For a long while, many who write and comment here have expressed the view that The Australian
newspaper has a strident anti-Gillard, anti-Government orientation, and is pursuing a campaign to persuade the electorate to remove the Government as soon as possible. The Australian
, and indeed News Limited as a company, has categorically denied that this is their intent, and hint that those who hold this view are conspiracy theorists or paranoid. But we now have Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay Bad News: Murdoch's Australian and the Shaping of the Nation
that forensically analyses hundreds of articles published by The Australian
over several years, the most thorough social research yet done on this paper, that informs us about how it operates and suggests the reasons for its doing so.
The words used by the publishers to describe the Essay read: “Since 2002, under the editorship of Chris Mitchell, the Australian has come to see itself as judge, jury and would-be executioner of leaders and policies. Is this a dangerous case of power without responsibility? In a series of devastating case studies, Manne examines the paper’s campaigns against the Rudd government and more recently the Greens, its climate change coverage and its ruthless pursuit of its enemies and critics. Manne also considers the standards of the paper and its influence more generally. This brilliant essay is part deep analysis and part vivid portrait of what happens when a newspaper goes rogue.
’The Australian sees itself not as a mere newspaper, but as a player in the game of national politics, calling upon the vast resources of the Murdoch empire and the millions of words it has available to it to try to make and unmake governments’.”
I have read the essay, which is available only in print, and can testify to the careful way in which it has been compiled. It would be hard for critics to dispute the authenticity of the documentation. The angry responses from The Australian
seem not so much to dispute it, but seek to shoot the messenger.
Knowing how fraught was taking on Chris Mitchell and The Australian
, Manne began his own blog: Left, Right, Left.
on 12 September. It is well worth reading his first piece, also titled Left, Right, Left
. Then, after a discussion had been arranged to take place at the Wheeler Centre between Manne and one of his sternest critics, Paul Kelly, Kelly pulled out. This prompted Manne to write on his blog on 17 September: Deconstructing Paul Kelly
, again well worth a read. Do glance through the Postscript to read about how the matter of ‘extract rights’ was handled by Chris Mitchell. It gives further insight into Mitchell’s modus operandi
In the absence of Paul Kelly, the Wheeler Centre dialogue went ahead in September with Max Gillies reading the Kelly critique and Manne responding, augmented with questions and comments by the editor of Crikey
, Sophie Black. The dialogue was recorded by SlowTV
and is well worth the hour it takes to watch.
Another event that is worth viewing is an interview of Manne by Eric Beecher, publisher of Crikey
, presented at the Melbourne Writers Festival titled: Power Without Responsibility: The Australian – Manne & Beecher
, also recorded on SlowTV
The Essay was composed after an exhaustive analysis of hundreds of articles written by several of the paper’s journalists; opinion pieces and editorials, aided by the Factiva newspaper database formula. Manne decided to write the essay in September 2010 after he became “…convinced that this newspaper, which had played a part in the unraveling of the Rudd government, would not rest until it saw the end of the Gillard government and the destruction of the Labor-Greens alliance.”
In his introduction, Manne says: “The Australian is in my view the country’s most important newspaper. Under Chris Mitchell it has evolved into a kind of broadsheet perhaps never before seen here. It is an unusually ideological paper, committed to advancing the causes of neo-liberalism in economics and neo-conservatism in the sphere of foreign policy. Its style and tone are also 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. It exhibits distaste, even hatred, for what it terms ‘the Left’, and in particular for the Greens. It is driven by contempt for its two natural rivals, the Fairfax press and the ABC, one of which it seems to wish to destroy altogether, the other of which it seeks to discredit for its supposed left-wing bias and to reshape. Both the Fairfax newspapers and the ABC are belittled by The Australian. Yet at least until the Murdoch empire was weakened in early July 2011, for the most part they turned the other cheek.”
He goes on to say: “The Australian is a remorselessly campaigning paper; in recent times against the Building the Education Revolution program and the National Broadband Network. In these campaigns its assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then seek out evidence to support it. The paper is also unusually self-referential and boastful, heaping extravagant praise upon itself for its acumen and prescience, almost on a daily basis, never failing to inform its readers that it was the first to report something or the only paper to provide real scrutiny or intelligent interpretation. Related to its boastfulness is The Australian’s notorious sensitivity to criticism. It regularly explodes with indignation and rage when criticized. It also bears many grudges.”
Manne goes onto describe its grudge against Simon Overland, then Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, who was pursued by the paper until his career was ruined, and even after that.
Manne’s account is in accord with what those contributing to this blogsite have been saying for a long while. So why bother about The Australian
at all? It has a weekday distribution of only 100,000 to 130,000. Manne gives cogent reasons. It is said to have never made a profit, yet it is very well resourced by Rupert Murdoch who continues to support it, presumably because of its capacity to exercise significant power and influence over the political scene in pursuit of his commercial interests and political objectives. Moreover, as Manne points out: “Because of the dominant position it has assumed in its Canberra coverage, The Australian influences the way the much more widely read News Limited tabloids, like the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, report national politics, and frequently sets the agenda of commercial radio and television and the ABC, even the up-market breakfast program on Radio National.”
Manne goes on: “…the Australian is…the only newspaper that is read by virtually all members of the group
[he] calls the political class, a group that includes politicians, leading public servants, business people and the most politically engaged citizens. Even those who loathe the paper understand that they cannot afford to ignore it.”
Does anyone doubt the enormous influence The Australian
has on political life and thought in this country? If we take that as a given, what are the consequences?
A quick review of the matters covered by Manne will give an idea of where he considers The Australian
to have exercised its most profound influence; his analysis of the paper’s modus operandi
in covering these issues gives insight into how it exercises that influence.
Manne deals with ‘The Making of Keith Windschuttle’
, describing how his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History
, which runs contrary to established historical records, was given undue prominence by The Australian
. He describes the unquestioning approach taken by the paper to the Iraq War in: ‘The Iraq Invasion: “An Open and Shut Case’
, and how the paper attacked Media Watch in Media Watch: “They are certainly not good enough to judge us"
. Manne deals exhaustively with climate change in Climate Change: “Clear, Catastrophic Threats”
, to which I shall return. He has a chapter: Kevin Rudd: “More Gough Whitlam Heavy than John Howard Lite”
, where he describes the paper’s role in the saga surrounding Rudd.
There is then a chapter titled Tweet Tweet
, which begins by describing the ‘outing’ of blogger Greg Jericho as a Canberra public servant, which then goes on to describe the paper’s action following a tweet by a young university lecturer Julie Posetti during a talk by Ana Wahlquist at the Journalism Education Association of Australia annual conference that described Chris Mitchell as going down the ‘eco-Fascist line’, a tweet that evoked a threat by Mitchell to sue. The chapter concludes with an account of the paper’s reaction to a tweet indigenous activist professor Larissa Behrendt made during a Q&A
session. Remember she was the one Andrew Bolt accused of being German in origin rather than aboriginal in the recent court case against him.
The chapter on The Greens: “They are Hypocrites; They are Bad for the Nation; and they should be Destroyed at The Ballot Box”
is a long one to which I shall return. The final chapter: Australia’s Murdoch Problems
, describes the two that Manne sees: Murdoch’s 70% ownership of metropolitan newspapers, and The Australian
The Essay is well written, carefully documented and referenced, as one would expect from an academic in political science, and in my view is essential reading for anyone interested in the influence of the media on politics in Australia.
To elaborate on the whole essay would take too many words, so I shall focus on just two chapters, the ones on climate change and on the Greens, as they give the most telling insight into how The Australian
Beginning with a heartfelt plea for a return to the clear thinking we learned at school, Manne says: “It is consensual among climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and that warming will have many powerful, long term damaging effects.”
He concedes: “There is, however, no agreement on the precise impact into the future of accelerating atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels”,
pointing out that while “...some predictions are relatively moderate although still dire…”
others “…express profound alarm about what will happen unless radical action is taken very soon.”
Manne continues: “In the discussion of climate change, the future of the earth and the human future are at stake. As we shall see, what The Australian has contributed on climate change under Chris Mitchell’s watch is a truly frightful hotchpotch of ideological prejudice and intellectual muddle.”
He then documents in great detail the material that appeared in The Australian
on the subject, and how he sorted it into categories, ending with 880 articles. Of these, about 180 were favourable to climate change action, and 700 unfavourable, a ratio of about four unfavourable to one favourable. Manne argued that no one who was objective could arrive at this ratio.
He then details the long list of denialist scientists, a group representing virtually no one published in peer-reviewed journals, which have been given voice in The Australian
. Quantifying this, Manne says: “In the real world, scientists accepting the climate consensus view outnumber denialists by more than ninety-nine to one. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Chris Mitchell their
[scientist] contributions were outnumbered by ten to one.”
Clearly, Manne’s research shows how unbalanced, how biased against the reality of climate change the material published in The Australian
has been. I shall return to this later.
Turning now to the chapter on the Greens, referring to Chris Mitchell, Manne asserts: “He has long despised the Greens. So has Rupert Murdoch. When he visited Australia in late 2010, he spoke of this country as ‘a wonderful land of opportunity’ and warned”: ‘Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up’.”
Later Manne says: “On 25 August
 The Australian published its first editorial on the significance of the Greens’ outstanding election performance. The editorial ridiculed the claim that the election had witnessed the ‘real birth of a new political movement.’ ‘Political observers who didn’t come down in the last shower’ had ‘heard it all before’. The success of the Greens was likely to prove ephemeral unless they abandoned their ‘tomato Left economics.’ For the one-thousandth time, the Labor Party was warned not to ‘lurch to the Left’.”
He then cited an article written shortly afterwards by Dennis Shanahan that “…described the party
[Greens] in the kind of language B.A. Santamaria might have used about the Communist Party half a century ago… ‘Bandt
[member for Melbourne] is a member of a party that has a worldwide movement, a national structure, funding from overseas, and a platform opposed to much of Labor’s election policy’."
Shanahan called for an election five days after the last.
If there was any doubt about the antipathy directed towards the Greens from The Australian
, all doubt was removed in its editorial of 7 September. Manne records the thrust of it: “Greens leader Bob Brown has accused The Australian of trying to wreck the alliance between the Greens and Labor. We wear Senator Brown’s criticism with pride. We believe that he and his colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.”
Manne concludes: “With this statement The Australian ceased even to pretend to be, in the words of its US Murdoch cousin, the execrable Fox News, ‘fair and balanced’. With this statement it made explicit what was already entirely obvious, namely that The Australian saw itself not as a mere newspaper, but as a player in the game of national politics, calling upon the vast resources of the Murdoch empire and the millions of words it had available at its disposal to it to try to influence the national political agenda and to make and break governments. The pretence of The Australian was that it scrutinized those in power. The reality was that it exercised extraordinary power without either responsibility or accountability. The Australian’s editorial of 7 September was a perhaps unique and most likely inadvertent moment of honesty.”
Need I add more evidence about The Australian’s
political objectives both covert, and on this occasion, revealingly overt?
The stridently partisan stance of The Australian
cannot be countered by complaining about issues of ownership or editorship. The paper is privately owned and has the right to take whatever political stance it wishes, and press its case within the bounds of defamation laws and the Racial Discrimination Act. What I find offensive and intellectually disreputable is that it so often does this dishonestly and deceptively. The way the issue of climate change was promulgated by The Australian
, with a grossly disproportionate carriage of articles unfavourable to action on climate change, was misleading and mendacious. The ten to one ratio of articles by denaiists to climate scientists published by The Australian
disingenuously represented to its readers the real evidence about global warming. It deceived the people. Is it any wonder there is so much skepticism abroad? And because its influence extends to the widely circulated Murdoch tabloids, radio and TV, the effect on the electorate has been profound, something we see reflected in poll after poll. The Australian
appears not to accept responsibility for promulgating complete and accurate information on important political matters so as to enlighten its readers – instead it cherry picks what suits its predetermined ideological, political or commercial agenda. This is what is dangerously dishonest.
It seems as if the political agenda, based on neoliberal and neoconservative notions, one violently opposed to ‘the Left’ and the Greens, is what sets the agenda; that this agenda is transmitted by the editor-in-chief of the paper to his journalists who take that as their starting point, from which they cherry pick data to support the editor’s predetermined position.
In my view, this is what is so dangerous about The Australian
; ownership and editorship are relevant only to the extent that these players call all the shots.
What can be done about The Australian’s
Manne says: “…I can think of only one possible solution: courageous external and internal criticism. During the conduct of research for this essay, several people have discussed the strange passivity of the two mainstream rivals of The Australian, the Fairfax press and the ABC, even in the face of a constant barrage of criticism and lampooning. This is a not only a mistake with regard to the self-interest of both organizations; it has also left the victims of The Australian’s attacks vulnerable and friendless.”
He concludes by stating that there is considerable unease among former and present journalists at The Australian “…concerning the political extremism and frequent irrationalism of the paper for which they work and the bullying behaviour of the editor-in-chief. If such people acted together to make their opinion known, it is not impossible that change might come. The Australian employs many of the best journalists in the country. I will not name them for fear of doing them harm. It only requires a different editor-in-chief and owner for it to become a truly outstanding paper.”
That might be so, but can anyone envisage a change of owner in the foreseeable future, or the editor, who so faithfully carries out his master’s wishes?
Critiquing the Manne Essay in Overland
on 20 September, Tad Tietze says: “It is here that we can more clearly see how Manne’s implicit liberal ideal cannot be obtained through either deftly crafted exposés like Bad News, nor through changes of editorial personnel or ownership. Murdoch’s media represents one wing of a wider network of institutional power, one that uses varying approaches to both sell its product and maintain those power relations.”
And later Tietze refers to: “Murdoch’s long-term project to use certain key outlets to influence the political class in favour of his interests.”
Tietze concludes: “Murdoch and Mitchell’s strategy with The Australian has been to break from the niceties of liberalism and wage a hard Right campaign for what they want. In this they have both reflected and encouraged similar trends within the political class, perhaps most concentrated in the Coalition but hardly absent from Labor’s ranks. The veneer of ‘civility’ has been discarded as politicians and the media have gradually lost their institutional legitimacy. The great strength of Manne’s essay is how clearly he lays out the evidence of this process.”
So what can we in the Fifth Estate do? Manne believes that external criticism may have an effect although he seems to feel internal criticism may be more effective. We can continue our small voice of criticism of The Australian
and its modus operandi
by exposing disingenuousness whenever we see it. But like others who criticize this paper or its staff, we can expect the same vindictiveness that assails those who criticize or oppose. That is, if we are considered worth a comment at all.
What do you think?