Mar 8, 2012

Oz editor marshals eagles to halt Manne attack

The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell has threatened to take legal action against the ABC to kill a column penned by Robert Manne and republished on commentary site The Drum.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell has threatened to take legal action against the ABC to kill a column penned by Robert Manne and republished on commentary site The Drum. Mitchell informed Crikey yesterday he is also looking at slapping Monthly proprietor Morry Schwartz -- the publisher of the website on which the Manne post first appeared -- with a strongly worded legal letter. The post was strongly critical of Mitchell and an Australian reporter, Ean Higgins. Manne revealed Higgins had contacted him last week seeking his response to a Freedom of Information request looking into two Australian Research Council grants won by the La Trobe public thinker to investigate Aboriginal welfare and asylum seekers. The Higgins story is yet to appear -- Manne's intervention seems to have been a pre-emptive strike. "It's an extraordinarily defamatory piece and it's in response to not a word being published," Mitchell said. "Nothing's been written by me or Ean Higgins. "He's got me Goebbels-like directing something deep, dark and sinister ... he's trying to de-construct me." Crikey understands the ABC was contacted on Tuesday by News Limited in-house counsel Jane Summerhayes demanding the post be pulled. A follow-up letter is believed to be on its way. As of this morning, the piece remains on both the ABC and Monthly websites. In his piece, Manne called on "democrats in Australia to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Murdoch press in general and in particular to the bullying tactics of its most important general staff -- Chris Mitchell's editorial team at The Australian". He remains forthright, telling Crikey: "... for the past few years The Australian has a freedom-of-speech campaign and threats of defamation are probably the most effective means of thwarting free speech. "It seems hypocritical to me, especially in a piece where there is no defamation and which has been legalled. This is the most important way free speech is chilled when powerful corporations threaten suits." Manne said he was phoned last Thursday and it was "made clear" the story was likely to run in last Saturday's Weekend Australian but that Higgins became waylaid with another story and then asked for further information on revenue earned from the grant. He said he was now under the impression the write-up was likely to appear in this Saturday's paper. "I didn't wish to wait for accusations from The Australian," Manne said. Mitchell explained his position at length to Crikey, revealing that he had engaged lawyers "just to get the story pulled down from the website". "In the way of journalism, this was a tip from another academic who rang in January while I was 300 miles away on holidays suggesting to [Weekend Australian editor] Nick Cater that we might care to look at whether the grant obligations had been fulfilled," he said. "As you know it's perfectly reasonable in a newsroom of 300 people for people to explore tips and nothing will come of it. Robert has attributed to me and to Higgins a whole series of motives and dark thoughts, none of which I'm even aware of. I didn't even know Higgins was chasing it, it was nothing to do with me. "Robert may not be able to understand but I have other to things to worry about than Robert Manne. He may have time in his life to fixate on one thing, good on him, but all that Robert has succeeded in doing is publishing a whole series of allegations against himself which probably might not have ever made it into print because there might be nothing in it. "This is how self-regarding Robert his. He could have looked at the front page of The Australian any day in the last week and seen that Ean Higgins was otherwise engaged with a serious news story that resulted in the [NSW] Premier's communications director having to be stood aside. Which is somewhat higher up the pecking order in terms of news sense for Ean than some story about a five-year-old ARC grant that might have turned up as a brief in the higher education section. "It's a fishing expedition based on a tip from another academic. It's got nothing to do with us. "If Robert really was a journalist as he claims to be in his piece he would know these things happen and don't come to fruition thousands of times a month in any given newsroom. It's very odd that you find yourself in a position that you have to argue for a piece to be taken down when that piece is in response to nothing that's ever happened. It's very odd." As detailed in Crikey yesterday, Manne also wrote that he understood The Australian had FoI'd a grant partly used by David McKnight to produce a book, Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. However, Mitchell told Crikey that suggestion was "absolutely false". (McKnight has since clarified this on The Monthly website). This is not the first time Mitchell has personally pursued a defamation case. In 2010 he threatened to sue Canberra University lecturer Julie Posetti over a tweeted account of an academic conference. However, a writ was never issued and the one-year time limit to take formal action was left to expire. ABC Drum editor Jonathan Green initially declined to comment on the fracas but early this afternoon issued the following statement: "the ABC has received no indication in any form, verbal or written, re The Australian's intention to launch legal action." UPDATE 1: Read responses from UTS journalism professor Wendy Bacon, Julie Posetti and an additional response from Robert Manne in the comment thread below. UPDATE 2: After this article was republished in Crikey's Thursday email edition, Crikey learned that Chris Mitchell had sent formal letters to the ABC and The Monthly asking that the Manne article be removed. UPDATE 3: A previous version of this article could have been read as implying that formal legal proceedings had already been launched in a court of law. This was not the case as at 5pm on Thursday. The article has been amended.

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38 thoughts on “Oz editor marshals eagles to halt Manne attack

  1. Michael de Angelos

    The Oz does protest too much.
    News Corp should know all about pre-emptive strikes (Leveson ?) and although I haven’t read The Drum piece Mitchel does himself no favours in the way he belittles Manne as being insignificant- but not so insignificant that his paper is ‘fishing’.

  2. Microseris

    If you read the Drum post, The Oz has form and demanded Manne continually respond to their FOI fishing expedition. It was clearly setting Manne up for some further treatment. Higgins virtually accepted as much himself.

    When Murdoch snr falls off the perch, the Oz will surely follow. Good riddance.

  3. wendybacon1

    Interesting. They want the piece pulled down. Why not a correction if one is needed? This is the second time Mitchell has threatened to sue. The first threat was against Julie Posetti, a journalism academic. Late last year I published a study of media coverage of climate change. My study used conventional social science methods. The results have been referred to in the Finkelstein report and can be found on the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism website

    Without identifying any mistake then or since, News Corporation put out this response which was published on The Conversation website. “Wendy Bacon has absolutely no credibility with this company. It is a matter of great regret that she teaches young people in this country who aspire to be journalists. The fact that Wendy Bacon produces a piece of research that is negative about this company is no surprise to anybody – she’s been doing it for 25 years.

    Every now and again this kind of research comes out and it masquerades as some kind of definitive analysis, and usually it’s got more flaws in it does the insights it purports to have about what it’s studying. We see this all the time. Most research about journalism is atrocious. Most of it purports to unveil or uncover some kind of systemic problem and yet it’s generally guilty of the same sins that it’s trying to identify in others:” And there’s more. If you want to read it go to :
    Just a bit of background. I am a journalist who has taught literally thousands of people journalism. I still practice journalism and do journalism studies. I am a Professor of Journalism at UTS. This is how I earn my living and on what I base my reputation.This response is most certainly defamatory.It is also wrong. 25 years ago I was working at SBS and then returned to Fairfax. The company was inevitably part of all media study I did on humanitarian issues which was published in 2003. It was not a particular focus. It was also covered in a small study Spinning the Media – which I did with Crikey and my students in 2009. There is no truth to the statement that I have been researching or attacking New s Ltd for 25 years ago. During that period I have written for News Ltd on matters to do with ethics in journalism and journalism education. Facts I guess don’t matter. Knocking down critics does matter.
    Actually this is not the first time, News Ltd has published false things about me. A few years ago The Australian published a summary of my purported criminal record – which they found on a university background website, part of some historical background material to which I had no input. In preparing to publish, the journalists made no attempt to check if the facts were correct. A sub who knew me saw there could be some mistakes and hence the then editor did ring me at the last minute – unfortunately it was too late to do other than slightly modify the errors.

    These are the very people who say they are in favour of free speech – and media independence. I don’t choose to sue because I do believe in free speech and have the ability to respond ( which I will shortly do in a second report). Many however do not have that access. I just hope that journalists and students I have taught will trust their own experience rather than News Corporation – if many others are in this position it may explain why trust in the media is low. This sort of heavy handed attack certainly has a quietening effect on our public debate.

    If there is anything factually wrong in Robert Manne’s piece he should correct it. I see that David McKnight has added a clarification. Any factual clarifications should stay clearly on the file so future readers can see them. I hope the ABC stands firm on this piece.

  4. JamesG

    I am not obsessed with Robert Manne. Why does Robert Manne say I am obsessed with him? I’ve barely heard of this Robert Manne of whom I am supposed to be obsessed. I am not obsessed, I tell you!!! And neither is my lawyer. Especially with Robert Manne (of who I am barely aware).

  5. Robert Manne

    I would like comment in more detail about some misleading or inaccurate comments Chris Mitchell made to Andrew Crook.
    1. The piece I wrote for The Drum was entirely factual and in no possible way defamatory of anyone. The error Wendy Bacon mentions was made because David McKnight was misled by something said to him by Ean Higgins. David checked my piece before it was posted. He has now corrected the error on The Drum and The Monthly website.
    2. The article does not mention Chris Mitchell even once. It deliberately refers to “Chris Mitchell’s editorial team”. I have documented the culture of Chris Mitchell’s editorial team at The Australian in great detail in the Quarterly Essay, “Bad News”.
    3. It is astonishing that Mitchell claims the phone calls and emails I received from Ean Higgins involved The Australian merely following an anonymous academic’s tip-off for which the newspaper accepts no responsibility or, as he puts it, “has nothing to do with us”. Nothing to do with The Australian??? The Australian clearly took out a Freedom of Information request on two ARC Grants of mine. The papers released were then given to Ean Higgins to write a story about. Higgins’ phoned me to ask for information that took me almost a day to compile. I compiled the information because one obvious possibility was an article claiming “Manne has refused refused to provide The Australian with public information.” I was then informed indirectly that as he was working on a piece for the Saturday paper (on an O’Farrell scandal) the article would be delayed by a week. On Monday, Higgins emailed once more, this time demanding further information that would have taken me the best part of another day to compile. And yet Mitchell asks your readers to believe that the article might have appeared as a minor note in the Higher Education supplement.
    4. Mitchell suggests not only that this episode was nothing to do with The Australian. He also suggests that he personally knew nothing about it. “I didn’t even know Higgins was chasing it; it was nothing to do with me.” I have no idea what Mitchell knew before last Friday. I made no claim of that kind in what I wrote. However last Friday I replied at great length to Higgins and copied the email to both Mitchell and Nick Cater. Unless Mitchell does not read his emails, it simply cannot be true that he did not now know Higgins was chasing the story.
    5. The story was not about an ARC Grant of “five years ago”. It was about two Grants, one issued twelve years ago, the other ten years ago.
    6. However the key point is this. Issuing threats of legal action against less powerful people or businesses is perhaps the most potent means by which in our society free speech is threatened. A threat against one person or their publishers intimidates thousands. That is its purpose in my view. All The Australian’s laudable editorials in favour of free speech are rendered meaningless by threats of the kind Mitchell has issued today against me and more than a year ago against Julie Posetti–a case incidentally documented in great detail in “Bad News”.

  6. liliwyt

    Ironically, also on “The Drum” is a piece written by Anthony Cox – “Free Speech: the right to say what we want you to say”

  7. Tom Jones

    I read the article and the gist of it was that there had been a number of FOI requests and follow up questions about funding received by Manne. He in turn asked the journalist asking the questions some questions which went unanswered. For the editor to state he knows nothing reminds me of the Sun King answering to the English parliamentary enquiry.

  8. Julie Posetti

    Ditto Wendy Bacon. With the addition of a perplexed expression, as I marvel at the hubris that allows a newspaper to repeatedly bully and defame its critics (with vendetta-like zeal), while resisting scrutiny and accountability, and simultaneously demanding maintenance of self-regulation.

    I don’t support the Finkeltsein News Media Council as proposed. I am concerned about the implications for media freedom. But The Australian makes it so easy for media critics to justify such a position – especially in a marketplace dominated by the News Ltd.

    Thanks, Crikey, for continuing to report on this newspaper’s abuses of media power and ensuring it’s subject to public scrutiny. It’s important for democracy.

    Declaration: as Wendy indicates above, I was the subject of a 2010 defamation threat issued by Mitchell (now expired) over fair and accurate reports of criticism levelled against him by one of his journalists

  9. Schnappi

    Hartigan before retiring tried to appease the public with some kind of internal investigation going back 5 years,perhaps what is needed is the same by mitchell ,which would probably appease no one.load of crap by the organisation,

    Think the inquiry just done had no teeth ,the organisation of 70% media will prevail and fool people who cannot think for themselves ,who rely on what they want to hear.

  10. Captain Planet

    Mitchell informed Crikey this afternoon he is also looking at slapping Monthly proprietor Morry Schwartz — the publisher of the website on which the Manne post first appeared —  with a strongly-worded legal letter.

    Phew. For a minute there I thought he was going to use harsh language. A strongly worded letter? Woop-de-doo.

    Robert may not be able to understand but I have other to things to worry about than Robert Manne. He may have time in his life to fixate on one thing, good on him, but all that Robert has succeeded in doing is publishing a whole series of allegations against himself which probably might not have ever made it into print because there might be nothing in it.

    Well, if that’s all Robert Manne has succeeded in doing, and if Mitchell has other things to worry about, then there is no need to send a “strongly worded legal letter” demanding the removal of Robert Manne’s piece, is there?
    Is there?

    “It’s very odd that you find yourself in a position that you have to argue for a piece to be taken down when that piece is in response to nothing that’s ever happened. It’s very odd.”

    ….. my thoughts exactly. Very odd indeed.

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