The silence emanating from The Australian’s HQ in Holt Street, Surry Hills, is eerie. Earlier this week, Black Inc published Bad News, Robert Manne’s disturbing account of the influence of the Murdoch broadsheet and the tactics it uses to promote its conservative views and discredit its enemies.

A splenetic response from the news, opinion and editorial departments would be expected. But the dilemma for Chris Mitchell, the paper’s editor-in-chief, is apparent. A reflex campaign of aggression, ridicule and character assassination would only serve to prove Manne’s claims about thin-skinned vindictiveness.

So how are they going to play it? It’s impossible to imagine that such a devastating expose could go unpunished, so surely the retaliation will come. Robert Manne has been a frequent target of the paper since Mitchell took over in 2002. In 1996 Manne, then editor of Quadrant, played a leading role in debunking what Mitchell, then editor of The Courier-Mail, regarded as one of the great scoops of Australian journalism — proof that Manning Clark was a Soviet agent who proudly wore an Order of Lenin.

Manne writes in the Notes section of the essay:

“In mid-2002 Chris Mitchell became editor-in-chief of The Australian. The paper became now an unwanted presence in my life, scarcely a month passing where I was not attacked in reports, editorials, feature articles, columns, letters to the editor or the daily compendium of spleen and schadenfreude know as ‘Cut and Paste’. In February 2009, once again to my surprise, a kind of truce was offered with a proposal that I contribute to the paper. Since that time I have been treated courteously, especially by the editor of The Weekend Australian, Nick Cater. Old hostilities more or less ceased.”

Robert Manne is naturally cautious but he should now be hyper-vigilant. What The Australian is capable of doing with a slip-up by one of its “enemies” is laid out by him in distressing detail, for example in the case of Larissa Behrendt.

In April this year, Behrendt sent an injudicious late-night tweet criticising the views of another prominent Aboriginal woman on the Northern Territory intervention. The mistake — the kind of uncharitable private joke that occasionally leaks into the public domain — was the spark for an extraordinarily spiteful campaign.

Reading Manne’s Quarterly Essay a picture emerges of a kind of cult that has built up around Mitchell — an organisation with an unhealthy belief in the rightness of its own mission, a charged atmosphere that makes its members feel special, devotees who have abandoned the ability to be self-critical and to see the organisation in perspective, an unbalanced antagonism towards critics, paranoia, and slavish deference to the leader.

Stories abound. There is the young journalist, well-liked and respected in the press gallery, who was recruited by The Australian and soon underwent a personality change. “I don’t know what happened to him,” one staffer remarked to me. “He used to be such a nice bloke.”

Then there are the apostates who leave the cult and find themselves mauled by the paper at every opportunity. They won’t blow the whistle because the cult has too much on them, including their email records. Even those who have declined an invitation to join the cult are reviled.

Of course, there are some who see through it all but remain in the organisation — desperate, ashamed, unable to see an alternative and fearful of the consequences of jumping ship.

So what happens now?

I was in Britain on July 4 this year when The Guardian reported that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. A gasp could be heard around the country. The shift in the political mood was instant and palpable. Suddenly, the politicians, who for years had been intimidated by the Murdoch empire into self-imposed silence or cringing obsequiousness, found their courage.

The Australian does not hack the phones of dead schoolgirls. But by its ruthless distortion of public debate in pursuit of an ideological agenda and its intimidation of political leaders and rival news outlets, each edition is an injection of poison into the bloodstream of Australian politics.

With its forensic exposure of the strategy and tactics of the national broadsheet, Robert Manne’s intervention ought to be the event that provokes our political leaders and commentators to find their courage.

*Clive Hamilton is a Canberra-based professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University

Peter Fray

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