Letter to The Australian

I would like to point out a problem with Brendan O’Neill’s argument (“Silence of the Illiberal Lambs”, 5/10). He refers to students who burned copies of a newspaper containing a sexist cartoon as “highly intolerant individuals”. But what about the cartoon that these students protest against? If it was indeed a sexist cartoon, then it is guilty of intolerance towards women.

Similarly, Andrew Bolt’s unwillingness to consider views that differ from his own indicates that he, too, is an “intolerant individual”.

Given that patriarchial Western society denied women and displaced Indigenous people any voice on the public stage for hundreds of years, it seems ironic that O’Neill should denounce these groups for merely seeking fair, correct representation in today’s media.

Published in The Australian on 7 October 2011. It’s the second letter on this page.

Navigating the disconnect between Manne and The Australian

Between academic Robert Manne and our esteemed national broadsheet The Australian, a battle is – or was – underway. It began three weeks ago when an extract from Manne’s Quarterly Essay appeared in The Age, followed by the publication’s release shortly afterwards. Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation argues that The Australian is no longer a paper that reports accurately and comments on current events, but that has ‘turned itself into a player in national politics’.

The Australian brought out the big guns in response, with 8000 words of criticism on Manne’s essay – and on the man himself – in just one issue of the paper. The Australian has since decided that there endeth the debate, as upstart’s Matt Smith noted following the absence of the paper’s representative at the Wheeler Centre debate last week. Perhaps The Australian has realised their folly in giving so much attention to Manne’s ‘silly essay’, as editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell described it.

With the word length of a novella at his disposal in Bad News, Manne takes a different approach to the issue than many commentators who are restricted to shorter forms of commentary. He methodically investigates several of The Australian’s coverage areas in order to support an argument of media bias that to some seems quite obvious, but that to The Australian is an accusation quite without merit. It is refreshing to see the various coverage issues dissected carefully and supported with relevant examples, instead of being skimmed over as shorter pieces often necessitate.

While the slanging match died down sooner than I expected, each side has scored their major punches and given an air of ‘my word against yours’ to the battle. Few readers have the time to trawl back through years of broadsheets, as Manne has done, to see whose argument is supported by evidence in the form of The Australian’s coverage of particular issues. But what one can do is read both sides of the argument with a healthy critical eye.

Of course, as readers and critics we bring our own perspective to the debate, one that can cloud the manner of criticism we offer. Let me outline the angle from which I approach this particular issue.

I grew up in Perth, where the local daily is the The West Australian, a tabloid format paper owned by Seven West Media and usually considered to have conservative leanings. Unlike many of my peers who were raised in Melbourne, The Australian was essential to my media diet throughout my late teens and adult life. While many Melbournites dismiss it and turn immediately to The Age, years of habit and a desire for a national focus mean that as a reader, my broadsheet loyalties still lie with The Australian.

My upbringing in what some easterners might see as the backwater of Perth has not stopped me from being able to engage critically with what I read. The Australian’s manner of depicting certain issues has rankled with me for some time.

This feeling came to a head during the 17-day period following the 2010 federal election, when The Australian consistently depicted the figures of the hung parliament in a way that favoured the Coalition. The most obviously misleading example of this was the inclusion in Coalition figures of Western Australian National Party MP Tony Crook, in spite of his explicit statement that the Coalition could not necessarily count on his support. Meanwhile, the seat held by Greens MP Adam Bandt was listed separately, in spite of Bandt having already indicated his support for a Labor government. With control of the parliament hinging on a few independents who were expected to make up their minds in a high pressure environment, this none-too-subtle shaping of the facts and prodding of public opinion was dishonest.

While Manne’s Quarterly Essay pursues issues that have been troubling me for some time, this does not mean that I embrace his arguments uncritically. In the section of the Quarterly Essay that considers the paper’s coverage of climate change, I was able to consider Manne’s argument in the light of my own experience as a reader. It is a topic that I have followed closely over the last few years.

On the other hand, I felt that Manne’s argument about Larissa Behrendt over an injudicious tweet was not developed convincingly, and that a great deal of his writing could have been clearer. I was also aware that I was not in a position to judge those criticisms of The Australian that relate to earlier this century, due to the fact that I was younger and less politically engaged at the time. For example, I take Manne’s argument over the Iraq war with a grain of salt, as I am aware that my own knowledge of the issue is insufficient to allow me to be appropriately critical. This exercise in critical thinking is essential to navigating the conflicting arguments of Manne and The Australian.

This brings me to the discourse of left-wing versus right-wing that is so dominant in political commentary. The constant labelling of public figures as one or the other implies a lack of critical thinking and unquestioning loyalty to a particular, limiting, ideological perspective. A large part of The Australian’s criticism of Manne is that he has swung from the right to the left, as though his loyalties miraculously shifted from one ‘side’ to the other. Manne’s apparent swing can be construed quite differently if this absurdly limiting spectrum is taken out of the picture: rather, his views can be seen to have evolved with time and experience, accompanied by a rare willingness to own and acknowledge this shift.

The Australian openly adopts a particular ideological point of view when it comes to political, social and economic issues. The problem is that the paper’s columnists often seem to neglect critical thinking – that essential tool which allows one to change one’s opinion as an issue evolves – preferring instead to delightedly adopt any piece of evidence that dovetails nicely with their predetermined ideas about how the world should work.

The reaction from The Australian’s commentators to Bad News is polarising, implying that one is either with Manne and against The Australian, or vice versa. The paper’s editor, Chris Mitchell, attributes ‘Green values’ to Manne, and since The Australian has in the past openly argued in support of the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box, one assumes that Manne’s ideas must be similarly destroyed.

This attitude is utterly unhelpful. The world does not split neatly into, on the one hand, Greens, leftists, latte-sipping inner city elites and humanities academics, and on the other, rational, hard-working, ‘real-world’ Australians. There is a complex range of views in our society, a range which the paper says it gives voice to in its op-ed pages even as its own rhetoric of left versus right continually denies this complexity.

On some issues, The Australian is capable of representing a variety of views. On others, such as on its own role in Australian political debate, the paper seems quite unwilling to engage critically or productively. Both Paul Kelly and Chris Mitchell have labelled Manne’s criticism as attack. This is another rhetorical bad habit, found on both ‘sides’ of the issue. There is a vast difference between critique and attack, and to blur the boundaries between the two does a disservice to public debate.

But of course, businesses and politicians are both adverse to considering their faults publicly. It seems ironic that we ask primary school students to self-evaluate, yet The Australian is unable to publicly do the same.

As I have said, I am a loyal reader of the paper. But in spite of this I do not trust much of what I read in its pages, both news and opinion, aware that there are often holes in the paper’s coverage or commentary. This makes me uncomfortable. Yes, debate is and should be uncomfortable, but not because our only national, general-interest broadsheet appears to be pushing its own point of view, with a frequent disregard for journalistic principles.

A shorter version of this piece also appears on upstart, and is available here.

O’Neill’s confusions

On Saturday, The Australian ran a comment piece by Brendan O’Neill in which he argues that ‘greens’ are anti-free speech by supposedly attempting to censor any hint of climate change scepticism. Some of the examples he uses include journalist Margo Kingston’s comment about climate change denialism being a crime against humanity. The comment was made in 2005 in the context of David Irving’s arrest for Holocaust denialism, and has already been used by plenty of commentators who think that ‘the green movement’ is trying to shut down free speech; including by O’Neill himself back in 2006.

O’Neill’s comment peice conveniently neglects to mention that while the occasional ‘green’ may have accused climate change sceptics of denialism akin to Holocaust denialism, one such sceptic has already gone several steps further in misappropriating the legacy of the Holocaust. I’m speaking, of course, of Lord Christopher Monkton. Perhaps O’Neill, as a recent arrival in Australian public debate, is not aware of Monkton’s comparison between Professor Ross Garnaut and Adolf Hitler. At a conference in Los Angeles in June this year, Monkton displayed a picture of a swastika beside a quote from Garnaut, and directly referred to Hitler (in relation to Garnaut) in his speech. Monkton’s act constituted misappropriation of Nazism on a much grander scale than anything that O’Neill has to complain about.

O’Neill is also guilty of a fallacy in his article. He assumes that because Al Gore and Margo Kingston are part of what he describes as ‘the green movement’, and that because they see climate change denial as an offence, that therefore the ‘green movement’ as a whole would like to censor the speech of climate skeptics. The ‘green movement’, or ‘greens’, in O’Neill’s usage, appears to be a generalisation applied to those who support the science of human-driven climate change, and therefore must include people from both sides of the political spectrum and from all walks of life who hold this view. The individuals that O’Neill mentions, however, do not speak on behalf of this diverse group of people, so quite apart from the tenuous nature of his argument, it is hardly accurate to attribute the views of non-representative individuals to an entire movement.

Frankly, the ‘green movement’ has bigger things to worry about than climate change deniers – namely, getting on with the business of mitigating the effects and slowing the process of climate change.

Whose ABC? My ABC.

The front page of the Inquirer in Saturday’s Australian was devoted to ‘Whose ABC?’, an article by journalist and former political staffer Chris Kenny. Attacks on the ABC re-emerge with such regularity that it is almost tiring, and most such articles exhibit a stubborn willingness to admit that the ABC might actually be of immense value to sectors of society. Kenny’s piece is no different.

The article questions the appeal of the ABC to the ‘mainstream’, or to ‘middle Australia’. If the ABC were to adapt accordingly, in order to appeal to Kenny’s conception of these groups, one assumes that ABC 1 would end up looking like the commercial television stations. If so, then people like me would have nowhere to turn except to SBS for media content that interests them.

Commercial television has nothing for me. News and current affairs programs on the commercial stations are sensationalised, insular and often downright offensive in the assumptions they make about their viewer’s values. I have little interest in the AFL, and few of the ‘mainstream’ movies that screen on Channels 7, 9 and 10 appeal to me. I have no interest in ‘reality’ TV, Dancing with the Stars, or MasterChef. Nor would I waste my time watching American crime drama. The commercial channels represent few of my interests (even in their advertising), don’t examine issues that I consider important in any depth, and frankly bore me.

So I watch the ABC and SBS. Admittedly the ABC is not for everyone, which always prompts questions about the use of taxpayers’ money. However, a core part of the ABC’s aim is to fill a gap in the market. Kenny suggests that the ABC isn’t fulfilling this aim, drawing on comments about The Drum website, but in my view, programs such as Q&A, Four Corners and Media Watch certainly do fill a gap in the market.

These programs contain content that does not ‘dumb down’ the audience. They contain content that encourages critical thinking and that seeks both to inform and to challenge viewers; content that, in my view, cannot reliably be found on the commercial channels.

While Kenny lampoons the supposed Left-wing bias of the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien, Channel 7 and 10 give Right-wing presenters such as David Koch and Andrew Bolt free rein to state their biased opinions on national television. Sunrise, one of Channel 7’s flagship programs, featured ‘Kochie’ beckoning to viewers in the wake of a news report on protests at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

‘If you’re watching at Villawood,’ said Koch, ‘come in close: Australians have a great sense of fairness – when you do things like that, we say, on your bike fella, get back out again, don’t take advantage of us.’

It’s a prime example of a presenter telling the audience what they should think, and it completely lacks any in-depth analysis of the issue. Admittedly Sunrise is an entertainment show more than anything else, but that kind of overt bias exhibited immediately after a news item is definitely not quality TV.

I also disagree with Kenny’s argument that the ABC offers nothing for rural audiences. For my family in Victoria’s high country, the radio in the kitchen is permanently tuned to ABC, and it is a lifeline of support each summer when fire danger is high. ABC 1 also presents Landline, a long-running program that comprehensively examines a variety of rural issues. Landline was a regular part of my media diet as a child, and it made me aware of the incredible complexity and diversity of rural life in Australia, outside of the rural environment that I was already familiar with.

I am also worried by the use of terms such as ‘mainstream values’ and ‘suburban values’, with the ABC apparently being out of touch with the groups that represent these values. ‘Mainstream values’ is a term thrown around on a regular basis, but defining what it encompasses is impossible. Who gets to say what these values are? Who belongs to the category of the so-called ‘mainstream’? It is incredibly short-sighted if ‘mainstream’ is defined by images such as the nuclear family and a house in the suburbs – images that dominate the commercial media’s prime-time advertising.

Early in the article Kenny puts forward the assumption, supposedly ‘for argument’s sake’, that the critics are correct and that the ABC’s content and analysis is skewed to the Left. This point of view (analysed in more depth by Queensland journalist Derek Barry) persists throughout the article, with no attempt made to challenge it, nor to consider an opposing angle. Thus Kenny’s piece of writing, attacking the relevance of the ABC and accorded a prominent position in Australia’s only national broadsheet, operates on a mere ‘assumption’ throughout.