Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay on the impact of The Australian has been out for more than a week now. It was much anticipated, yet has hardly been mentioned in the mainstream media.
This is perhaps partly because the publishers kept it under close wraps until the release date, and reading the densely argued 25,000 words takes time.
But today, with this article by Paul Kelly the inevitable begins: The Australian is launching a major response to Manne, and the blurbs tell us that there will be more to come on Saturday, with the usual suspects lining up to respond on the reporting of climate change (Graham Llloyd), economics (Michael Stutchbury), indigenous Australia (Chris Mitchell), foreign affairs (Greg Sheridan) and media (Chris Kenny).
So what about Manne’s essay, and what about The Australian’s defence so far? It is hard for those of us who follow media closely to judge Manne’s impact on public perceptions, because there is little in his essay that we have not already been watching and thinking about. It contains no news, but instead detailed analysis.
In some ways his essay is, as all publications about media must be, already out of date. In recent weeks — since editor Paul Whittaker moved from The Australian to The Daily Telegraph — there has been a notable shift. The Australian is less virulent, more balanced, while The Daily Telegraph has gone feral.
In recent times we have seen the publication of a major profile of The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, and Manne’s essay, all in attempts to explain the weird beast that is The Australian. Perhaps more energy should have been spent on Whittaker.
More likely, more energy should be spent on issues of corporate culture than on the individuals who make their way in that culture.
In the opening fusillade of The Australian’s response, Kelly miscasts most of Manne’s argument about the way the paper has reported climate change. Manne does not argue for shutting down debate so much as accuse the paper, convincingly, I think, of intellectual confusion, while also being unremittingly hostile to those calling for urgent action.
Kelly claims that the paper’s coverage of Larissa Behrendt’s slur against Bess Price was newsworthy, and that Manne is wrong to suggest it did not deserve coverage.
I come down in the middle on this one. Would I have reported Behrendt’s Tweet? Yes. It was undoubtedly newsworthy, given the political context.
But I also think The Australian’s coverage went way over the top in subsequent days, becoming an unjustified, even frenzied, attack on an individual. Manne is convincing in identifying inaccuracies and unfairness in the way this was done. As is so often the case, The Australian was sharp on the news, but wrecked its credibility by overplaying its hand.
Manne analyses the way in which The Australian elevated Keith Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History to a major national debate. Kelly counters that Manne’s attack amounts to an attempt to shut down views with which he disagrees.
But Kelly does not respond to the central charge, which is that the scholarship on which Windschuttle’s book was based was too flimsy to justify the notice that it was paid and the reams of newsprint spent. The Australian succeeded in elevating Windschuttle, a ratbag if ever there was one, to an undeserved place in the national conversation.
It is worth quoting the blogger and economist John Quiggin on this. He pointed out in this post in 2009 that we are still waiting for the promised further volumes of Windschuttle’s work, which supposedly will undermine the well-documented history of massacres in Queensland and WA.
“When Volume 1 came out back in 2002, Windschuttle promised further volumes on an annual schedule, covering Queensland and WA. Since Queensland in particular was the focus of Henry Reynolds’ main work, and since the evidence of numerous massacres seems incontrovertible, this promised volume was central to Windschuttle’s claims of fabrication. The promise was repeated year after year, but no Volume 2 ever appeared, and the ‘research’ supposedly already undertaken has stayed out of sight … Then in February 2008, Windschuttle published extracts from a Volume 2, promised for publication ‘later this year’, but now on a totally different topic, that of the Stolen Generation … The real hoax victims here have been those on the political right, who’ve repeatedly swallowed Windschuttle’s promises to refute well-established facts about Australian history.”
Since then Windshcuttle has published his book on the Stolen Generations, now listed as Volume 3 in the series, with Volumes 2 and 4 promised “later”. Still waiting.
Any fair-minded observer, looking back at all that has been published and said in this debate, can only wonder that Windschuttle’s work was given so much attention. Certainly, he identified some sloppiness and errors by some historians. But that is about the size of it.
Manne’s most powerful accusation against The Australian is lack of intellectual honesty.
The problem is not that The Australian published views with which Manne disagrees, but rather that it spends so much of its campaigning energy on straw. The newspaper’s self image is of rigorous scrutiny of the powerful. Yet its approach is inconsistent. There are favoured arguments, and favoured individuals, and there are those who will never gain anything more than attacks and scorn. There are arguments and views that gain uncritical acceptance, and others that are only ridiculed. The paper is not an even-handed scrutineer, but rather a barracker and, sometimes, a bully.
It will be interesting to read Greg Sheridan’s response to Manne’s analysis of his work, which includes that author’s failure to admit error, the almost laughable response to the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the failure of the paper to ever admit error in its predictions and analysis on the Iraq war, even though errors were clearly present.
Then there are the parts of Manne’s essay that Kelly does not respond to this morning.
Kelly says nothing, for example, about Mitchell’s threat to sue journalism academic Julie Posetti over a Tweet, nor about the other virulent and over-the-top attacks on the paper’s perceived enemies.
All this in the context of the still amorphous media inquiry announced by the government, with terms of reference that are still being decided. Although Communications Minister Stephen Conroy apparently insists the inquiry won’t be particularly aimed at News Limited, that hasn’t stopped the Herald Sun and Andrew Bolt today alleging the whole thing is an attack on freedom of speech.
One of the things I think Manne gets right in his essay is his observation that this sense of vulnerability, of being the bullied boy in the sandpit, is not a put on by News Limited people. They really feel that way. Inconceivable, even ridiculous, as it may seem to outsiders, such is the mentality within the mighty company that it imagines itself as a victim of bullying, even as it bullies.
Can companies have personality disorders? If News Limited has one, it is narcissism. The narcissist sees himself as the centre of the world. He cannot enter into the reality of others. And while the ego is enormous and overweening, it is in truth so vulnerable that it can tolerate no insult, and no attack. Every element of negativity is a stab to the heart, and must be countered with virulent attack.
Manne knows this. And so he must also have known what was coming. And that makes him a brave man.
Full disclosure: The Australian has said some pretty nasty things about me, including inaccuracies. By and large, I adopt a heat and kitchens principle on this. Correct the errors. Argue your corner. Wear the rest.
But I also accept that a bully with a vulnerable ego wandering the public debate is a real disincentive to many who might otherwise make a valuable contribution. As one author said to me: “Why would I go there? It is like arguing with a drunk in the pub. They never listen. They never really engage.”
I don’t agree with every part of Manne’s analysis. It is no bad thing that a newspaper publishes views with which I disagree. I have no problem with sharpness, or even campaigning, in a newspaper. Some of the things Manne thinks should not have been published, I have no problem with.
Yet it is also true that The Australian is blind to its own faults, and has been intellectually dishonest. Again and again, it overplays its hand. It undermines its serious contribution to public debate by its bullying demeanour, its unbalanced attacks, its failures of judgment and its failure to admit error. Manne pings this.
I also think that The Australian’s influence can be overplayed. Those who watch it closely, which includes most of the political class, now discount its reporting and its editorialising. As the best reporters on its staff acknowledge, The Australian’s faults undermine its presence far more effectively than its critics.