affairs, the neglect of such voices itself represents a kind of distortion. As I will explain later in this essay, it seems likely that there are more indigenous people living under the federal Intervention in the Northern Territory that are opposed to it than are supportive. We might understand this better if oppositional indigenous voices, like those of Pat and Mick Dodson or Larissa Behrendt, had been balanced against those of Pearson and his close ally, Marcia Langton. The Australian’s univocalism has seriously misled its readers about the balance of indigenous sentiment in the Northern Territory and elsewhere. 

In addition, and even more obviously, the value of the attention the Australian paid to indigenous affairs was sullied by the role it played in the making of Keith Windschuttle. The widespread embrace by conservative Australians of Windschuttle’s argument that the Tasmanian Aborigines were destroyed because they were an impossibly primitive people with a dysfunctional way of life helped to revive an even older tradition of Australian thought and sensibility: the straightforward denigration of Aboriginal culture. Without the support of the Australian the influence of Windschuttle would probably have been restricted to the ageing conservatives of the Quadrant circle. And without the influence of the Windschuttle debate on national sensibility, the following passage from another contributor to the Australian, Gary Johns of the Bennelong Society, would have almost certainly caused outrage of the kind that greeted Henry Bosch when in 1993 he spoke, far less chillingly, of Aborigines as a Stone Age people. 

Aborigines have had a hard time of it, or so the story goes … [S]ome Aborigines have wanted both the whiteman’s gifts and that which is inconsistent with living in the whiteman’s world … These are Aborigines and their white advisers who want to preserve Aboriginal culture. They deny that aspects of Aboriginal culture are totally inconsistent with basic human decency in its resort to violence and in its appalling treatment of women … The false hope of the “other” world where the noble savage roamed is dead and buried, and for good reason.

In the Australian in 2006, Noel Pearson warned about the influence of Keith Windschuttle and Gary Johns:

I am very concerned about the damage conservative Australians are doing to the prospects of reconciliation through their uncritical endorsement of people like Keith Windschuttle and [Gary] Johns. The influence of Windschuttle and Johns has been such as to diminish public empathy with Aboriginal Australians … Windschuttle’s thesis about the absence of a notion of land ownership in Aboriginal Australia, and John’s notion that our culture is unable to change and must therefore be left to die, are threatening the prospects of successful cooperation between Aboriginal Australians and conservatives.

Noel Pearson understands the dire implication for the very survival of his people if the Keith Windschuttle/Gary Johns viewpoint gains hold in Australia, as it now threatens to do, especially among conservatives. The same cannot be said for Chris Mitchell, the man who to his credit gave Pearson his national voice but was also crucial in the making of Keith Windschuttle, the writer and editor most responsible for the return of old racial attitudes which the nation, since the time of Stanner and Rowley, had struggled to transcend.

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This is an extract from Robert Manne's Quarterly Essay, Bad News: Murdoch's Australian and the shaping of the nation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. His recent books include On Borrowed TimeMaking Trouble: Essays Against the New Complacency, and The Words that Made Australia (as co-editor). He has written three Quarterly Essays and is a regular contributor to the Monthly and the Guardian.

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