Comedy is about timing; hoaxes about context.

Take Ern Malley, the stunt perpetuated by James McAuley, the founder of a certain magazine called Quadrant. The Ern Malley poems have entrenched themselves within the Australian canon — today, they’re almost certainly more widely read than anything written by McAuley or his co-conspirator, Harold Stewart.

Had the poems been published in a different setting, there’d have been no hoax at all. The punchline depended entirely upon Harris’ reputation. Here was a rather self-serious exponent of High Modernist verse publishing lines picked at random from a report on mosquito control:

“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other/

Areas of stagnant water serve/

As breeding grounds …” Now

Have I found you, my Anopheles!

So with Sharon Gould. There’s nothing shameful about the editorial staff of a little magazine making a mistake. One presumes that Quadrant, like other Australian literary journals, can’t afford fact-checkers. The normal refereeing process is not as rigorous as people like to pretend — it depends on convincing overworked academics to devote unpaid hours reading draft manuscripts and, even with the best will in the world, you can’t expect them to check every footnote. In any case, for generalist literary magazines like Quadrant or Overland, refereeing is not necessarily that useful, since the more important editorial judgements are aesthetic rather than narrowly specialist.

So, in one sense, Windschuttle’s response to the Gould hoax is entirely correct:

Any printed or online publication that accepts freelance contributions, as both Quadrant and Crikey do, is vulnerable to the same tactic. All such publications have an obligation to their readers to do a basic job of fact-checking, which Quadrant did in this case. [There is a point beyond which such sub-editing practices cannot go, especially when dealing with an author’s discussion of the detailed content of several books and their footnotes. There comes a point at which all publishers have to take their authors on trust. […] At this point, all editors are equally vulnerable.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just editors who blunder. Yet Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History rested squarely on the notion that when historians of frontier conflict — in particular, Henry Reynolds, Lloyd Robson and Lyndall Ryan — were caught in error, this was evidence not of an innocent mistake but of conscious and systematic falsification.

Lyndall Ryan, one of Windschuttle’s particular targets, began research on her PhD thesis in 1970. In those pre-computer days, her notes — on archives that were yet to be properly catalogued — were all on pieces of paper. The book based on that thesis (The Aboriginal Tasmanians) came out in 1981, by which time she no longer possessed many of her original notes. For publication, the 1351 separate references in 1000 footnotes were reduced to 857 references in just over 500 endnotes. As Ryan wrote: “In the process of such substantial reduction, some were lost or scrambled. Every historian dreads this happening, but it is a fact of life.”

Put like that, her sins don’t seem quite so egregious, do they? Yet Windschuttle, who now pleads context in his response to Margaret Simons, repeatedly accused Ryan of conscious misrepresentation. His manifold boosters in the Murdoch press took up the call, to the point where journalists called the Vice Chancellor at Ryan’s university demanding that she be sacked.

In the midst of the History Wars, Stuart Macintyre made the fairly uncontroversial point that all historians err. He acknowledged that, when he went back to his own footnotes, he often discovered that as many as ten per cent contained errors. At the time, Windschuttle seized on the point as an admission of the shoddiness of academic engaged in “concerted invention”.

“The degree of misinformation in the work of these authors — even if their colleagues want to excuse it all as error — would be unacceptable in any other profession, and certainly unacceptable in journalism.”

Well, apparently not.

It’s in that context that the Gould hoax works. Had Sharon Gould submitted a story to Quadrant documenting an Aboriginal massacre, Windschuttle would have been all over the footnotes like a rash, searching for anything to discredit her. But because he agreed with her thesis, he paid them much less attention — precisely the sin for which he denounced historians.

Windschuttle, of course, played the ‘gotcha’ game with extraordinary ruthlessness. Most of his work involved Aborigines, the most downtrodden and marginalised sector of the population. Windschuttle’s central claim was that all this historical fabrication was taking place to disguise the reality that the Tasmanian Aborigines died out partly because they “traded and prostituted their [sic] women to such an extent that their society lost the ability to reproduce itself” — a particularly vicious little argument.

Had the Gould stunt been sprung on anyone else, it would scarcely have registered. But in this case, one inevitably recalls scripture: “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him”.