Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2011

Bad News, Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation, by Robert Manne (Quarterly Essay #43)

bad-news-quarterly-essayAlthough I’m keeping a mild eye on Carbon Tax events in the national parliament at the moment, I’m not much in the habit of reading about domestic politics these days.   As far as I’m concerned there’s too much hypocrisy, negativity and hostility over trivia to bother about it.  But at the Melbourne Writers Festival my interest was piqued about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay: Bad News, Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation so I bought it…

I’ve had a feeling of unease about The Australian ever since I learned that of all Rupert Murdoch’s interests in this country, only this newspaper was allowed to run at a loss, and to run at a loss for a very long time.  That feeling of unease grew over the paper’s remorseless campaigns against two Federal Government programs in particular:

  • the BER (Building the Education Revolution) program which gave schools like mine some long overdue infrastructure, and
  •  the NBN (National Broadband Network) which appeared to me to be belatedly bringing Australian telecommunications into the 21st century.

I don’t like it when any paper mounts campaigns, not even ones which seem benign such as the Clean Up the Yarra campaign run a while ago by The Age or Cut the Road Toll ones at The Herald.  (Or was that The Sun?  I can’t remember now).  However well-intentioned, such campaigns use the power of the newspaper to distort public interest in the issue, and often detract focus from other more significant matters.  To put it another way, when the front page is continually all about a new school building in NSW or a dirty river in Melbourne, what other news of major significance is being displaced?  And whose agenda is it?

Beyond my misgivings about newspaper campaigns in general, it bothered me that The Australian was making no pretence to be even-handed about any of the objects of its hostility.  An independent enquiry established that despite a very small percentage of problems in NSW and Victoria (5%), across the country the BER program was overwhelmingly successful in its two-fold aims:

  • to provide an economic stimulus during the Global Financial Crisis; and
  • to build school infrastructure that had been shamefully neglected for years (i.e. throughout my entire career and possibly longer).

But you’d never have known this from reading the relentless and mostly petty criticism in The Australian.  Others bothered by the same abandonment of journalism standards include Crikey who links to Larvatus Prodeo for a clear-sighted analysis of media activity on this issue. This is worth reading: it confirms everything that Lindsay Tanner has to say about the media in Sideshow..

What I also found intriguing about these campaigns in The Australian was how much influence they had on otherwise reasonable people. Astonishly, the ABC often  reported them uncritically, disseminating such issues to a wider audience than The Australian’s readers.   Smart people of my acquaintance, while conceding that schools in their area had a great new building, were absolutely convinced that all the buildings everywhere else were a shambles and a scandalous waste of public money.  But none of them ever expressed any unease about already well-endowed private schools sharing the largesse.  Their dismay was finely honed: targeted against the program but not against its least deserving recipients.  Strange, eh? How has this meme been so effectively been disseminated?

Robert Manne explains how these highly selective campaigns are strategically managed by The Australian.  For example, in his chapter on ‘The Making of Keith Windschuttle’ he shows how The Australian created a positive profile for this previously low-profile minor journalist-historian with an undergraduate degree in history before the publication of his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. He was given column space to outline his views and the launch was reported uncritically.  At the same time it published scathing critiques of the work of Australia’s pre-eminent historian, Professor Henry Reynolds (PhD).  The paper pursued another historian, Professir Lyndall Ryan (PhD), with ‘partisan ferocity’.  Windschuttle’s book quickly became a hot issue in the media despite being (according to Manne) ‘slipshod‘.  Though it had antecedents, I suspect that for most of us, it was the catalyst for what came to be known as the ‘History Wars’.  (It was also an early example of non-expert opinion being lionised in the media as an exposé of ‘experts getting it wrong’).

Chapters about other remarkable events in Australian politics show how effective this paper has been in achieving a highly partisan political agenda, not the least of which was the downfall of Kevin Rudd and the trashing of his reputation afterwards.  (A nasty first in Australian politics).

Unfortunately, Manne’s essay is marred by a lack of restraint, which manifests itself in spasmodic torrents of tedious detail and needless sarcasm.  Referring to the paper’s treatment of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s essay about the Global Financial Crisis in The Monthly he writes that Janet Albrechtsen in her column ‘with her normal restraint had previously described Rudd’s article as “wicked”, “arrogant”, “hubris-filled” etc etc. (Underlining mine).  This reader can decided for herself whether Albrechtsen acts with restraint or not, and the sarcasm (of which this is only one example) detracts from the persuasiveness of Manne’s argument.   It sets antennae twitching… whatever the truth of Manne’s claims may be, there is personal hostility at work and a personal agenda.  Given the importance of this essay in the current political climate and the demoralised state of the electorate, I wish he’d adopted a more moderate tone.

Update (later the same day)

There’s a video of Manne discussing this essay at Slow TV on The Monthly (but the questions are all Dorothy-Dixers).

© Lisa Hill

Author: Robert Manne
Title: Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (Quarterly Essay)
Publisher: Black Inc 2011
ISBN: 9781863955447
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dymocks at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival $19.95

Availability:
Fishpond: Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (Quarterly Essay)


Responses

  1. I’m glad you’ve written a review and started a conversation on this issue. I think it’s important to realise that 70% of our newspapers are coming out of the same stable; even in Britain the percentage is only 30%. We are very starved of alternative viewpoints and the worrying aspect for me is that so many people seem unaware of this or just don’t much care that our national agenda is so manipulated. It’s great to have a ‘laid back’ attitude to life but so much ignorance is not bliss.

    • Thanks, Ros, I’ve been stepping out of my territory a bit lately but I made the decision a while back that I’d blog all my reading whatever it is, so I thought I’d risk it. But when I look at what passes for online public commentary on other websites e.g. the ABC, the abusive responses and the lack of respect for the viewpoints of others make me feel a bit anxious!
      BTW I’m about to send A Thousand Nights at the Ritz up to Karen Lee Thompson (who’s been doing the guest reviews of short story collections here) to review, so stay posted!

  2. The Aus has devoted quite a bit of space to answering and denigrating Manne and his article today 17 September

    • *chuckle* I thought they might!

  3. I’ve never read, or even bought, one of the Quarterly Essays, as I tend towards reading for escapism, but this does sound fascinating. I’ve always been worried about Murdoch’s agenda, but always felt he was more interested in the US and UK. Maybe I was wrong. (Wouldn’t be the first time, lol!)

    • I like the length of the essays – it takes a day or two to read them over breakfast but it’s much more satisfying than reading the dross in the newspapers.

  4. Personally, I hope freedom of speech never ends within the boundaries already set down – such as defamation, racial vilification etc. I think reporters and authors are often selective in what they write. You need to read and listen to two sides of every story. I don’t buy the Quarterly Essays, but I often borrow one from the library. I read papers online and buy The Australian and The Age at the weekend.. People read newspapers, books, and magazines for opinions, and not necessarily for facts.

    Meg

    • Well, yes, Marg – though I do wonder where we are meant to get the facts from, if not the media. The other thing that matters is, whose opinions are we reading, why were they chosen and not some other person? Increasingly we are treated to the opinions of people who know nothing about the matter as if this somehow democratises the news. A recent example on ABCTV was when shares were down, an elderly couple were featured saying that they were going to sell all their shares (a really stupid thing to do if the market is down) – and there was no ‘expert’ advice to counteract that uninformed opinion. Other people who don’t know much about the share market may have been influenced by this, and that worries me. I don’t expect much of commercial media, but the ABC ought to provide responsible content.

  5. Well spoken. I have multiple Herald Sun articles collected in the Kennett Camelot and saying how horrible an eyesore were the Flinders street Melbouren Gas and Fuel Towers. ( Always in my opinion very nice pillars, our own “Twin Towers” ). But we were told “the city will stretch to the river” and we ended up with Fed-abomination Squander, and some happy builders who shall remain nameless.

    • Yes, another campaign that wasn’t worth the space in the paper. (Mind you, I like Fed Square, even though I get lost in it every time I go there.)

  6. It’s quite true that some people read books and magazines for opinions but I think far more accept something as ‘fact’ just because they read it in the paper or some aggressive ‘shock jock’ proclaimed it on radio. A comparison of ratings or circulation figures will illustrate my point.

    • Good comment, Ros, and it raises also the question of why are we so keen on opinion anyway. Why don’t people feel confident about processing the news themselves and forming their own opinions? I’m interested in expert opinion, but most of what we see and hear isn’t expert opinion anyway, it’s either opinionated people pushing their own barrow or following the proprietor’s agenda, or else it’s been written for its so-called entertainment value, like Annabelle Crabb’s pieces on The Drum.
      It’s very interesting to see over on the Crikey website that they are running a series on ‘quality journalism’. The number of journalists contributing to it who think that the entertainment value of their pieces is a major criterion for excellence is amazing.

  7. If we weren’t free to express our opinions there would be no discussion. If we were to read only expert opinion (and who determines that – as even experts have different opinions), all forms of communication would be stifled. You have a Prime Minister who criticizes the High Court decision – so who is the expert?

    Meg

    • (Well, the PM *is* a lawyer).
      But I’m not suggesting anybody should stifle discussion. What I object to is the practice of the media presenting Joe Blow’s opinion about something, not countered by someone with qualifications (or experience) to talk about it. The analogy would be if they featured me giving a tip on a horse race, (which I know nothing about) and not featuring a trainer or someone in the racing industry who follows it properly. Another example: a while ago there was a debate here in Melbourne about the wisdom of dredging the bay to deepen it (to enable bigger modern cargo shipping). Week after week (on the ABC) we saw the objectors v the dredgers – both of whom had vested interests in their position – but never a scientist with qualifications in ocean ecology.

  8. (Well the High Court is represented by Chief Justices who are far more learned than the Prime Minister)..
    I think every well thought out opinion is worth consideration. I agree it should be a well balanced representation from both sides. I remember the debate about the dredging of Port Philip Bay, and I did read lots of varied facts and opinions. It was once considered fact that the earth was flat. This was the consensus of informed opinion. If not for dissenters who question accepted ‘science’ we would never broaden our knowledge. Scepticism is healthy. Blind adherence to the opinions of so called ‘experts’ is not. The more opinions you can garner, whether expert or lay, the better your chance of sifting the wheat from the chaff.

    Meg

    • (Well of course the High Court judges are more learned than the PM. More learned than anybody I should think. Which means that the media should give indeed time to people who’ve read their judgements, and the precedents that were before the courts, when the result is unexpected. That could include the PM and the Attorney-General, the Opposition Leader or his representative who’s read the same stuff, and constitutional lawyers. Your opinion or mine may be of interest at a BBQ, but not on national TV).
      (And I would be arguing, in the case of the flat earthers, that the dissenters who questioned the science of the day were qualified to do that by their research, specific to that issue. But Ian Plimer, for example, who is a geologist, has no qualifications or expertise to question climate science. His dissent is meaningless and irrelevant. And he has a not-widely known conflict of interest i.e. he is a director of mining and gas companies. So any time he appears in the media this conflict of interest should be noted, and his opinion should be balanced by someone who has qualifications in climate science. That’s not what happens in our media.)
      Science is self-correcting. http://tinyurl.com/y88nepq
      I guess we differ on the value of multiple opinions, Meg. Enough now, ok?

  9. Although I’m a constant user of the Internet, both professionally and personally, I’ve never participated in an online discussion such as this. I don’t have time or inclination for Facebook or Twitter. I do take the opportunity of complimenting journalists for something well-written and I sometimes send comments to the ABC. As far as ANZ LitLovers is concerned, I’ve made the occasional response to reviews of books; however, this current debate is something quite other than an examination of Sir Walter Scott’s convoluted plots or the announcement of award winners. Unwittingly, I seem to have contributed to a conversation that is really about the integrity of our media. Frankly, I’m surprised at the number of comments that have followed. I wonder whether anyone actually cares what we all think? Many years ago we marched along Bourke Street protesting about the war in Vietnam; we made a difference. Later, I marched again, protesting about the poor state of education; we didn’t make a difference. Marching is now passé and I abhor all demonstrations. I imagine that most ANZ LitLovers contributors are well-read devotees of the contemporary novel? In her review of an essay on ‘domestic politics’, Lisa has taken us into new territory. I don’t object at all, but will our dialogue have any effect? Will the standard of Australian journalism improve as a result? I doubt it. What have we achieved with all these comments? Not much.

  10. The result was not unexpected. The Minister for Immigration, was advised by his own department and DFAT that the Malaysian solution was not viable. It was also advised that it was most likely illegal. (How could the PM justify sending unaccompanied children to Malaysia?). On several occasions the PM and the Minister said the Law had been changed by the decision of the High Court when in fact that the Law was not changed but merely interpreted and enunciated. My opinion and yours, and all voters are not just important, they form the basis of democracy. Ross Garnaut who is a Government appointed spokesman for Climate Change has no scientific background whatsoever. He is an economist. Tim Flannery who with no qualifications in Climate Science, has only a doctorate in Palaeontology so is also then meaningless and irrelevant.
    I agree, enough is enough.

    24.9.11 LH: You see here that I am letting Meg have the last word -but do not assume from that that I agree with what she says…’tis only that (as I requested in my previous comment) enough is enough.


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