Get ye to a newsagent, ye who are reading this, and see if they have not returned their copies of The Weekend Australian. Then buy up all available copies, seal them in shrink-wrap bags and deposit them in storage — retrieved in 20 years and sold on eBay, they will fund a comfortable retirement.

The reason has nothing to do with Vatican correspondent Christopher Pearson’s increasingly incomprehensible coverage of predatory s-xual abuse within the Church — although there will be more to say on that anon — but for the paper’s response to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay, “Bad News”, on The Australian under Chris Mitchell.

When the essay came out, one was doubtful that it would create quite the stir its publishers hoped for. It seemed likely that Fairfax would ignore it, so as not to give the competition a publicity boost, and potray it as the main game. And it seemed likely that, despite its tendency to go feral, The Oz would give it a proportionate response too.

QE could expect to sell copies in the low five figures; The Australian sells — or gives away — around a hundred thousand weekday copies, and has half a million readers on the weekend. Clearly a single piece in the Inquirer section responding to the main arguments raised would do it. A really stylish approach would have been to handle it in the book review section, situating it as a weird product of inner-Melbourne, like stencils and smacky Es.

The Oz took neither the high road, nor the low road — it ran an autobahn through the middle. Paul Kelly was first out of the box with a 1700-word piece mid-week, and then the blasting hit: 8000 words in half-a-dozen articles, ostensibly ranging over all of Manne’s accusations, and a made-to-order Bill Leak cartoon (disappointing, that one, not because Manne or anyone isn’t fair game for visual satire, but because I don’t believe Leak believes the cartoon’s sentiments for a moment).

The 90% of readers of The Oz who have never seen a copy of The Monthly or QE are familiar with Manne from previous vituperations. Nevertheless, even they must be gobsmacked at this groaning self-obsessed Inquirer section, black and white and unread all over. Not since 1951, when Stalin delighted the readers of Pravda with some reflections on the science of linguistics, has there been such a dizzyingly self-indulgent lead.

Yet what is most amazing about The Oz‘s response is not its length or breadth, but how inept it is. Repetitive, overlapping, whiny, prolix … The Oz‘s Manne reply appears to have been compiled in a mood of hot anger, rather than cool reflection.

Manne’s essay covered seven areas: the spruiking of Keith Windschuttle’s ludicrous account of the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines; its war mongering coverage of the Iraq war; its war against Media Watch; climate change denialism; its turning on Kevin Rudd; the self-parodic coverage of “totalitarian” Greens; and its sustained character assassination of Larissa Behrendt.

The whole section is pretty excitable — the specific respondents stick to their subject matter but only by ignoring Manne’s core charges. Graham Lloyd’s defence of The Oz‘s clear bias towards climate change denialism attempts to refute Manne’s analysis of a 4:1 ratio of absurd denialist to mainstream climate change science, based on a baseless quibble about Manne’s classification of one of the several hundred articles he categorised.

Lloyd simply ignores Manne’s other major point, that the paper’s roster of denialists are largely a bunch of non-scientist non-experts doing amateur science — thus amounting to little more than propaganda. Manne argues that non-experts can only judge between scientists, not assess the science themselves, and that’s where the debate lies. Lloyd renders this as Manne saying that non-experts can debate climate change — thus misconstructing his position.

Lloyd is at least calm. Greg Sheridan, defending his own foreign policy coverage, is hysterical — unsurprisingly, given he stands utterly exposed. Manne and others (including your correspondent) have repeatedly demonstrated the degree to which Sheridan’s “coverage” of America’s wars post 9/11 was a travesty of journalism, nothing other than years of outright propaganda, pushing the argument that there was “no doubt” Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Faced with a trail of non-reporting of the furious debate around the WMD accusation at the time — and the obvious gaping holes in the WMD case — Sheridan can only resort to the ad hominen defence: that a bunch of politicians (including “social democrats” such as Kim Beazley and Joe Lieberman) agreed with him, that is were also willingly duped. As a defence, it makes a great prosecution.

On Iraq and climate change, Manne’s charges were that The Oz had one-sidedly spruiked arguments so ludicrous and in need of proper analysis that there was little journalism present to speak of. In the case of their treatment of Rudd, and his government’s economic policies, the charge is rather that the coverage was more cogent, but so determinedly one-sided, so disinterested in investigating any stories that might go against its agenda, and so overblown over every stray pink batt or extra window on a new school gym, as to amount to a distorted campaign, and betray any notion of all-round and pluralist reporting.

That makes Michael Stutchbery’s defence of the economic coverage revealing, because he notes of the paper’s coverage:

“[this is] the reform agenda supported by The Australian. Dismantling manufacturing import protection, financial deregulation, floating the dollar, a less regulated job market, privatisation, competition policy, lower marginal income taxes …”

In other words, there is no room in the news section for dissent from a series of policy goals that have already been decided. That, and a long section on Manne’s 20-year-old book (with John Carroll) Shutdown — which argued for protectionist policies — whose ideas Stutchbery regards as morally akin to kindergarten arson, seems to prove Manne’s point. The Newsistas are so accustomed to the idea of an agenda being supported by a biased news section that they have lost any understanding of what pluralism is.

There’s a piece by Nick Rothwell, which is sort of a News Ltd hero gram-to-self, which increasingly appears to be their house style, and some bit of blather by Chris Kenny, which looks like a set of spare parts for all the other articles. Manne has replied to Paul Kelly’s rambling piece over at The Monthly blog.

But the jewel in the crown is Mitchell’s 3000-word effort. To call his piece a ramble is unfair to bush walkers, who usually have a destination in mind. Mitchell’s piece is like the nightmare scenario of the Blair Witch Project, in which the exhausted, lost hikers film themselves going in long circles, repeatedly coming across the markers they’ve left.

The substance of Mitchell’s wander mostly concerns indigenous politics. Manne had noted The Australian had done some excellent contemporary coverage on the declining conditions in many remote Aboriginal communities, but that it had fused these to two other issues — Windschuttle’s shoddy misconstruction of the fate of Tasmania’s Aborigines, and the near-exclusive spruiking of Noel Pearson and those to the right of him — in debating Aboriginal futures. Manne showed that the coverage of Windschuttle’s book was substantially biased in its favour, a point that Mitchell does not deny or deal with.

There is then a great deal of trekking around other aspects of the indigenous issue, which, by way of some unverifiable claims about a trip Manne made up north, gets to the point of accusing Manne of being bitter because he was “sacked” from Quadrant, and because Mitchell commissioned his former wife to write a 7000-word-plus attack on Manne for The Courier-Mail, which he edited.

That is an interesting double, since the 7000-word hatchet piece, on various matters, was written after Manne poured scorn on Mitchell’s prize “scoop” — his multipage, and utterly false, claim that historian Manning Clark had received the Order of Lenin. As it turned out, the sole source for the accusation was erratic (and at the time, clinically depressed) poet Les Murray.

Having accused Manne of “barely” mentioning the hatchet piece, Mitchell fails to mention the Manning Clark fiasco at all. As for the charge that Manne was sacked from Quadrant — The Oz has already had to run a piece from a then-Quadrant board member pointing out that the accusation is false and that Manne resigned. Having to run a correction for your own editor-in-chief is, as far as a claim to accuracy goes, not a good look.

For the rest of the Mitchell stuff, well, check it out. It simply goes around and nowhere, explaining a great deal about The Oz’s occasional free-association editorial. Like those, Mitchell’s piece has a Howard Hughesian quality to it, as if drawled into a reel-to-reel tape, naked in a vinyl chair, from the bunker. The solipsism explains much.

As goes Mitchell’s piece, so goes the whole “reply to Manne” section. Why did they think it was a wise idea to reply at this length — and having decided that, why did they do it so ineffectually? The paper has ample bottom feeder juniors who can be set to work sourcing gotcha quotes. They usually put together Cut and Paste. Why weren’t they put to work?

Quite aside from having no defence on many of the issues raised, the failure to effectively push back against Manne’s case has to do with the self-conception of The Australian. The increasingly whiny tone of many of its principals in articles, letters and tweets is a measure of their belief that they’re being victimised for telling “the truth” — whose content has been pre-established, whether it be WMDs, economic policy, the intervention or whatever.

The hardcore ideologues at the centre of the paper can’t see out of this, and don’t want to; around them cluster a group of second-rate journos of no particular character, and no real desire to question the party line. They’re grateful for the sense of purpose The Oz gives them, in an era when journalism has become a routinised profession of filling the space between such ad copy as remains — dressed up with self-important jargon about “pyramid ledes” and “jumping the news”.

When that opportunity presents itself, people go one way or the other — either cleaving to the power entirely, or realising that something has gone screwy. The bizarre, overkill self-defence by The Australian‘s “party centre” will function for its employees as a test of where they stand. If  the quantity and quality of the response appear deranged, then congratulations, you retain some shred of independent thought. If you think that your crusading newspaper has seen off another left-liberal attack then it may be, that in your case, that souveniring the issue is to no purpose — the shrink-wrapping process has already occurred.

Peter Fray

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