Last month, to considerable fanfare, Australia's major media organisations launched an organisation called Australia's Right to Know as part of a campaign to remove restrictions on free speech. It has mainly targeted restrictions on the use of Freedom of Information laws and a clamp-down on journalists reporting confidential government information.
The campaign was initiated by News Limited and includes Fairfax Media, the ABC, SBS, Australian Associated Press, as well as owners of commercial radio and television. It's an admirable effort to counter the growing restrictions on access to information in government and the loss of accountability that is the counterpart of public ignorance.
However, there is a glaring contradiction in this campaign, and that is the prominent participation of The Australian newspaper. Of course, every news organisation wants access to more government information, but in recent years no news organisation in Australia has done more to attempt to silence critics and independent voices in public debate. (Many bloggers immediately pointed out the hypocrisy of The Australian calling for free speech while having a history of reproducing uncritically lies told by the Howard Government.)
The role of the Murdoch broadsheet is referred to several times in the recent book edited by myself and Sarah Maddison titled Silencing Dissent. (Read an edited extract about tracking down leakers here.) For example, The Australian has barracked for and supported the appointment of Right-wing cultural warriors to the Board of the ABC and has published material attacking the personal reputations of academics critical of the Howard Government. Other News Ltd publications have been central to the Government's vengeance against its critics, including the attacks on whistle-blower Andrew Wilkie, pay-back to the Red Cross Blood Bank for voicing criticisms of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and inviting political interference in the allocation of university research grants.
In the latest Quarterly Essay, 'His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard,' David Marr takes up the themes of Silencing Dissent with a number of troubling instances of gagging and personal attacks. Maddison, Marr and myself were invited to present a session on silencing dissent at the Sydney Writers' Festival on 2 June. Two days later, the Opinion Editor of The Australian, Tom Switzer, wrote a strongly worded piece criticising Marr and me for claiming that we are being silenced, characterising our claims as nothing more than Left-wing whingeing. 'If they really are silenced, how come they keep getting their articles and books published?'
It is hard to know whether Switzer has simply refused to read the books, or even a summary piece, or has deliberately misrepresented the argument. I have never claimed that I have been silenced. The debate is not about Hamilton, Maddison and Marr but about the dozens of instances detailed and documented in our writings of others who have been silenced, including academics, NGOs, public servants, and military and intelligence officers. Switzer refuses to engage with these instances and arguments, instead preferring to attempt to trash the messengers.
This is unsurprising as Switzer himself has been involved in an extraordinary attempt to silence criticism of The Australian newspaper for its role in the greenhouse debate. The criticisms are contained in my book, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, published by Black Inc in May.
It seems worthwhile to document here the events as they occurred before and after publication. Putting these events on the public record will help readers understand the motives for the continuing attacks on Robert Manne, me and others in The Australian attacks that reached a crescendo in an editorial published on 11 June 2007, titled 'Reality Bites Psychotic Left.' The hysterical tone of the diatribe suggests that The Australian's senior editors have been severely shaken by the criticisms made of the paper over its coverage of climate change.
"Bias in The Australian's approach is not just a matter of perception but can be demonstrated."
Around two weeks before the publication date of Scorcher, the publisher of Black Inc sent the page proofs to Patrick Lawnham, the editor of the 'Inquirer' section of the Weekend Australian, to see if the paper would be interested in bidding for extract rights.
A few days later, on 4 April, I received a phone call from Chris Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief of The Australian. In a cordial conversation he suggested that my comments in Scorcher on the role of The Australian in the climate change debate were unduly harsh. In a letter dated the next day, he argued that his paper's coverage had not been 'anti-green' but instead emphasised a 'practical approach' to the issue which 'sits easily with the views of the people who pay for the paper each day'.
He enclosed a package of materials, collated by various staff, which was designed to show that the paper's news coverage, editorials and opinion pieces provided a balanced perspective on the climate change debate.
The purpose of Mitchell's approach was to persuade me to change my views, as if they were based on an inadequate study of The Australian's reporting and comment on the issue, itself an odd perception. For reasons I don't understand, the paper made strenuous efforts to ensure that I received the package of material by courier the next day so that I could read it over the Easter break. Having spent years reading and assessing The Australian's coverage, the material made no difference to my perceptions, although the determination to get me to change my views shed new light on the internal politics of the paper.
Bias in The Australian's approach is not just a matter of perception but can be demonstrated. To test this, we at the Australia Institute examined all opinion pieces and editorials over the first three months of 2006, a period selected because it was one of intense activity on the climate change issue. I have no doubt that the results would be replicated for other periods.
We assessed the political orientation of opinion pieces and editorials against three criteria: whether they were for or against the Federal Government's position on climate change; whether they were for or against the Kyoto Protocol; and whether they were for or against the consensus view of climate science.
The results showed that, over the three-month period, The Australian published opinion pieces or editorials as follows: nine for the Government's position and one against; 10 against Kyoto and one for; and 10 against the consensus view of the science and six for (including one by the Prime Minister).
In the meantime, another, less cordial, correspondence was taking place between staff at The Australian and Robert Manne, the editor of Black Inc's Agenda series of which Scorcher was a part. On 10 April, Patrick Lawnham emailed Chris Feik, the publisher at Black Inc, with the following words:
Was thinking about an extract but separately was wondering whether Black Inc was taking on board a plea for balance in the book's coverage of The Australian that was passed on. Thinking of in and around chapter 14.
Manne took this as a hint that if the company agreed to change the book, the newspaper would be more open to running an extract.
"It was all the more breathtaking for the fact that the demand was made by a powerful national newspaper against a small publisher."
The next day, 11 April, Lawnham formally wrote to Morry Schwartz, founder and Chair of Schwartz Publishing, owner of Black Inc Books, claiming that Scorcher 'greatly misrepresents' the newspaper's coverage of climate change, noting that the most objectionable content appears in Chapter 14. He claimed to have been shocked by the book.
The letter went on to say that The Australian wanted an 'addendum' to be inserted in printed copies of the book, and an insertion in any new printings, 'stating that The Australian rejects the book's representation of its coverage of greenhouse and other environmental issues, and of its staff's motives and intent.' Such a demand is virtually unheard of in the world of publishing and could not be taken seriously.
It was all the more breathtaking for the fact that the demand was made by a powerful national newspaper against a small publisher. It suggested a puzzling desperation to avoid criticism, perhaps explained by the dramatic shift some months beforehand of the newspaper's proprietor from climate sceptic to greenhouse believer. The Australian had locked itself into such a trenchant denialist position that change seemed too threatening and the only response was to deny its denialism and attack those who pointed to the truth of its stance.
Of course, Black Inc's publishers rejected The Australian's demand out of hand.
In an email to Black Inc's publicist, Anna Lensky, on the same day, Lawnham gave more reasons for the decision to reject extracts. Claiming Scorcher was 'too unbalanced,' he wrote:
It's not so much the attacks on The Australian, which are grossly misrepresentative, it's more the book's central message that the Prime Minister is a deliberate enemy of humanity that is the problem. Hitler Stalin Howard.
As a political scientist who has spent years writing about Hitler and Stalin, Manne took offence at this reference and wrote to Lawnham asking him to justify the claim that I link Howard with Hitler and Stalin by referring to any relevant passages in the book, suggesting that the claim was 'baseless and unjust.' There is no mention of Hitler or Stalin anywhere in the book.
Lawnham replied (on 16 April) saying that 'the comparison of the mild-mannered Australian Prime Minister with two of the most dangerous men in recent history is a fair overall interpretation' of the book's argument. He said that if the author were an 'ex-Government insider' then 'the book might have a degree of credibility' presumably because I would have had better access to documents. We will see what Lawnham makes of the forthcoming book on climate change politics by Guy Pearse, an ex-Government insider, who will make a case similar to, and perhaps stronger than, the one made in Scorcher. (The book is published by Penguin and is expected out in July.)
Manne was also engaged in an email correspondence with The Australian's opinion editor Tom Switzer. Switzer is well known for his climate sceptic stance and, alone among opinion editors in Australia, has frequently given space to the small group of sceptics and denialists. In an email dated 16 April, Switzer made the revealing claim that 'a strong case could be made that no scientific consensus on climate change exists.'
If one holds such a view, then one must view the IPCC (not to mention CSIRO, NASA's Goddard Center, the Tyndall Centre and every other climate change research centre) as merely taking one point of view wholly ignoring the scope of its work, the breadth of the expertise and the rigorous consensus process that it goes through before producing each report. The only alternative is to view the scientific consensus as a giant conspiracy, a view that sceptics do indeed cleave to. Switzer himself referred to the consensus scientists as 'the true believers.'
Switzer was unaware of other moves by the paper to nobble the book, writing: 'I should add neither Chris [Mitchell] nor anyone else at The Australian has asked Black Inc to revise the copy of the book on the question of our coverage of global warming.'
It seems unlikely that Patrick Lawnham would have written to Morry Schwartz making demands for the book to be amended without discussing it with his Editor-in-Chief, who had taken a strong personal interest in the book. Manne replied expressing surprise that he was unaware of the newspaper's request for an addendum to be added to the book, hoping that his rejection of the suggestion reflected a view that he saw it as wrong to attempt to get the publisher and author 'to change the text of a book so as to provide a more favourable view' of The Australian and its staff.
Switzer ended his 16 April email with an implicit threat. 'Finally, I would not be surprised if certain individuals here do indeed decide to take action over the chapter.' Manne replied: 'I'm aware of how discomforting this sorry history is to your editors now. But repeated threats on this matter will not influence me. If anything, the reverse.'
The threats of defamation action made against the publisher and me were galling, to say the least. The Australian has a daily circulation of 130,000 and double that number on Saturdays, and is in as strong a position as anyone to defend itself. It was another instance of bullying behaviour, reflecting the style of personal attack that the newspaper has specialised in over the years.
Irritated by the intimidation, I wrote to Mitchell on 19 April. I noted that, at least in the opinion of some with expertise in the area, The Australian has defamed me and the Australia Institute several times in recent years. To this point, I wrote, I have never contemplated taking legal action as I had regarded the commentary in question, although unfair and damaging, to be part of the cut and thrust of public debate despite the manifest mismatch in our respective abilities to influence public opinion.
Moreover, as Editor-in-Chief, Mitchell has for years campaigned vigorously against Australia's defamation laws, with many editorials and features making a strong case against them for restricting free speech. I reproduced some words from editorials to remind him of his stance:
Newspapers have become accustomed to being the victims of Australia's ludicrous defamation laws, which act to suppress free speech and enrich lawyers … But now the defamation explosion is hitting the book publishing business hard … Book-burning through defamation means control of the historical record goes to the people with the deepest pockets and the smartest lawyers. (Editorial, The Australian, 31 January 2004)
And again a few months later:
The defamation law as it stands has done grave damage to public culture in Australia … The whole legalistic approach ignores a fundamental truth: freedom of speech and a vigorous and open marketplace of ideas are essential to a democratic society … In fact, reputation is something established in the marketplace of ideas … (Editorial, The Australian, 6 August 2004)
The paper had also observed that 'the legal system's notion of reputation as a form of private property that can be damaged or stolen is at odds with the idea of a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment.' (Editorial, The Australian, 21 October 2004)
I wrote that there would be few organisations in this country in a better position than The Australian to participate in a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment. Indeed, in another leader (19 May 2005), Mitchell had written that 'big companies have plenty of resources for protecting their reputations' without use of the defamation laws.
I concluded that even the suggestion of legal action against me and Black Inc for criticising The Australian in Scorcher stands in stark contrast to his frequently stated editorial stance, and suggested that it would appear that Kevin Rudd, recently in the press for attempting to browbeat journalists, is not the only one with a glass jaw.
Mitchell responded quickly by email saying 'Neither the paper nor I would ever sue,' but affirming that one staff member had taken legal advice.
At this point, nothing has ensued although the newspaper has published a number of disparaging references to me and Robert Manne. For example, on 16 May, the editor managed to drag both of our names into an editorial critical of the ABC documentary Bastard Boys. It has also published three opinion pieces that have included attacks on me.
The extraordinary editorial of 11 June will clearly not be the last (for instance see The Australian's attack on Robert Manne today, Wednesday 13 June).
This saga has both alarming and comical aspects. Perhaps the most interesting lesson is the difficulty that a newspaper that takes its reputation seriously can get itself into when it campaigns fiercely on the basis of an ideological position. The Australian was always going to lose the climate change debate because, while it dug its heels in to resist the 'green tide,' the science of climate change become stronger and stronger. The Australian's denialist stance has been overwhelmed by the scientific facts. Although it took a long time, Rupert Murdoch could see the writing on the wall but the gaggle of climate sceptics at The Australian would look like fools if they began too quickly to speak with His Master's Voice.
The other lesson of the saga is more surprising. It reveals just how brittle the climate sceptics at The Australian are.
No one likes to be made to look foolish, but if you lock yourself into an anti-scientific position sooner or later you are going to have to revert to pure faith to sustain your argument. I argue in Scorcher that, as the journalistic home of conservative ideas, The Australian has campaigned vigorously against the influence of post-modernism and moral relativism throughout Australia's institutions. Yet, in the case of climate change it has actively promoted those who challenge the established science.
The Australian has now been mugged by the facts but is not yet ready to admit it. That is why the newspaper through demands for corrections and threats of legal action has attempted to silence the criticisms of it made in Scorcher.
This sorry story sheds a different light on the noble appeals of News Ltd, and The Australian in particular, for a more open society in which free speech and a variety of opinions are not just tolerated but encouraged. The newspaper's defence of high principle is vitiated by its slavish support for the Howard Government, including its attacks on the Government's critics.
The newspaper's vigorous attempts to drive certain voices from the public debate also suggests that principle takes second place to ideology at 2 Holt Street, Surry Hills.
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