At long last, Robert Manne’s much-anticipated Quarterly Essay critiquing The Australian under current editor Chris Mitchell has arrived — and it hasn’t disappointed. It certainly is the very picture of a Robert Manne essay. After reading it, you’ll definitely be convinced of that. Manne, who’s spent the last three decades lurching back and forth across the political spectrum like your drunk uncle at Christmas, has at least stayed consistent on one front: his writing remains as dull, censorious and condescending as ever, presenting the obvious as if it were written on tablets carted down from Mt Sinai.
Bad News is an essay best read back-to-front, in order to get a good picture of Manne’s objective in writing it. In his final paragraph, he tells the reader he "[has]become aware of considerable unease among present and former journalists at The Australian concerning both the political extremism and frequent irrationalism of the paper for which they work", and muses whether if those journalists collectively made their opinions known, there might be a change of editor and culture, which would transform The Australian into a "truly outstanding newspaper".
Why does he think Denis Shanahan should don the beret and become Fidel Chenahan, leading the spivvy masses to overthrow the boss? In his introduction, Manne lists his reasons: The Australian is a "remorseless campaigning newspaper", overly sensitive to criticism, obsessive about revenge, hubristic and responsible, he says, for directly and indirectly setting the nation’s political agenda by being the paper of choice for movers and shakers. TV and radio broadcasters also lift many of their stories from The Oz, which means the Murdoch values that Manne says it enforces filter through all levels of our political discourse.
Importantly, Manne says "the issue is … the capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens" as a result of their vast reach.
To put it bluntly, News Limited, and its flagship The Australian, are spinning rubbish for the punters, which is bad because they’re gormless twits who’ll accept any old shit. Far from being complicit in that project, many otherwise moral journalists are kept under lock and key by Mitchell, forced to scurry about whenever he shouts "Berk! Feed me!" from the editor’s office.
It’s a roundabout approach, trying to get journalists, who for good reason nobody trusts to begin with, to speak out and take responsibility for creating the kind of "public debate" Manne wants, which if he’d read his own essay, he’d realise they don’t give two farts about. "Stop being so arrogant!" Manne whines. "Apologise to the public for being pro-Iraq, right now!" He demands. You can almost hear the laughter from The Australian’s editorial offices right now.
They’ve given up any "claim to fairness or to balance" by being more interested in throwing their weight around than being journalists. Well blow me down Robert, because I thought a paper run by and written for white conservatives would be interested in advancing somebody else’s interests.
Manne’s deep desire to absolve The Oz of its failings is what has led him to this point, and it shows in his case studies. In his analysis of The Australian’s strident support for Iraq he places the blame chiefly at foreign editor Greg Sheridan’s feet, saying the problem "is not that he lacks eloquence or intelligence or even that he is so right-wing. The problem is that he lacks judgment and the capacity to learn from his many, many egregious mistakes". But after fitting this claim back inside Manne’s original thesis — namely the impact on public debate — nobody seems to have taken much notice of Sheridan’s mincing. At the time only 6 per cent of Australian supported war without UN backing.
Support for war still remains low, so Manne’s problem must lie with the content of The Oz rather than its effect on the general public’s perceptions.
Likewise his critique of The Australian’s notorious mission to "destroy the Greens at the ballot box", a mission which seems to have had little effect on the party. The Greens currently enjoy historic levels of public support, actual parliamentary representation and clout in government.
We’re also treated to a distinctively Manne-ish treatment of the role The Australian played in Rudd’s downfall. Rudd, who used to be a ‘personal friend’ of Mitchell’s, apparently didn’t match up to his ideological specifications, and had to be brought down. In his headmasterish fashion, Manne warns that "there are two ways of misunderstanding the role The Australian played in the downfall of Kevin Rudd" — either give it too much weight or not enough. I for one was relieved to finally have the no-go zones demarcated, and to be told by Professor Goldilocks that the "just right" point was to realise The Australian helped crystallise anti-Rudd sentiments among the political class, which, given his poor polls, was the final straw.
On balance, Bad News is an essay worth reading, if only to confirm the things you probably already thought about The Australian, or to laugh at Manne’s constant whining about objectivity, responsibility, sober discourse and apologising for past wrongs. It’s not for you, at any rate, but for the professional politicos. It’s Manne’s passionate Nietzschean cry to the staffers and journos who peddle our daily news: "The Oz is dead! Now let me convince you why."
Problem is, no matter how thorough his case studies are, or how passionately he demand Paul Kelly’s head on a platter, the people he’s pleading with are all playing the same game. They’re a professional political class interested in power and survival. That’s why none of the allegedly moral Australian journos will talk to him, content to string him along with off-the-record interviews.
While it would be naive to expect these journos to change and censorious to regulate their content, Manne does come to one good conclusion: breaking up the News Limited monopoly is the best way to limit the malicious effects of a paper that no longer cares. News Limited’s 70 per cent newspaper ownership in this country is too much. That being said, Manne has written three Quarterly Essays out of 43. After the tedium of Bad News maybe that’s another market share that wants freezing.
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