This week’s column is about an idea, an event, and a piece of sponsorship — and the implications of these for Australian letters and debate.

The idea is the “public sphere” and the event is #twitdef, or the legal threat to sue for defamation issued against Australian academic Julie Posetti by the editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. The sponsorship is the $500,000-a-year deal by sandstone university lobbyists the Group of Eight.

What is the “public sphere” and why does it matter? The phrase was coined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

Habermas’ book is a detailed history of the evolution of public debate and opinion in the salons, coffee houses and political newspapers of western Europe. As sociologist Rodney Benson observes: “This public sphere challenged the principle of traditional feudal rule and brought into being a new basis for authority: the consensus emerging from the public’s open-ended, critical argumentation and debate.”

Coffee shops and small journals such as Tatler, founded in 1709, were crucial incubators of political discussion, which often took the form of letters to the editor. Habermas tells the story that “when The Spectator separated from The Guardian the letters to the editor were provided with a special institution: on the west side of Button’s Coffee House a lion’s head was attached through whose jaws the reader threw his letter”.

In our time, this public sphere has evolved into a key principle of parliamentary democracy. It’s more relevant than ever today, as Jay Rosen has noted. The public sphere is the collective aggregate of all our political discussion, whether in public broadcasting, for-profit newspapers and television, or online news services such as Crikey. But it’s just as evident and much more vibrant in new media platforms such as comments pages, blogs and Twitter.

The public sphere, in other words, is enjoying a new lease of life in the online era. Mainstream media organisations such as The Australian have been slow to adapt. Maybe this explains the strange obsession the newspaper seems to have with attacking its online critics.

But suing someone for tweeting essentially accurate reports of a journalism conference goes further. It attacks the freedom of speech that gives the public sphere oxygen, and that allows journalists and academics to do their jobs.

By now, Crikey readers are probably aware of the circus surrounding the defamation action threatened by lawyers for Mitchell against Posetti, who tweeted out a series of essentially accurate reports of comments made at a journalism conference by a former journalist for The Australian, Asa Wahlquist. Crikey‘s Bernard Keane and Andrew Dodd have covered it, as has the ABC’s Jonathan Holmes in a widely read column on The Drum. You can even read the letters from the lawyers representing Mitchell and Posetti.

Plenty of observers have remarked with interest on the hypocrisy of a newspaper editor threatening defamation proceedings (an editor whose newspaper has been a keen participant in the “Your Right to Know” free-speech campaign). But the substance of the dispute is telling. I won’t get into the details of The Australian‘s war on climate science, but the constant skew of the newspaper’s op-ed pages and much of its general reporting has been well-documented, for instance by science bogger Tim Lambert.

All of which brings me to the Australian Literary Review. This monthly literary supplement was founded with public funding in 2006 as a worthy antipodean version of The Times Literary Supplement. But, like so much at The Australian under Mitchell’s editorship, it has slid backwards into partisan sniping and endless culture war. In September, long-time editor Stephen Romei departed. Crikey‘s Andrew Crook reported at the time that “News Limited insiders say Romei was surprised and disappointed by the decision and say that the diktat was handed down from on high with no official warning”.

New editor Luke Slattery has some lofty ambitions for the supplement. “The ALR is a unique feature of the Australian cultural landscape,” he gushed in October. “An intellectually ambitious journal of ideas, it embraces depth and complexity in an age of tweets and sound bites.”

Instead, the ALR has developed into another example of The Australian’s partisan skew. Slattery’s most recent effort, in December, leads with a long and self-indulgent rant by former NSW MP Michael Costa about, you guessed it, “Labor in Crisis”. It’s neither deep nor complex. There is no special literary merit in Costa’s writing, nor anything new in his jaundiced analysis. It’s just another skirmish in The Australian‘s long and bitter battle against the political parties, ideas and scientific evidence it sees as its enemies.

Why are the Group of Eight universities funding this supplement? It should be clear by now The Australian does not really support the principles of academic inquiry or freedom of speech. The newspaper has regularly attacked the peer-reviewed climate science of Australian researchers, including those from Group of Eight universities. It has written that it believes a political party supported by more than a million Australian voters “should be destroyed”. Now its editor is suing a journalism academic for tweeting uncomfortable truths about his newspaper.

Half a million dollars a year is a fair lump of cash in these straightened times for universities. The Go8’s arts faculties are not exactly flush with cash. Such funding could go a long way to supporting journals and writers that genuinely engage in the public sphere. After #twitdef and under Mitchell’s editorship, the Australian Literary Review is not worthy of university support.