Last Friday I gave a talk to the Association for the Public University on threats to university independence. The talk (to read in full, click here) concentrated on two issues—the subversion of the system of allocating ARC Grants during the Ministry of Brendan Nelson and the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch-inspired and John Howard-funded United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney.

On the day before the talk was due to be delivered I received a friendly email from Bernard Lane, the reporter at The Australian’s Higher Education section. “Hello Robert”, it began, “I saw the abstract of your conference paper for tomorrow and thought it could make an interesting edited text for the higher education pages. Would you like to send me a copy?”

As I am one of the favourite ideological targets of The Australian, I thought hard about whether or not I should agree. Eventually optimism overcame experience. On Sunday I sent Lane a copy of the talk. “Once you’ve read it,” I remarked, “I’m sure you won’t want to run it.” I insisted, however, that if they unexpectedly decided to run something I could not accept the omission of the part which involved Rupert Murdoch. Lane emailed thanking me. He’d passed the material on to his editor, Catherine Armitage.

On Monday in the middle of the afternoon I received an urgent email and a voicemail from Catherine. I rang at once. To my surprise, she was very keen to run the section of the talk I wanted. Perhaps my prejudices about the behaviour of The Oz all were wrong. We agreed that I would be paid the standard rate of seventy cents a word.

When I got home on Monday night an email from Catherine was waiting for me. “Rob, turns out we can’t pay you for the piece so I won’t be able to use it after all.” I am not by nature suspicious. But even I smelt a rat.

I replied at once. “Catherine, If you can’t afford to pay I’ll give my permission for you to run the piece…free of charge.” Her answer came on Tuesday morning. “Rob, thanks but actually the money’s not the issue. Once I read the piece properly, I didn’t want to run it.” By now I was becoming seriously annoyed. Why had I been lied to? Nonetheless I emailed politely. “Why did you say the money was the issue? What changed your mind?” To these simple questions I received a curious response. “After re-reading the piece and giving it some more thought, I decided it’s better done as a news report quoting a range of opinion. The payment issue was incidental.”

By now I was seriously angry. My views have been twisted by the Oz on scores of occasions. I emailed Catherine at once. The talk had been sent because of the possibility of an edited extract. “As a skewed report will do more harm than good I do not give you permission to report from it.” Ten hours of silence followed. At 8.22pm on Tuesday evening an email arrived from Catherine. “I’m sorry you feel that way. Given that you made the speech in an open forum…it is my judgment that we are free to report on it. As a courtesy I’m letting you know that such a report is in tomorrow’s higher education section.” Courtesy seemed to me a strange word in the present situation.

As promised, the story appeared in today’s Higher Education section. It was all that I had anticipated. “Manne predicts bias at US centre” was the headline. Readers were not told that the reason I predicted bias was in the text of the talk. There was no mention in the report of the explicit threat that emanated from the former Howard government heavy-hitter, Michael Baume, that if the Centre proved to be ideologically disappointing to its backers all funds would be withdrawn. There was no mention of the fact that at the dinner to announce the winning university bid Rupert Murdoch had openly pronounced the Centre’s purpose to be the waging of an intellectual struggle against the emergence of a European-style of anti-Americanism in Australia. An employee of the University of Sydney was approached for comment. “Professor Manne”, readers learned, had “not done his research”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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