Poor Andrew Bolt. The man is billed as Australia’s most-read columnist. And he’s certainly the most prolific (he has a blog updated several times a day, a twice-weekly column syndicated across the News Corp tabloid network, a nightly TV show and a nightly radio show). But he doesn’t do it for love. Rather, he’s compelled to speak out — he’s the lone soldier in a one-man culture war against the elites who would seek to silence him, and through him, the voices of the “real Australia” (his phrase) he claims to represent.

And for his patriotic duties, he’s scorned, criticised and derided by elites who seek to make the nation worse.

“I have two options,” he writes in one of the new essays that accompany Bolt: Worth Fighting For (a collection of his writing — on political leadership, race relations, climate change, gay marriage, art and the attacks on Christianity — released this week, full of essays and short notes on his thinking).

“One is to get stuck in the big debates with people determined to change our culture, often for the worse. That usually invites counter-attacks, some very personal and others involving lawyers … The other option is to play it safe. Say nothing, keep my head down and stay out of trouble … But then my wife will find me shouting at the television set, frustrated that nonsense isn’t being exposed, frauds confronted and lies corrected. And really, how could I let bad stuff happen without lifting even one of my three typing fingers to stop it? I couldn’t live with myself.”

Bolt writes he released Worth Fighting For to give him a chance to explain to his readers where he’s coming from. “I am hoping to convince you to trust me even when we disagree,” he writes. But reading it, one comes out with a sense of cognitive dissonance. Bolt is a man of great reach, power and influence, who counts prime minsters and cardinals among his friends, and who this year has extended his clout with two nightly shows. But to the reader of Worth Fighting For, Bolt always seems the victim.

[Andrew Bolt’s five stages of grief]

In 2014, academic Marcia Langton used a Q&A appearance to say Bolt had subjected a colleague to “foul abuse … simply racial abuse” on Q&A (Bolt called the colleague “blond and pale” in a column and said she “calls herself Aboriginal”). In considering this episode in the book, Bolt says he’s been abused so often “I should be used to anything, or else destroyed long ago”.

“… Q&A shook my confidence. Do I perhaps still have an outside respect for the ABC? Did I foolishly expect it to at least play fair? …

“I’m reasonably prominent in public debates and people assume that I — and commentators like me — must have the hide of a rhinoceros. Some idiots claim to my face that I must enjoy being hated by my critics and that I probably even write stuff I don’t mean just to stir them up.

“What world do these people live in? Are they sociopaths? No sane person prefers hate to admiration, abuse to praise. I fight for my ideas not because I think they’ll create a fuss but because I think they are important and worth fighting for. In the end, that’s why I can’t quit. I don’t fight to be abused; I fight to win.”

Langton went on to apologise for causing Bolt offence and acknowledged that she thought Bolt did not believe he was a racist. But in a long and detailed response, she reiterated that his insistence on drawing attention to the skin tone of Aboriginal people “then draw an inference that the fact that this person identifies as Aboriginal is somehow fraudulent” was “malicious and cowardly”, and encouraged his followers to attack the people he wrote about.

Columnists make enemies and hurting people is often necessary in journalism (it’s a consequence of wrongs and bad ideas being brought to light). But in his consideration of this incident written two years after his initial reaction, Bolt still doesn’t seem to consider Langton’s detailed explanation of why she made the comments she did, and the hurt he causes to an already marginalised community through his writing. The hurt caused to others is, seemingly, part of setting Australia on the right path and not worth considering, but the hurt caused to Bolt by his similarly earnest critics is worth pages and pages of exploration.

Bolt is not arguing with his critics, but arguing about them to others. The book has little consideration of the other side, or of why the elites Bolt rails against are doing the things they do. Perhaps one shouldn’t expect that of a tabloid columnist. But Bolt’s earnestness — and, indeed, his reflective attitudes about himself and his own motivations (the book has its share of more personal essays) — makes the lack of empathy jarring.

In his introductory essay, Bolt outlines how 20 years of column-writing (“a scary business”) has taught him to be careful.

“I’ve at least learned how to protect myself by arguing only what I know to be true and as little as possible beyond that. For instance, I will argue that the satellite records show less warming of the atmosphere than scientists predicted — undoubtedly true — but I would never dare explain just why the warmists got the maths wrong.”

The claim would be easier to stomach if Bolt’s book didn’t have sloppy errors in it. Some are funny. At one point, he laments the fact that he did warn “years ago that Palmer was no joke”. “Palmer, the leader of the Palmer United Party, is voicing conspiracy theories that are unhinged,” states a column, which Bolt introduces as a proof of his foresight. The only issue is that the book dates the column to December 3, 2004 — which explains why no one paid it any attention, given the Palmer United Party didn’t even exist then. Either the column was actually published in 2014, or Bolt’s foresight is more like supernatural prescience.

[The 357 times Andrew Bolt said ‘Abbott’: a November love story]

At another point, he laments how the “Left” (it’s always capitalised) won’t debate him on the facts. “[C]omedian Ben Elton recently tried to get the Press Council to punish me for attacking the ‘stolen generations’ myth that has made us too scared to rescue Aboriginal children today.” Elton, presumably of Blackadder fame, did no such thing — the complaint was lodged by journalist and commentator Ben Eltham. Guilt by alliteration for Elton, Eltham quipped.

In another note, Bolt introduces a 2010 column criticising Marieke Hardy, Daniel Burt and Catherine Deveny, for rather vulgar tweets made about politics on Twitter. “Reading some of my older columns I was struck by some of the savagery they described by people in positions of cultural power, particularly in the Fairfax newspapers and the ABC. And I wondered: has it gotten better or do I simply notice the barbarity less, having become numb? … Am I right to think that maybe, just maybe, some of our cultural institutions are at last pulling up cleaner air?”

Perhaps they are “pulling up cleaner air”. Or perhaps people are more cautious and professional about what they write because the columnists like Bolt trawl through social media to find “gotcha” tweets to make a point. But considering his own influence wouldn’t fit with the victimhood narrative that pervades Bolt’s worldview. Bolt dishes it out, but he cannot take it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey