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Oct 2, 2009

Unethical! Disgrace! Gillard wars turn nasty at The Monthly

The editorial board of The Monthly is standing by its editor Ben Naparstek, despite a growing row over his October cover story.

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The editorial board of The Monthly is standing by editor Ben Naparstek this morning after he splashed the October edition with a review of The Making of Julia Gillard by an author writing her own biography on the same subject.

Under the front-page tagline “biography wars”, Christine Wallace, the author of an as-yet unpublished biography of Gillard (Allen & Unwin), slams her competitor Jacqueline Kent’s recent release The Making of Julia Gillard (Penguin) as “curiously flat”, “thin” and “plain-vanilla”, before dismissing the 323-page tome as a “friendly political quickie”.

“Kent’s account is the approved Julia Gillard Story: Julia as Julia would have it told,” writes Wallace, who will release her own effort in time for Christmas next year. “If the truth is in the surface of things … then Kent has done a good job of description without analysis”.

The review prompted an angry outburst from Penguin editor Ben Ball who emailed Naparstek after the magazine hit the streets on Tuesday. Ball told Crikey that the decision to publish the review was a “complete disgrace” and an “egregious calumny”.

“The commissioning of an author writing a rival biography to review a book is shocking. To try and dress that up as a biography war is a confection that betrays the readers of The Monthly who are used to much better. This is the most sinister hook The Monthly have ever used to lure its readers,” he added.

Allen & Unwin were caught napping on the Gillard biography front, after Penguin commissioned Kent late last year with a view to getting the book out this year. As previously reported by Crikey, upon hearing of Penguin’s efforts, Allen & Unwin then commissioned Wallace.

Kent conducted three interviews with the Deputy PM, while Wallace has so far been denied access.

A livid Kent told Crikey that the review was “completely unethical”.

“I knew that Canberra journalists were sensitive when outsiders tread on their hallowed turf, but I’m very surprised that The Monthly would provide an outlet for Wallace’s vitriol. You would have thought The Monthly would have understood the concept of conflict of interest,” said Kent.

Wallace hit back when contacted by Crikey, defending her record as “scrupulously fair”.

“I declare at the outset of the piece I’m also writing a biography of Julia Gillard, so readers are forewarned and forearmed,” said Wallace. “They can read my review, read Jacquie’s book and make their own judgement. I bent over backwards to be fair and am confident I was.”

She described Naparstek’s decision to commission the review as a “lateral move from which readers will get exceptional value”.

In an email sent to Monthly subscribers last night, Naparstek vigorously promoted the stoush, spruiking a “corrosive assessment of a literary rival.” Kent, according to Wallace, “failed to breach the defences of Gillard’s tightly controlled public persona or to adequately probe Gillard’s political philosophy.”

Elsewhere in the review, Wallace accuses Kent of not declaring the “joint authorship” of the book, claiming Melbourne-based journalist Doug Hendrie and former public servant John Tuchin had been denied bylines. However, Hendrie confirmed to Crikey that he had played no role in the writing of the book and was dismayed by Wallace’s inferences to the contrary.

Wallace and Kent appeared alongside each other in November last year on the ABC’s Biographies program, but according to Kent there was no tension on the set, despite both authors’ awareness of the other’s looming efforts.

The aggression could exacerbate unhealed wounds at The Monthly following former editor Sally Warhaft’s departure in June. Warhaft is friends with Ball and launched Kent’s book last week at Melbourne’s Readings Bookshop, as reported by Crikey.

Ball told Crikey he’d contacted Naparstek when the review hit the streets to express his concern, and that Naparstek had offered Ball a right of reply in the next edition of The Monthly‘s letters section.

When Ball expressed dissatisfaction with the offer, Naparstek offered space for Kent to write a review of Wallace’s book.

Monthly editorial board scion Robert Manne then entered the fray, reiterating the point to Crikey that former Monthly editor Warhaft was “friends with Ben Ball and that she was involved in the launch of Jacqueline Kent’s book.”

Manne also suggested Ball was gunning for Naparstek’s resignation. “Crikey should try to find out who is trying to undermine Ben [Naparstek’s] editorship, and why”, he added.

Offering the opportunity for rival authors to review each other’s books could be an escalating editorial trend. In the July edition of the Australian Book Review, Jill Jolliffe sunk the knife in to Tony Maniaty, the author of Shooting Balibo, Blood and Memory in East Timor. Joliffe’s book Balibo currently sits alongside Maniaty’s effort in bookshops.

This morning on Wallace’s website Breakfast Politics, a favourite among Canberra insiders, the top story was a link to the online version of The Monthly yarn. The link was titled “Jacquie & Julia (a very fair review)”.

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27 comments

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27 thoughts on “Unethical! Disgrace! Gillard wars turn nasty at The Monthly

  1. Guy Rundle

    Hang on just a minute there. The Jolliffe-Maniaty thing is different to the Kent-Wallace thang. Jolliffe is an expert on the 1975 east timor invasion, and the Balibo Five. Maniaty’s book is a memoir-investigation. There’s no-one more qualified than Jolliffe to assess the accuracy and quality of Maniaty’s book, and they’re complementary, not literally identical projects.

    As a general rule, people will often review books that overlap books they have written. to not do that is to miss out on a chance to assess their accuracy. the wallace-kent thing is two identical projects, both by generalists, and quite a different issue.

  2. deccles

    F-ck I wish I could get a refund on my Monthy 2 year subscription, I’d funnel it towards my Crikey! renewal. Sally Warhaft and Gideon Haigh were the best things about it. I’ll turf this months ‘The Monthly’ in the recycle bin just like every other edition under wunderkind Naperstek.

    Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson are now nearly indistinguisable from each other.

  3. paddy

    Oh FFS Crikey. The No1 story???
    It’s probably worth a spin for the culture warriors out there.
    (There are no doubt plenty who subscribe and even some who write for Crikey)

    But it’s hardly the lead. Bung it on the blog where it belongs.

  4. Brian Byrnes

    When has a biography ever provided real insights and name a biography which has never been disputed or derided by somebody. they are largely useless works, telling us nothing important or worthwhile.

    So, people, who cares ?

  5. Jack Robertson

    Hold your ground, Ben Naparstek. In the internet era all the old Tweedy witewawy wules are out the window. Posh book and magazine writers who can’t or won’t get dirty in the word-pit on their own behalf can vacate their paid gigs for someone who is; willing to use words to tell us stuff we don’t know, not deliver motherhood platitudes and careerist dreck.

    Someone gave someone else’s book an ordinary review. Boo-hoo. Naparstek’s offered the insultee return space. Bitch-slap the insulter back. Or not.

    Just stop appealing to some literary ethics umpire. There ain’t one. Never was; certainly not now.

  6. Andrew Crook

    Guy, I can see what you mean, but there was still significant resentment in publishing circles over the ABR Balibo thing — of precisely the same kind inherent in the Gillard stoush.

  7. Guy Rundle

    Andrew

    In any given situation where an author reviews a book by another author within their area of expertise, there will be all sorts of points of view. But I dont think it’s a new trend – it’s a necessary one. Sometimes accusations of bad faith may be just, sometimes not.

    It’s often the case that new biogs of subject X will be reviewed by an old biographer of X – or that a one volume biog of X will be reviewed by the author of the 4 volume biog. after all who else is going to know whether its any good.

    The problem here is that these biogs are competing on identical turf – first major biogs by political journalists, neither of them substantially different (if a very left wing figure were writing a Gillard biog you might get a centre or right figure to review it) in approach. That looks too close to be anything other than a bit of a staged stoush. but havent read the piece.

  8. Rowan

    Only one author has published a book on this topic so far, the other author isn’t going to publish for another year. Wallace probably has high hopes for her book — she’s going to show us the real Julia, behind the mask, etc, blah blah blah — but by the time it’s actually published it’ll probably be as bland as Kevin Rudd’s voice. And then Kent can write her own biting review.

    Boring.

  9. tony

    I don’t know what the fuss is about. Surely you expect people who have expertise in a subject to review books rather than generalists whose insights might be interesting but are mostly worthless. It doesn’t seem to phase readers of the NYRB or the LRB to see Greek scholars reviewing books by Greek scholars or whatever. As they say, get a life.

  10. respect your elders

    Guy, you’re right – there’s nothing wrong with David Marr reviewing a new biog of Patrick White, for example. But getting an author of a newly or soon-to-be released book to review a concurrently released book on the same subject is dangerous. And lazy. And completely misses the point of reviewing the book in the first place.

    Robert Manne seems to have nothing better to do than peek over Ben Naparstek’s shoulder and create ‘drama’ at the Monthly. Surely it’s time for him to retire to an island somewhere and leave us all alone? There are days when Gerard Henderson seems less of a crazy; this is one of those.

  11. Frank Campbell

    Small country syndrome again…friends, enemies, maaates, lovers past, present and future, jobs likewise. “Conflict of interest” doesn’t cover the incestuous tangle that is the Australian “cultural elite”. A drifting lifeboat surrounded by bobbing empties.

    Incidentally, that’s one reason Hazel Rowley left the country in 1996, never to return.

    It’s not easy, but the least editors can do is to try and get some distance between reviewer and reviewed.

    In this case, both authors should rejoice in the drama, artificial though it is. After all, the subject is a droning politician. Op-shops are full of books on Hawke, McMahon (who?), Snedden (?), John Fraser, and the one before Rudd.

  12. Guy Rundle

    Well, Manne as member of board, is supporting the mag’s editor. seems fair.

    Frank, if you think there is anything special about australia in terms of these sorts of debates, think again. but wow, yeah losing hazel rowley does seem like a fatal blow. you sound like a man with a lot of rejection slips

  13. Frank Campbell

    Guy: no rejection slips maaate, but your gratuitous assumption neatly confirms my argument.

    By the way, how’s your wind farm research going? There are many people suffering out here in the bush who’d be delighted if urban intellectuals took the trouble to investigate empirically. Instead we get pronouncements of the universal from the inner suburbs.

  14. David Reid

    As long as there is full disclosure and right of reply I don’t think it is a problem.

  15. Robert Wingrove

    I think it might, just might, be OK to criticise other people’s work. And then those other people can reply. People with vested interests in the matter might want to take it a bit further and make it a bit more personal, at which point the rest of us can move our attention elsewhere.

  16. Kevin Herbert

    Notwithstanding the questionable practice of having one biographer review another biographer’s work, I thought Wallace’s Monthly piece was well argued. What’s the problem with the review outcome?

    Wallace’s view that “Gillard is the personification of the old diplomatic saw that there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests” sums up Gillard perfectly for mine.

    Gillard has no political substance…just a fixation with power. I know I’m out of touch with the 2009 real politik, but I still harbour the belief that our political leaders should remain true to their ideals. In Gillard’s case, she’s has never had the baggage that comes with ideals. But then why am I not suprised…her best buddy Latham, Hawke, Howard were primarily power junkies.

    Finally, when is an Australian journalist going to grill Gillard on her various policy positions e.g her distasteful, aggressive support for the Oz Israel lobby. There hasn’t been one single interview I’ve seen in which she’s been asked anything but ‘ love’ questions..e.g. the interview with Fox’s David Spicer was pewkworthy.

  17. tony

    Just to emphasize, the point that the right and proper people to review a book of scholarship (loosely defined enough to include biography) are other scholars. This spat between Wallace and Kent (or more likely their editors and moralistic bystanders) wants only to focus on the personal – like it’s a cat fight – which confuses low grade squabbling with ethical discourse. Much more worrying is the trend (in Britain more than here) for authors who share publishers (or relatives) to cosily review each others books, usually favourably.

  18. evidently

    Deccles and Andrew Crook
    is this maybe the point we are straining to avoid admitting? That the Monthly has suffered terribly through the loss of Warhaft and that the ricochet is still (in slow motion?) mashing through the grey matter of the institution?
    Is maybe the real question – does the monthly still have a pulse? Or is it just jerking around in death throes?
    Alternatively, are we turning up to the wake too early and too hungry?
    What ever the case I have enjoyed the forensics of the crikey subscriber base immensely here. I would never have guessed there was a story in this, but the multifaceted views expressed here give me comfort that when matters more serious in consequence cross the crikey desk we have these networked brains on the case.

  19. deccles

    I thought I made it clear that ‘The Monthly’ suffered with the loss of Warhaft and Haigh, but if I didn’t then let me say: The Monthly has suffered with the loss of Warhaft and Haigh.

    I think Naperstek is trying to attract a younger demographic. Using John Birmingham to replace Gideon Haigh, and the recent cover art (Gillard, Nick Cave, ‘The Wake in Fright’ young Jack Thompson). I don’t really care about the personalities involved, and those that are putting the ‘cat fight’ front and centre are missing the point. It’s an appalling lack of ethics on Naperstek’s part.

    I hope Warhaft lands a gig soon and my money will follow her. Generally I’m grumpy with everything that’s going on in Aus lit at the moment because it’s about personalities rather than the lit. The other stoush about the ‘Pen Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature’ is a case in point. Although I confess to be astounded that an ‘Anthology’ did not include novels (even itty bitty bits of them).

  20. Liz Green

    After reading the review, I have to say I don’t mind the idea of using one biographer to keep another honest.

    Christine Wallace declares her conflict of interest straight up and then proceeds to give a fearless and independent review of Jacqueline Kent’s biography of Julia Gillard. It’s well worth a read.

    I like it when The Monthly shakes up the publishing establishment. The over-blown reaction in the above story has shown how over-sensitive and stuck-in-the-mud they are.

    I don’t agree with the comment above. I have to say my love affair with The Monthly has actually been reignited since the new editor started.

  21. Pedro

    Kevin Herbert, what political leader is not a power junkie? Surely you are not naive enough – or expect us to believe – that there have been political leaders of this country who are not power junkies. Let’s face it, they have not got involved in politics to sit in a circle and sing coom-by-yah(sic).

    Rudd, Gillard, Swan, Howard, Costello, Turnbull, Abbott, Steve Smith, they all are (or they have been) obsessed with power, and so thay should be otherwise they should find another job.

    As for grilling Gillard for having various positions, I certainly agree (not so much for her position on Israel though). However, I would also extend it to Rudd for failing to giving any position on any tough topic as he drifts into his extended Sir Humphrey Appleby monologue to avoid answering questions at all. The longer Rudds answer is, the more he is hiding.

    However, the end of Rudd’s answers are very amusing. The interviewers generally have vacant expressions on their faces, unsure whether Rudd has answered, started to answer, or finished answering the question. When Rudd does this, the interviewer should ask Rudd the same question again, and this time ask Rudd to be specific.

    Finally, back to the discussion point, what great PR for both authors. The more everyone talks about it the more publicity they get. No big deal.

  22. Kerryn Goldsworthy

    ‘Although I confess to be astounded that an ‘Anthology’ did not include novels (even itty bitty bits of them).’

    And so you should be astounded, Deccles, if it were true. Fortunately, as one of the editors, I can assure you that there are in fact 54, count ’em, 54 (actually no, don’t count ’em, I have just done that for you, and anyway it’s clear that you have not actually looked at the book) extracts from novels in the anthology. We thought that was plenty, and indeed some people not a million miles from here might say it was too many.

    I have no idea where you could be getting your ‘information’ from, but wherever it is, I wouldn’t rely on it as a source in future if I were you.

  23. deccles

    I stand corrected. I meant to say ‘Plays’ not ‘novels’. Kerryn let’s see how many of those managed to make the ‘anthology’ which my Macquarie Concise refers to as a ‘collection of literature’ – just not all types of literature.

  24. Kerryn Goldsworthy

    Deccles, there are excerpts from ten plays in the anthology, after an early decision was made by the general editor, for a number of good practical reasons, to limit the amount of drama included. This is the first anthology of Australian literature that has included any drama at all.

    I offer this information because you have asked for it and because this kind of egregious misinformation needs to be corrected, but I really think we should get back on topic now.

  25. deccles

    Yep Kerryn, I took your advice and went down to Readers Feast and devoured my lunch hour pouring over the index, glossary etc. In fact I nearly bought a copy to dissect it further. But then realised that’s not going to achieve anything. The Pen Anthology of Aus Lit is out it’s in the shops. I’m sure you and your fellow editors fought long and hard for what went in and what was left out.

    Your right we should return to the topic which is the editors role in commisioning competing authors to review each others work. I frequently listen to Peter Stoppard on Radio National’s ‘The Book Show’ about who and why he commissions to review books for The TLS.

    If there was a time lag between the two bios (2 years maybe more?) from the publication date, then of course you’d go to the other author for the review. A case in point is Geoffrey Blainey’s review of Tom Keneally’s Australia book.

    Maybe Naperstek shouldn’t have chosen the Gillard book for ‘The Monthly’ or waited until they both were published. We’ll never know.

  26. Kevin Herbert

    Pedro: read my post once more time….slowly…. & you’ll understand the point I made…or maybe not.

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