Crikey editor Sophie Black informs me that she is thinking of buying a number of wigs and impersonating key commentators from The Australian — Greg Sheridan, Chris Kenny, Chris Mitchell et al — when she moderates a Wheeler Centre forum in Melbourne tomorrow night. After all, it was meant to be a fiery debate, but one side of the battle is not going to show.

It was meant to be an encounter between The Oz’s Paul Kelly and Robert Manne over his Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’, which decries the role of the paper in public debate. The Oz has in the last week devoted a considerable amount of newsprint to attacking Manne and defending its corner, with Kelly leading the charge. Now the paper has declared the debate closed. Kelly emailed Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams yesterday morning informing him that, after reflection, he had decided not to front at the event and The Oz would not be participating. Williams’ attempts to find someone else from the national broadsheet to debate Manne were unsuccessful. Kelly has not responded to requests for comment from Crikey this morning, and his personal assistant said he was unlikely to do so.

So at short notice Sophie Black is filling the breach, under instructions to go beyond her planned role of moderation and challenge Manne in the way that The Oz might have challenged him if its representatives had been prepared to turn up. Says Williams: “I do enjoy the irony that the editor of Crikey has become a defacto representative of The Australian’s perspective.” Meanwhile David McKnight, a journalism academic from the University of New South Wales, submitted an article on the matter to The Australian, but says he was told by op-ed editor Nick Cater that his pages were now closed to the Manne-Australian debate.

There is some risk of many people disappearing up their own fundaments here, so intense has media navel gazing become. Yet if journalists are disappearing up their own arseholes, it does seem that a proportion of the newspaper reading public might follow them there. There seems to be great interest in the issues. The Wheeler Centre event is booked out. And, for sure, an allegation that a major media organisation is perverting public debate is surely worthy of searching attention. It hardly needs to be pointed out, but there is also the inescapable irony of the fact that one of The Oz’s charges against Manne is that he is advocating  a closing down of debate on key issues of public concern. Pot, kettle, black?