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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Under the front-page tagline “biography wars”, Christine Wallace, the author of an as-yet unpublished biography of Gillard (Allen & Unwin), slams her competitor Jacqueline Kent’s recent release The Making of Julia Gillard (Penguin) as “curiously flat”, “thin”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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