When is a conflict of interest not a conflict of interest? Presumably when it involves two ‘wholly owned subsidiary companies’ of the University of Melbourne.

Louise Adler is CEO of Melbourne University Publishing. She is also on the board of Meanjin, the little magazine with a big history that punches well above its weight. MUP is keen to subsume Meanjin so that the masthead is married to the MUP logo. So why isn’t Adler’s balancing act not coming in for closer attention?

“It is something we have found puzzling,” says Meanjin editor Ian Britain mildly.

Before you consider what Louise Adler has in mind for Meanjin now that the magazine’s board has approved in-principle a handover to MUP (the vote, apparently, was four in favour with three dissenting) you have to ask what it is that Adler thinks Meanjin is doing wrong.

Despite a subscriber base of about 2000 – a figure the MUP-pets are at pains to sear into the public mind – Meanjin continues to be a record of intellectual life in this country. Its historical role, according to Britain, is that it will be “a distillation in Australian thought of a particular subject at the time”. It is, he adds, “a crucial player in what our chancellor Glynn Davis calls ‘knowledge transfer'”.

Why does Louise Adler (and presumably those board members who supported her and remain tantalisingly anonymous) have a problem with this?

Sandy Grant, the Meanjin board member responsible for offering external advice who resigned last year, offers some insights. It is all to do with that business of being a ‘wholly owned subsidiary company’.

The university is not happy to have separate companies under its aegis acting independently. Since Meanjin depends on the university’s largesse, you would think that was hardly the case. As the publisher at Hardie Grant books, naturally, Grant is used to a business model rather than an academic one. What he calls “a publishing environment”.

“The time came,” he says unequivocally, “for [Meanjin and its supporters] to realise that the form was finished as it was.”

Time, in other words, to go on-line. His real beef with the Meanjin board, however, was the “endless to-ing and fro-ing” about who had jurisdiction over the magazine. He was also frustrated with an editor who “didn’t want the board’s input”.

Adler likes to cite the Griffith Review as a model for what Meanjin might be. Britain thinks it is bit like comparing apples and oranges since the first has “a more political pitch” while the second is a literary journal directed at “a highly sophisticated, highly educated, non-specialist audience”.

The quoted readership of the Griffith Review is 5000. It also receives more subsidy than Meanjin. A more realistic comparison might be The Threepenny Magazine, America’s premier lit mag which has a print run of 10,000. The fact is that the high-end literary market is only so big and the only way to expand its reader base is to dumb it down.

The principal scenarios for Meanjin, then, are these:

  1. Meanjin will cease to publish as a book and go on-line. An on-line edition, interestingly, will require more investment from the university, not less. There is also the vanity aspect. Many writers of note (according to Britain) would be chary of being published in an on-line only journal.
  2. Meanjin will cease to exist altogether due to ‘economies of scale’ or, more pertinently, a withdrawal of funding from the Australia Council and Arts Victoria.
  3. Meanjin will become a Trojan horse for MUP product.

Which brings us to the second and most intriguing instance of possible conflict of interest. MUP, in partnership with the university itself, is said to have invested something like $750,000 in a three-year sponsorship deal with The Australian Literary Review. It is an extraordinary investment and puts the $70,000 Meanjin is requesting for 2008 into the pale.

If MUP is so entwined with a literary rag which is rival to Meanjin then what is MUP’s CEO doing on Meanjin’s board pushing for the magazine’s acquisition? That, you might say, is the $750,000 question.

It is not Meanjin’s failure but its success, Ian Britain reckons, which has attracted the attention of MUP and Adler. It will be “a worthy ornament to her empire”. An empire from which Britain has no choice but to exile himself.

“She has made it the case that I cannot apply for the job there.”

By which you understand that in this battle of Britain his chief weapon is nuance.