Hardly surprising that the departure of an editor — sudden: yes, bloodless: not so certain — from a leading journal of politics and ideas should raise eyebrows and a little chatter-born dust.

Sally Warhaft, anthropology PhD, former partner of prolific pensman Gideon Haigh, latter-day fixture of Melbourne’s thoughtful, soft-leftist media elite, parted ways last Friday with The Monthly, a title she took to something close to national prominence and quite probably profitability in three and a half years as editor.

She quit, and initial reports were quick to pin blame on a readily alluded to but deeply unquotable rift between Warhaft, her publisher Morry Schwartz and the man many describe as the dominant figure on the magazine’s editorial board, LaTrobe University academic and prominent public intellectual, Robert Manne.

Half a week later, everyone wants to talk about it, but nobody wants to put their name to what is a solidly consensual view: Manne wields great influence over Schwartz, Manne and Warhaft had serial disagreements over at least the last six months of her editorship, and that Schwartz in the end — self-evidently — sided with Manne.

According to a long-term observer of Melburnian journalism, it is a simple enough case of “two middle aged bores who can’t stand it when a smart young woman answers them back.”

To others the reality is marginally more complex, at least at a psychological level, and centres around a Pygmalionesque relationship between property developer-cum-publisher Schwartz and the man — Manne — who became his intellectual guide.

One prominent Melbourne man of letters more than familiar with both puts it simply: “Manne has educated him; and Morry is head over heals besotted with Robert. Manne is his guru, his mentor.”

Schwartz treats this series of notions as offensive absurdities. In the first place, “I was a publisher before I was a property developer. They want to see me as a property developer, an easy dismissal, they are wrong. I am a publisher. I have published continually since 1973 and only ever became a developer to support the publishing.”

On the Pygmalion issue, “I think that there is a central intelligence that runs through my work, mine. I have great respect for Robert, but am in love with him? No.”

Manne was a member of The Monthly‘s editorial board, a group that also included Schwartz, Warhaft and Black Inc (a Schwartz imprint) managing director Chris Feik.

To some, what became tricky over time was the influence this board attempted to exert over the most intimate operations of The Monthly. According to one close observer, the board saw no areas of the magazine’s decision making process as off limits, a situation that would challenge any independent-minded editor.

Manne is cited as the dominating voice at the board table and beyond, a once prominent public presence now grappling with a quickly descending twilight that has combined serious ill-health with a fading profile. “He’s frustrated by his diminishing influence in public life,” said one source, “…he saw The Monthly as a critical vehicle for his world view. Over the past six months he has been something of a super-editor, and he’s used the magazine as a mouthpiece for his particular ideological obsessions.”

Said another: “Sally had a terrible time with Robert. He was going behind her back to Morry and commissioning things over her head. It was driving her round the twist.”

Schwartz recalls the process — and its eventual breakdown — in very different terms. “It is an absolute untruth to say that Robert Manne commissioned pieces … There were issues with Sally. Sally was very difficult to work with. She was controlling, inflexible. She refused to discuss, that was the problem. She became brittle about it.

“The Board had a significant role to play. The tone and position of the magazine was a matter for the editorial board, it was there to assist the editor. No one person can run a magazine like The Monthly.

“The board meetings became so uncomfortable in the end that they were called off. We only had one board meeting this year. They became untenable.”

While Schwartz insists that his publishing operations are characterised by lengthy service and reciprocal loyalty, others point to an eerily reminiscent incident in 2004, when Schwartz sacked then Quarterly Essay editor Peter Craven after a conflict that also involved the input and preferences of Manne. Unlike the veil of polite silence that intially descended through mutual agreement of the combatants in the Warhaft departure, Craven’s leaving went public. In a pointed and embittered contribution to The Times Literary Supplement, Craven slated Schwartz as a “property developer who liked the idea of toying with publications.”

That ugliness aside, there is a common enough view that Schwartz has been slow to learn the lesson that good editors are not lapdogs.

As one senior Monthly contributor put it. “I think that all great and enduring magazines have great and independent editors. I presume that was something that Manne and the board had difficulty accepting.”

At its best there is at the heart of the relationship that simultaneously binds and separates commercial and editorial arms of any quality publication an act of considerable confidence between publisher and editor. “It’s an act of faith and also an act of giving up something on the part of the publisher.”

Black Inc’s Chris Feik offers a corrective.

“The idea that Morry Schwartz requires his editors to be lapdogs is wrong and insulting. I became editor of Quarterly Essay in early 2004 and since then have commissioned as I have seen fit, taking up proposals and initiating essays. Not once has Morry Schwartz interfered with this process. As an experienced publisher and the originator of the series, he has offered useful ideas and advice, but never in an authoritarian or dictatorial spirit.

“Black Inc. and Quarterly Essay are successful publications, and this is due in large part to Morry Schwartz’s vision and ability to allow his staff to do their jobs with freedom and confidence.”

The counter view persists, and is held with equal strength. The Monthly is now recruiting for Warhaft’s replacement; tricky, according to another of the nameless chorus. “How do you expect any editor to take the job when they are only going to be Robert’s valet?”

Schwartz is confident of recovering from this minor setback, and sees a strong future for his magazine, now selling, he says, around 30,000 copies each edition. “The Monthly will outlive us, you and me. I promise you.”

Peter Fray

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