Three of the commentators named by The Australian‘s Monday editorial as members of the “Psychotic Left” have told Crikey that they’ve been subject to years of “bullying” and “attacks” by the paper that is a member of Australia’s Right To Know free-speech campaign. 

Since Monday, two more editorials have taken a swipe at the commentators; Hamilton earns himself a sub-heading and the title of “comedian” in today’s editorial; in yesterday’s editorial Manne scored the sub-heading “Speak up Robert! We can’t hear you through the mouth gag”; and Marr was pleased to see he rated a mention, too.

Can’t we all just get along? Isn’t this a bit petty (and boring) for a newspaper that prides itself on its agenda-setting news coverage? And do readers really care?

Robert Manne says they should. “The key to The Australian is that most newspapers in this country are not campaigning, it’s is the only high-quality paper running a campaign for a political agenda for neo-liberal, neo-conservatives. But unlike the conservative Wall Street Journal, it distorts reportage and commentary,” Manne told Crikey. 

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial is distinct from the rest of its content. It provides high-quality news coverage, that is not disorted by the editorial view. Much of the content in The Australian is distorted, that’s Chris Mitchell. It was a much better paper under Paul Kelly.”

To follow is the “psychotic” left’s side of the story, and an explanation from The Oz.

The SMH’s David Marr and author of the Quarterly Essay His Master’s Voice — The corruption of public debate under Howard:

Monday’s editorial should be set to music. Mitchell and I got off on the wrong foot a decade ago when I showed his mighty Courier Mail scoop on Manning Clark was just rubbish. It only took a couple of phone calls. Back then, Mitchell ran stories denouncing me as a traitor and liar. Calling me a ‘psychotic’ leftie is almost playful by comparison.  Landing some blows on The Oz from my Media Watch perch did nothing to make us buddies. It was always the same. We would set out our reasons, show the documents, interview the various parties etc — and The Oz would accuse us and the ABC of dark political vendettas. Never proved, of course. Answering criticism with smears seems to be Mitchell’s style.

There’s no doubt there’s a loyal little audience for this florid anti-leftie rhetoric. But I reckon the readers of The Oz would be more interested in the issues raised in The Quarterly Essay that’s provoked these latest attacks: the fate of whistleblowers, Ruddock’s passion for banning books and DVDs, the role of street demonstrations in modern politics, new barriers to reporting in Canberra, Howard’s strugge with the truth etc. Mitchell is a talented editor trapped in a one explanation universe. It’s holding The Australian back from being the great national paper it wants to be.

Head of the Australia Institute Clive Hamilton and author of the books Scorcher: the dirty politics of climate change and Silencing Dissent:

These attacks by The Australian are flattering in a way because they make me seem much more important than I am. In making these personal attacks the newspaper has sacrificed its authority. In response to today’s editorial , I’m not claiming and have never claimed that I have been silenced by the paper, with one exception, and that was the attempt to have the portrayal of The Australian in my book Scorcher changed.

Let’s have robust debate, but let’s do it in a dignified way and stick to the arguments and the evidence as different sides see it. It’s become vindictive. The ordinary reader must find the whole thing pretty amusing. It’s a sort of death by editorial.  The Australian is the only paper in Australia that devotes acres of space to declaring the irrelevance of people. Unfortunately, the boundaries between editorial opinion and news stories when it comes to climate change at least, have been dissolved at The Australian. The paper is influential in the current political climate and in my view it has a responsibility to rise above this kind of stuff. At no point have they specified where they think I got it wrong with my book Scorcher. I’m waiting for them to be specific about the alleged mistakes and misrepresenation in Scorcher, any specific claims I will carefully consider.

Robert Manne, editor of Black Inc’s Agenda series and author of Left, Right, Left (Black Inc,2005):

Here is an extract from The Australian’s editorial from yesterday:

“[Manne] is also interested in Iraq …That’s quite right: in The Age in 2003, Manne wrote about Iraq, saying suicide bombers were “brave” and could not plausibly be described as “terrorists” because they would not ‘wantonly’ take the lives of innocent civilians. No? Not even those who later took the lives of children and UN staff.”

Since 2001, The Australian has published about 50 vitriolic attacks on me, several in the newspaper’s increasingly hysterical editorials. On Monday, they merely labelled Clive Hamilton, David Marr and me as “psychotic”. Today they went one step further. I was implicitly called a friend of terrorism. I have a life history of opposition both to totalitarianism in all its forms and to terrorism. In August, 2006, I wrote a long article for The Monthly where I linked al-Qaeda to the totalitarianism of the past — Nazism and Stalinism. How then did The Australian concoct its astonishing accusation?

Here’s how.

On 7 April, 2003, three weeks after the invasion of Iraq, the following paragraph appeared in an article in The Age:

“[I]t is not surprising that Iraqi men and women have resorted to suicide attacks upon coalition troops. Nothing has been more hypocritical in this war than Western moralising about the cowardly terrorism of such people. Far from being cowards, the Iraqi suicide bombers are extraordinarily, indeed fanatically, brave. Nor can they plausibly be described as terrorists. Even according to the narrowest Western definition, terrorists are those who, in pursuit of a political cause, wantonly take the lives of innocent civilians. Unlike the Palestinian bombers, these Iraqis are targeting not civilians but the soldiers of foreign countries who have, as they see it, invaded and occupied their country.”

The Australian omitted to mention the date of the article to give the impression that I was commenting on later clearly terrorist acts. It failed to mention the clear distinction I made between suicide bombers who attack troops and those who attack civilians. It failed to make it clear that in the paragraph I described attacks upon civilians as the essence of terrorism. It failed to mention that I have regarded terrorism as an evil all my life.

Yesterday’s editorial was provoked by a letter of mine published in The Australian the day before. The following words were deleted without my knowledge:

“On the invasion of Iraq [The Australian] argued that the performance of the anti-war left had been a disgrace. ‘Remember the bloody campaign in which we were going to get bogged down … It is not love but being a left-wing intellectual that means you never have to say you’re sorry.’”.

It is the disgraceful record of The Australian over Iraq that the editor does not want its readers to recall.

The Australian‘s weekend editor Nick Cater:

It’s very clear to make the distinction between two very distinct issues — the claims of political censorship and the issues that The Australian is fighting as part of Australia’s Right to Know campaign. These issues have been muddied and confused by Marr, Manne and Hamilton. The Australian has taken a stand against some of the things which are limiting our right to know. Included in this is the lack of shield laws for whistle blowers, prosecution of journalists who refuse to reveal sources, the effective closing down of freedom of information, court suppression and a number of other issues which The Australian clearly made a stand against.

The Australian and News Corp are at the forefront of the campaigning to ensure the right to know. This is very distinct and different from the claims made by books like Silencing Dissent (Clive Hamilton, Sarah Maddison) in which they claim there is effort by the Howard government to suppress political debate and silence voices of the left. As we made clear in our editorial, we find no evidence that there is any politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in Australia. In fact debate has never been more vibrant than it is now … Of course these people take part in that debate, as Marr writes extensively in The Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere and appears regularly on the taxpayer-funded ABC. Hamilton writes extensively for the press, including in The Australian, in The Monthly, New Matilda and other journals. He appears regularly on radio. But there’s a distinction here between some very concerning aspects of the behaviour of governments and judiciary which shut down the right to know in some circumstances and these people’s quite extraordinary claims that we are moving towards an autocratic state which exercises political censorship. I would refer them to Robert Service’s excellent new book on the history of communism for an insight to what constitutes a genuinely repressive regime.