David McKnight has launched a strident defence over claims levelled by the conservative commentariat over the Australian Research Council grant process that helped him publish a searing critique of Rupert Murdoch.

Last week in his Media Watch Dog column, The Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson took McKnight to task over the funding source for his Rupert Murdoch : An Investigation of Political Power, querying how an aspiring author might acquire “such moolah”.

“I’ve written a few books in my lifetime but never had support from the Australian taxpayer,” the privately-buttressed Henderson explained, adding the grant total of $196,947 equated to “$3 per word”.

Andrew Bolt has also been on the case, blogging on Saturday under the headline: “Three dollars a word from the taxpayer to whack Murdoch”.

The questions were prompted by Weekend Australian editor Nick Cater’s review of the book, that argued “old Left thinking is apparently being propped up by the taxpayer … perhaps that’s what they meant by cash for clunkers”. The savvy Cater also helpfully dredged up a 35-year-old article written by McKnight that criticised the mainstream media’s estimates of the Khmer Rouge’s death toll.

McKnight told Crikey this morning the broadside was a “politically motivated attack on a perfectly normal and respectable process”.

“The award was granted by the then-minister for education Julie Bishop in November 2006. The grant was for a study of the political commentary in media outlets of News Corporation in the UK, USA and Australia. Formally, it was a Discovery Project under the National Competitive Grants Program,” he explained.

“The recent inquiries are under the guise of accountability for taxpayers’ funds, but it is clear that they are motivated by hostility to my research conclusions about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation.”

McKnight said he employed five casual research assistants to help with the book and that $32,000 was sent to UK academic Brian McNair from Strathclyde University for additional insights.

The details of the ARC Grant outcomes, obtained by Crikey, show McKnight received the $196,647 over five years, over which time he produced the book, four peer-reviewed journal articles, a refereed conference proceeding, the Henry Mayer Lecture at the University of Queensland, three non-refereed articles in the popular press, a book review and a “considerable number” of interviews and commentary in newspapers and the electronic media, including ABC Radio, AP, AAP, The Sydney Morning Herald and CNN Wire. McKnight also said he was in discussions with an Australian filmmaker to use his material.

According to a supplementary word count carried out by Crikey this morning, taking into account the fresh information, McKnight has written at least another 30,000 words in journals, articles and speeches in addition to the approximately 65,000 words in the book. The per-word rate is therefore closer to $2 a word.

Admission into the National Competitive Grants Program appears to be onerous: according to its website, “funding recommendations are made to the Minister responsible for research by the CEO following independent and extensive competitive peer review by Australian and international experts”. Discovery Project applications have about a 20% rate of success.

Henderson lifted a long-running ban on giving Crikey quotes to remark: “So what he’s now saying is that he’s got a running grant to run polemics on Murdoch across journals and travel to Brisbane?”

Henderson, tongue firmly in cheek, says he is seeking government funding for a planned contribution to the Holy Name Monthly, a Catholic journal that went out of publication in the 1970s — apparently falling victim to Vatican II. “All I want to do is get on the gravy train myself,” he said. “My ambition in life is to get one of these grants.

“I like David … of all the former supporters of the Khmer Rouge, he’s the the one I love the most.”

The grants issue received more oxygen yesterday when Robert Manne took to his Monthly blog to expose a recent approach from Australian reporter Ean Higgins’ following a Freedom of Information request into two grants of $60,000 and $180,000 he received for research into Aborginal welfare and asylum seekers. Like McKnight, Manne compiled a dossier of the grant outcomes that he said included five books, several journal articles and a number of newspaper and magazine articles.

Manne claimed Higgins had admitted to him that The Australian had FoI’d McKnight’s ARC grant, but Crikey understands those claims are now contested.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey