Since the negotiated departure of Sally Warhaft from The Monthly late last week, both Morry Schwartz and I have been the subject of a campaign fuelled by comments of mainly anonymous informants. I have been involved in many controversies in my life but almost never in something as distorted and downright nasty as this one.

Initially Morry Schwartz and Sally Warhaft agreed to keep details of the breakdown of relations between Sally (I’m afraid I can’t call a former friend Dr Warhaft) and the Board confidential. This agreement did not last a day. On Saturday, stories inspired by sources close to Sally appeared in both The Australian and The Age. Yesterday two further stories appeared — one by Caroline Overington in The Australian, the other by Jonathan Green in Crikey, both based mainly on anonymous sources close to Sally. Because of the ugliness and the inaccuracy of the comments made especially by Green’s anonymous sources, Morry responded openly to Green’s piece in Crikey yesterday. It is now time for a more complete response to this campaign.

Let me begin by giving two example of the malice directed against me by Sally’s supporters. Yesterday I spoke to Caroline Overington of The Australian. Someone had given her a garbled story about the fact that I had suggested and Sally had agreed that we should run a story on the bushfires. I had a particular reason to be interested in this story. My family lives in Cottlesbridge. A few minutes drive to our north, scores of people were burned to death. About a dozen were acquaintances of mine or of our family.

The question I wanted to try and answer is the one being asked by almost everyone in our neighbourhood: Why weren’t the people who lived in the bushfire regions issued with any warnings by the CFA or by ABC Radio 774? This is not a strange question. It is the first question that will be considered by the Royal Commission. Nonetheless, it had been suggested to Overington by one of Sally’s anonymous supporters that I was interested in this question not because I was shaken by the deaths of so many people in our immediate region, but because I expected that the CFA should have phoned me personally. I am not usually lost for words. On this occasion I was.

Given another gross distortion that appeared in today’s Age, a little more about this story needs to be said. Sally agreed we should run the bushfire story. She suggested someone we both admire — Richard Flanagan. Because the details of the story were familiar to me and not to Sally, it was agreed that I should ring Richard’s home. I learned he would be away for several days, on the Franklin, completely uncontactable. Around this time I read a piece on the bushfires by David Marr, a journalist both Sally and I admire, and rang him to discuss the story.

Some days later David returned my call. Given that Richard was now out of the picture for the next issue, as Sally knew, I asked David if he might be interested. He agreed. I phoned Sally with the good news. She was thrilled. Next day David contacted us both. His editor at the Sydney Morning Herald had decided to refuse him leave. Both Sally and I were very disappointed. When Richard returned from the Franklin River I tried to interest him in the story for a later issue. He declined.

Here is the account of all this that appeared in The Age:

David Marr yesterday confirmed he had been approached by Professor Manne to write a 10,000 word piece for the next issue. When he emailed Dr Warhaft to discuss the piece, she knew nothing of it — and had approached author Richard Flanagan to work on a similar subject.

This seems to me a complete distortion of what happened. If Sally was unhappy that I asked Marr if he might be interested in writing the piece after he rang me unexpectedly (and after we had discovered Flanagan was away for several days) she certainly never told me. Sally rather told me she was delighted with the idea. I am astonished that she was offended by all this.

Take another example of the malice. In Crikey yesterday one of Sally’s anonymous supporters was paraphrased by Green as saying that I was “a once prominent public presence now grappling with a quickly descending twilight that has combined serious ill-health with a fading profile” and quoted directly as saying: “He’s frustrated by his diminishing influence in public life … he saw The Monthly as a critical vehicle for his world view…”

I was shocked that Crikey would publish these sentences. My health problem has never been discussed in public. Previously I had thought that in Australia questions of health were, except in exceptional circumstances, considered by most journalists to be private matters. Apparently I was wrong. To juxtapose my recent cancer and subsequent radiotherapy for a thankfully treatable cancer caught early, against a claim that I live in daily fear about what is called my supposed “quickly descending twilight” is both morally indecent and also factually incorrect. I found I was able to write a great deal even while being treated.

At present, beyond my university duties, I am editing three books; preparing to write a fourth; chairing and writing regularly for The Monthly; writing occasionally for The Australian Literary Review and The Australian. This does not feel like a quickly descending twilight to me. Given that my health has been drawn into this matter, I am also happy to be able to announce that reports of my impending death have been greatly exaggerated. I have now finished a successful course of treatment and am back at work and feeling fine.

In the campaign, the story of Sally’s departure, and of her relations with the Board of The Monthly and with Morry Schwartz and me, have been distorted to an astonishing degree. Let me try to set the record straight as fairly as I can.

When Sally was appointed it was agreed by all concerned that she would work reasonably closely with the magazine’s editorial board — comprising Sally; Morry Schwartz, the founder, the proprietor and, most importantly the architect of the magazine; Chris Feik the publisher at Black Inc.; myself as chair.

For a long time the arrangement worked well. Sally relied upon, and seemed to welcome, ideas from all of us. Without this team work the magazine would not have been as successful as it was. Very many of the most successful stories arose from suggestions of other members of the Board. So far from Sally resenting our involvement, early last year Chris Feik and I agreed to help Sally, who was feeling overwhelmed, by commissioning book reviews, although never without her prior approval. Both of us have very busy professional lives. We did so purely to help her (and) without any extra remuneration. Around the same time Sally asked me if I would agree to guest edit an issue in the middle of 2009 so she could take a mid-winter holiday. I agreed. For many years, as very many people know, I was doing all I could to help her.

Last year relations between Sally and all the members of the Board began to change. I can speak with confidence about why they did so in my case. I learned of several incidents concerning Sally which troubled me. With many writers Sally had and maintained excellent relations. With others, I discovered, she could be both ruthless and rather brutal. I also discovered that several prominent writers had offered The Monthly articles and had not even received the minimal courtesy of a reply. A representative of Australia’s literary agents sent Sally a letter indicating anger at what they thought of as her discourtesy and unprofessionalism. As Morry Schwartz has been a publisher for three and a half decades and has maintained good relations with literary agents over that time, he was very concerned.

We discovered that confidential discussions from Board meetings were being openly discussed by Sally with outsiders with the aim of harming me. Most importantly of all, the atmosphere at these Board meetings deteriorated very badly. Open discussion became impossible. Everyone was very tense. The last meeting, a few weeks ago, when Sally asked us to discuss the possibility of Peter Costello writing for The Monthly and then was furious when we all, for somewhat different reasons, thought it a bad idea, was so unpleasant that we all knew the meetings had to be abandoned.

The final straw came a few days ago. I had suggested an international symposium on the Rudd essay, the question of neo-liberalism, and the global financial crisis. Because I had suggested the symposium, suggested the names of the contributors and had actually read their work, Morry thought, and I agreed, that I should write the introduction. So far as I was aware, Sally agreed with all this. After I wrote it, she absolutely insisted on certain changes which made no sense to me. I must not say, she insisted, that The Monthly was “surprised” and “gratified” that the essay had been offered to us by the Prime Minister. She never explained to me what it was that offended her about this form of words. I now suspect that she did not want the world to understand that The Monthly had not commissioned the Rudd essay but had received it unexpectedly.

Over the question of these words Sally and I had a minor disagreement. With Morry there was a Sally-initiated flaming row. Bad relations had been building between Sally and the Board over many months. Things had now come to an end. Morry and Sally agreed that there would be no public stoush. The Board tried to keep our side of the bargain. In recent days, Sally’s detailed version of these events, unfortunately, have appeared in a twisted and garbled form in Crikey, The Age and The Australian. This is why I have felt it necessary to respond.

Two final points. It has been suggested that I am envious of Sally’s high public profile. This is both insulting and rather silly. For many years I did all I could to help her. I always wished her well. Even the examples being given in the press are self-evidently ridiculous. Like Sally, I attended the 2020 Summit. Like her, I have appeared on Q & A.

Even worse is the suggestion that Morry Schwartz is an interfering proprietor and a difficult boss. I have never encountered a more pleasant and harmonious office than the one at Black Inc. The main reason is straightforward. Morry is a natural egalitarian. He treats all those he employs with kindness and respect. This is not all there is to Morry. He alone was the inventor of the idea of The Quarterly Essay and The Monthly, two of the most successful and creative ventures in Australian publishing.

It has also been said by Peter Craven that Morry is somehow in my power. Because slander is a hummable tune, many people have recently begun to sing this song. It is also simply false. Morry is fiercely independent, as am I. I learn at least as much from him as he learns from me. Good friendships are almost always based on mutual respect. With us, anyhow, this is certainly the case.

Peter Fray

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