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November 2, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The Robert Manne/The Australian stoush (Quarterly Essay no. 43)


Irony and narcissism: a retrospective on the media response to Robert Manne’s latest Quarterly Essay

A major Australian Murdoch newspaper, a politics professor and a damning essay – why the reaction to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation’ suggests there is a deficit of news sources unafraid to tackle big media outlets in Australia.

A recent public Quarterly Essay debating the value and role of the media in Australia has put the power of the written word under the spotlight. In his Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation’, La Trobe politics professor Robert Manne offers a meticulously evidenced argument on the skewed perspective of the Australian on key Australian political topics, and the forces at work within Murdoch’s prized first newspaper. Naturally, the Australian went ballistic.

The Essay itself is what you might expect from a professor of politics; it is unequivocally negative of a paper that has so warped the climate change debate that experts are dismissed as hacks in favour of people with no qualifications on climate change. Manne tracks the Australian’s reporting of the Larissa Behrendt ‘tweet shame’ (as reported by the Australian), while the newspaper is accused of having a heavy hand in the downfall of Kevin Rudd and the warping of facts on the WMD question on Iraq in the early 2000s.

The Manne-Australian exchanges so far

The Australian has not held back on its anti-Manne rhetoric since the Essay’s release in early September 2011. Paul Kelly, the Editor-at-large of the Australian, threw the first major volley in the paper’s pages, rejecting Manne’s essay with the ironic claim that Manne is an ‘moralistic political censor’ who represses stories and debates he doesn’t like, after which Manne offered deconstruction of Kelly’s first polemic in his blog.

Another Australian article on 19 September covers feedback on the Essay received from Australian readers. This article includes an excerpt from a response by Manne himself, but it is buried beneath reader comments implying he is insane and a narcissistic masturbator. With almost no notice, Paul Kelly then pulls out of a long-planned Wheeler Centre debate on the essay with Manne, scheduled to have run on 21 September. The events goes ahead without Kelly.

Manne’s breakdown of the Australian’s anti-Essay coverage at Manne’s The Monthly blog here is a revealing portrait of just how much the Australian needs to repeatedly state it does not care about the Essay; in one day, the Australian published more than 12,000 words in one day lambasting the Essay. Meanwhile, the Australian continues to publish articles musing on its place in Australian society and how it has been victimised for standing up to the ‘knowledge class’:

‘[The Australian’s] enduring “national project” realism has estranged it from a potent, vocal class — the knowledge class, its members self-selected by their differentiation from the nation at large…[the Australian is] devoted to intelligent analysis and in-depth field reporting [and] has become the target of a section of the intelligentsia, at just the time it is in the cross-hairs of the governmental establishment.’

This, from a paper who, in Manne’s more succinct words in Bad News, ‘conducted a prolonged and intellectually incoherent campaign against action on climate change, which has undermined the hold in public life of the central values of the Enlightenment, Science and Reason.’

Commentary on the Manne-Australian exchange from other news outlets

The trouble with taking on a major newspaper is that few other significant media outlets are willing to follow you into battle. The Australian’s main possible rival, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, have published one significant article that mentions the essay, but only in the context of a wider debate on liberty and free speech.

Aside from Manne and the Australian itself, Crikey has certainly been the biggest generator of articles directly related to the topic, offering a detailed dissection of Manne’s essay. Adam Brereton in New Matilda does turn the pro-Manne tide by launching a scathing attack on Bad News’s habit of attributing more political power to the Australian than it may actually possess. Indeed, finding media coverage on the Manne-Australian stoush that is not clearly in favour of one side or the other is difficult. While the ABC’s The Drum takes a swing at the Australian in a mostly pro-Manne analysis, it serves primarily as ammunition for the Australian’s ongoing complaints about left-wing bias at the ABC.

What does this commentary on the Manne-Australian debate on the latest Quarterly Essay mean for Australian media?

Despite the media coverage (or lack thereof) within many major significant outlets, Manne’s essay has a dire conclusion: ‘The Australian has conducted a prolonged and intellectually incoherent campaign against action on climate change, which has undermined the hold in public life of the central values of the Enlightenment, Science and Reason’. Major competitors to the Australian (such as, for example, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald) have offered a rather subdued response to Manne’s Essay, which is telling in itself. If they feel it is unnecessary to participate in a debate on the role of media in modern Australian society, independent media outlets such as New Matilda and Crikey may be the only resources for such discussions. Let’s hope the Australian doesn’t find that too offensive.

Want to do some follow-up reading? See below for other articles related to this story:

  • ‘Rundle: a collector’s piece for the ages, The Oz on Manne’: Guy Rundle at (Crikey).
  • ‘The Oz playing the Manne: why it’s a barracker and a bully’ Margaret Simons (Crikey).
  • The Australian’s opinions on left-wing bias at the ABC are best summarised here in ‘New ABC boss vows no more bias’ by Amanda Meade and Imre Salusinszky.
  • While Paul Kelly pulled out of his planned Wheeler Centre debate with Robert Manne, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event where Manne discusses the essay is available on video here.
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