Did Rupert Murdoch just sack Chris Mitchell? Though the man who once took a bust of Lenin to college at Oxford was under the pressure of a rare moment of public account, it is pretty rare for him not to back up a working editor or at least stonewall creatively.

He would have good cause of course. Over the past couple of years, Mitchell’s leadership has wrecked the reputation of The Australian, and for little benefit. Whatever gains the news section has made in matters like the AWB scandal have been undercut by its fast-and-loose attitude to the responsibility of its op-ed writers, and – resulting from that – its demeaning and near-psychotic wars with Media Watch and Robert Manne.

There’s so many lowlights and hilarious moments in The Oz‘s conduct of the culture wars, it’s hard to know which to pick as a favourite:

  • Janet Albrechtsen reversing a quote from a French academic about youth rape to make it sound like it was about rape by Muslim youths – the exact opposite of the author’s findings.

  • Keith Windschuttle’s denunciation of Antonio Negri, the Italian academic invited by Sydney Uni to a conference. Windschuttle got most of his entirely inaccurate take on Negri from an American journal – the only detail he missed was that Negri had cancelled his visit. Nevertheless, op-ed editor Tom Switzer ran the story for days.

  • Christopher Pearson’s denunciation of the radical left publishing agenda of ABC Books, as judged by the books on its website. Only trouble was none of them were published by ABC Books – they were simply books mentioned on ABC shows and stocked in ABC shops.

  • The relentless denunciation of cultural studies, deconstruction etc from the editorial pulpit, despite the fact that one of its (sometime) leader writers – Imre Salusinszky – had been a prime mover in converting Australian university English Departments into cultural studies departments.

  • Walkley Dwarf-rage

  • Shanahan et al’s Comical Ali impersonation

And now Bondigate. You can’t pull this sort of crap for ever without damaging the brand. Even the rusted on readers are getting exasperated, as can be judged from the 400+ comments on one of Overington’s blog stories “Interest rate rise will be good news for Howard”.

Whether Mitchell will be dumped remains to be seen. He can’t be shuffled sideways like Paul Kelly, who owns some books and can write long pieces (that often feel very long). He may be kicked upstairs to goose up the US part of the empire. He may be warehoused — as former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie was for a decade — in failed multimedia projects. Switzer will have to go back to the valleys and lederhosen of his cheese-making youth.

It’s all a bit of a shame. Switzer’s op-ed pages were interesting at the start – though always a fixed fight – and as far as the paper goes, parts of it are excellent, madam. Undoubtably some of the Slurry Hills gang’s energy gave the paper a transfusion it needed. But its leadership are obsessives, tipping – to judge from the Overington email oeuvre – into the hypomanic, with its characteristic delusion of invulnerability.

Whatever the cause, the Oz as it now is in a Rudd era would be utterly out of place, like an ex- at the wedding. The culture wars are over, simply because most Australians never cared much about them, once Keating was gone.

It took about 30 Luke Slattery — a good writer fallen among nutjobs — articles on deconstruction in high schools to get a single rise from one state premier (Queensland) on the issue, and then everything carried on as before. The Oz‘s culture wars were a puppet show on the beach, washed away by the climate change of Workchoices, Iraq, pathological lying, climate change and even David Hicks. Should – should – Labor get up, the paper will have to reinvent itself, lest it sound like the magazine of the LaRouchites. Whoever’s best placed to do that, it ain’t the current mob.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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