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Saturday, 10 September 2011

Murdoch's Oz flagship examined in Quarterly Essay

It's funny that Australian polemicist and academic Robert Manne decided to leave the board of The Monthly immediately prior to his Quarterly Essay, Bad News (issue 43, 2011), appearing in bookshops. Or not. I'm not suggesting that he anticipates a lawsuit from News Limited (the essay is a lengthy investigation of News Limited's flagship broadsheet, The Australian) and was asked to leave by the publisher, Melbourne property king Morry Schwartz. It probably doesn't mean anything at all, but the fact that it is of interest makes you realise that The Australian has a signal relationship with controversy. They certainly have a signal relationship with a broad cross section of the public.

It's as though Rupert Murdoch and his editors globally have decided that, these days, the fiction of impartiality that newspapers give lip service to, is no longer necessary. You don't have to worry about consequences because governments everywhere in the West are so weak as a result of two generations of peace that people can be relied upon to ignore expressions of outrage from politicians. Capital rules, buddy. Newspapers like The Australian have deep pockets and, as Manne points out repeatedly in his essay, millions of words at their disposal.

If impartiality is no longer a requirement for the media and you are a conservative gentleman like Rupert Murdoch then what will happen is that your broadsheet will become progressively tabloidised. The Australian is now the broadsheet that anybody can read. Conservatives rely on the population's baser instincts in order to maintain their privileges, so if you're a conservative media guy you slap on your granddad's old helmet, gird your loins and drum up outrage among the plebs during the day. Then at night you retire to your penthouse and open a bottle of $100-a-bottle chardonnay such as any self-respecting Left-wing liberal bureaucrat or academic only dreams about imbibing. Robert Manne doesn't say as much in his essay, but he does say that The Australian has broken ground in a number of ways:
It is an unusually ideological paper, committed to advancing the causes of neoliberalism in economics and neoconservatism in the sphere of foreign policy. Its style and tone are unlike that of any other newspaper in the nation's history. The Australian is ruthless in pursuit of those who oppose its worldview - market fundamentalism, minimal action on climate change, the federal Intervention in indigenous affairs, uncritical support for the American alliance and for Israel, opposition to what it calls political correctness and moral relativism.
Manne then goes on the explain what he means by making such claims, in an essay that began a year ago this month and that has clearly occupied a lot of his time and energy. It is devastatingly well-researched and its conclusions are equally devastating. If you are interested in the spread of influence from the extreme Right (yes, it is more pronounced in the US but it's still visible here, for example in the way the Liberal Party has changed since November 2009 when Tony Abbott took over the party's leadership), or if you are interested in the media in Australia, then you should read this essay. There is no evidence that anyone at The Australian has read it - a search on their website delivers no related links - but it is bound to cause numerous sets of teeth to grind there. Hence my idea that Manne had been asked to leave The Monthly's board to limit any resulting damage if a lawsuit were to result from the publication of his essay.

The Australian's editor, Chris Mitchell, comes out of the wash looking a bit dishevelled. More precisely, he looks a lot like a tanty-throwing rugrat wearing a Hogan's-Heroes helmet. At any sign of resistance to his will the knives come out, it seems, and his myrmidons are unleashed on some unsuspecting public figure. Manne backs up the serious claim encapsulated in the extract I included above and thus links Murdoch's Australian operation to the ones he owns in the UK via the problematic relationship that seems to exist between his media vehicles and politicians in countries he operates in. In the UK there was a feeling of relief from both major parties when Murdoch began to buckle under the pressure of the Hackgate scandal. In Australia the feeling is equally heartfelt.

In short, says Manne, The Australian makes no bones at all about being impartial. It's not. It is a campaigning outfit with multiple axes to grind and it goes about its business with zest. No wonder the pollies of the Left are sharpening their own knives.

For journalists at the newspaper there might be moments of conflict. From my own experience this seems to be true. I was at a book launch at the University of Sydney in October 2007 where the topic was the media and I remember making a comment to the gathering about the lack of press freedom in Japan, where I have lived. Another person in the room said that, at News Limited newspapers, there was also no freedom and that journalists were routinely told what to write. It didn't strike me at the time because back then I was not reading the news many times a day as I have done since becoming a freelance journo two years ago. Now, however, those comments strike me as revealing.

It goes without saying that I will be monitoring the media for appearances of references to Manne's essay. If the essay gives any of the beleaguered pollies on the Left some courage, then it will have done its job. If it takes the heat off Julie Posetti, the Canberra academic Chris Mitchell threatened to sue for accurately relaying what a person said during a public meeting in Sydney earlier this year, then it will have served a purpose. If it encourages the newspaper it was written to understand to behave with more balance and adopt more ethical behaviours, the essay will have done all thinking Australians a service. For unthinking Australians, don't worry: there are scads of stories being produced by Murdoch tabloids every day. You don't have to blow a fuse, Robert Manne is doing all the hard work for you.

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