Australian op-eds
(Image: Unsplash/Jason Rosewell)

Op-eds — opinion pieces that took their name from being published on the opposite page to a newspaper’s editorial — were designed for pluralism and diversity. Now, they’re another tool in the culture wars waged by the right.

This is fundamentally hurting the journalism such pieces were designed to enrich. An atomised media, where each story stands alone to be discovered through social media or search, fractures the once clearly understood distinction between news and opinion — and trust in journalism is undermined as a result.

All movements need to manage doctrine to make sense of a changing world. In the People’s Republic of China, it’s Wang Huning who integrates Maoism into the thought of Xi Jinping for the guidance of party members. In conservative Australia today, it’s the opinion writers within News Corp who have to try to make sense of the modern ideology of the right for their own true believers. This is an ideology that meshes neoliberal economics and populist ethno-nationalism with a smearing of Trumpist “thought”.

The tool of choice? Op-eds that articulate the talking points of the right, identify enemies and keep the Liberal Party leadership toeing the line. Want some practical examples? Take a look at Maurice Newman’s recent columns on climate change.

“Trad socialists go Caracas — Queensland’s Labor government is taking the state down the same path as Venezuela.” Here, the opinion writer is armourer in the climate wars, making the ideological bullets that get fired off in the shoot ’em up panels on “Sky After Dark” or spread through that murky world of Facebook shares, likes and comments.

Or take: “Climate ‘emergency’ plot”. Crikey has written before about News Corp’s holy wars: the front-line fighters need enemies or, better, conspiracies. Here, it’s the apex of globalism, not quite black helicopters, but still the UN.

Then there’s: “Political elites face wrath — If Scott Morrison is to consolidate power he must keep faith with the populist revolt”. It’s ideology as discipline, keeping the Liberal Party leadership in line with the right’s populist project.

It’s good work if you can get it. A leaked email last year revealed that Judith Sloan is paid $357,000 a year for her columns.

But this is not how op-eds are supposed to work. In Australia, at least, they spread in the 1970s as an embrace of pluralism, a recognition that media had a responsibility to host contested debate about public issues. It was always, in part, a transactional arrangement where academics, parliamentarians, business leaders and priests brought their social status to the less elevated journalistic Grub Street. In turn, newspapers offered the mantle of public intellectual to rising stars like a George Pell or a Mark Latham. (That’s a role now played by Q&A, Twitter and The Conversation.)

There were always exceptions: The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages were long used to enforce an ideological purity in print as The Australian does now in digital.

The secret sauce of News Corp across the English-speaking world is its ability to adapt traditional practices and norms of journalism to their demands of their political goals, while pretending that nothing has changed.

The company has taken the “free speech” that once underpinned the idea of op-eds to showcase diverse opinions, and weaponised it into a demand for priority of conservative views over diversity, an assertion that right-wing talking points are an essential “balance” to the irrefutable facts of the news pages.

Perhaps, News Corp’s second greatest skill is to convince other media to take them at face value and end up sharing their culture war talking points.

In Nine mastheads just this month, Bettina Arndt enlisted suicide in the men’s rights cause and the lunch-with style of opinion piece gave historian Geoffrey Blainey an opportunity to promote the talking point questioning anthropogenic climate change. At the ABC, News Corp opinion warriors often turn up on Q&A and The Drum.

This mattered less when opinion was sequestered from news on the op-ed pages. But now each masthead story — fact or opinion — stands alone, disintermediated through social media.

The danger now that “journalism” is no longer structurally distinguishable from fact-free “opinion” is that all stories are being judged accordingly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey