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Apr 30, 2009

The Monthly: an editorially dysfunctional sales-driven PM star wagon

The Monthly is, and has always been, a fundamentally disappointing venture, writes Greg Barns.


The Monthly is, and has always been, a fundamentally disappointing venture for a number of reasons, some of which have been exposed over the past few days.

Firstly, it is highly partisan and this is its failing.

It is a magazine that is essentially a vehicle for the owner Morry Schwartz and his academic muse Robert Manne, to run their political agenda. The magazine has given Kevin Rudd two opportunities to spell out, in a generally impenetrable and intellectually vacuous way, his views on the world. This is because Manne and Rudd so loathed John Howard that they were prepared to lend their magazine to Rudd’s PR machine. The Prime Minister has appeared on the front cover no less than three times in the magazine’s short life. It is doubtful Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull would be given such a leg up by The Monthly.

And The Monthly assisted a fellow member of the media club, former ABC journalist Maxine McKew, who ran against John Howard at the last election and beat him. McKew was, like Rudd, given front cover billing.

It decided to take on the issue of the proposed pulp mill in Tasmania, a cause célèbre for the upper middle class left, but instead of commissioning a scientist or person with knowledge of environmental sustainability issues, it chose to run a piece by fiction writer Richard Flanagan, who is a regular “performer” at Wilderness Society and other green rallies in Tasmania.

Curiously, The Monthly has refused, despite it being one of the most compelling issues on earth, to take on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One assumes the majority of its readers have an interest in the issue yet this so called intellectually high brow publication has given the Middle East a wide berth. One assumes it is a form of self censorship on the part of The Monthly’s board and editors but why?

That Flanagan should be asked to write a piece about Tasmanian politics, despite his entrenched and well known views, says much about the business methods of The Monthly. Despite its regular pillorying of capitalism and free markets, The Monthly has unashamedly used only well known writers and celebrities. The Monthly has never been a platform for new voices, or voices that are refreshingly quirky and intriguing but not household names, presumably because this might affect sales. It has become a case of quantity over quality at The Monthly — an inevitable state of affairs if chasing big name writers and politicians is put before intellectual input as an aim.

And as a media institution it is dysfunctional. Writers at The Monthly and their readers regularly condemn media proprietors like Fairfax and News Limited for what they claim is interference in the editorial line. So one assumes they will be downing their copies of The Monthly in disgust at Schwartz’s claim yesterday that the board of his magazine does just that every day.

Fortunately The Monthly has competition in its space. The IPA Review and the Australian edition of The Spectator are two cases in point (I have written for both recently). Given the deep seated structural problems of The Monthly, perhaps now is the time for those journals and others to satiate the thirst for quality even handed intellectual debate in this country.


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