Murdoch's 'Do As We Say Not As We Do' School Of News Journalism


As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that New Matilda’s leaks about Professor Barry Spurr have been important and worthwhile. They have revealed significant information about the government’s process of creating a new national school curriculum. And they have also been revealing about certain elements of the media.

Let us remember the beginning of the review of the school curriculum. It began with Education Minister Christopher Pyne complaining about its inadequate focus on Western civilisation. Pyne then appointed two men who agreed with him to conduct this review, and lo and behold, one of the experts they found was Professor Spurr.

The Greens complained in January that Pyne “wants to take us back to the 1950s”. Then came New Matilda’s smoking gun: that was even more accurate than they suspected.

When we consider the leaked emails, we should remember a few points. Firstly, there has been no dispute that the emails are genuine, and accurately reflect what Professor Barry Spurr has written. Professor Spurr has called his use of racial epithets a “whimsical linguistic game”. Readers can judge for themselves the tone and nature of many of these emails. However, there is no question that the emails were written and sent by Professor Spurr.

Secondly, there is no question that the emails have national significance. Professor Spurr’s lawyer argued in court that the leaks were “the stolen property of a private citizen and is an attack on the federal government”. Professor Spurr was “collateral damage” in this attack.

Consider that for a moment. Even Professor Spurr agrees that the emails reflect on the federal government. They happen to also reflect on him, but the articles are primarily an attack on Abbott’s government, and secondarily attack Professor Spurr. That’s what collateral damage means.

We have no freedom of speech in Australia, but the High Court has held we have an implied freedom of political communication. If Professor Spurr’s lawyer is right, the leaks are constitutionally protected speech.

Thirdly, Professor Spurr’s public contribution to the review of the national curriculum was that Indigenous writers have made a “minimal” contribution to Australian literature, and are “vastly outweighed” by the impact of British writers on our literary culture.

These comments, according to the article by Chris Graham and Wendy Bacon, were adopted in the final report, and even backed by the Minister for Education, Chris Pyne.

Professor Spurr is a man who may have a major influence in pushing the national curriculum for school children away from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, and towards British writers. It turned out, he is also a man who, when discussing a parliamentary reception, said in private that Tony Abbott “should have put his foot down” and said “No more Abos”.

Now let’s consider another point which has evidence on one side only. Barry Spurr originally claimed that his email had been hacked. Chris Graham wrote that, in fact, the source of the leaks did not hack any emails. We do not know how this source accessed these emails – perhaps they were forwarded, perhaps it was a relative of one of the recipients. I have not asked Chris, and think I am better off not knowing.

However, if this is correct – and no-one has any evidence that suggests otherwise – then this is not akin to information being stolen and published. It is more akin to Professor Spurr making those comments in a pub, and someone being outraged and publicising them.

Suppose it was a Federal MP for the Liberal Party who was overheard in a pub making racist comments. How could anyone challenge a journalist for reporting that fact?

This is another shocking part of the story. The value and significance of New Matilda’s reporting is obvious. Yet the reaction from some quarters has been appalling.

After the emails were leaked, Professor Spurr immediately took New Matilda to court. Professor Spurr sought to have the emails returned, the articles deleted, and the source of the leak revealed.

This is plainly an attack on press freedoms. The media should be able to publish things that are primarily an “attack on the federal government”, as Professor Spurr’s lawyer characterises it. However, Professor Spurr sought to completely silence discussion of these issues. His first goal was not damages for the harm done to his reputation. It was to suppress the information and discussion to the best of his ability.

New Matilda does not have deep pockets or teams of in-house lawyers. Chris Graham went off to the first day of the interlocutory hearing without a lawyer.

I feel like I don’t have the words to convey what a scandal this should have been. Someone appointed by the federal government attempted to completely silence an “attack on the federal government”, by a small media company. He even sought to expose the source of the leak. If courts force journalists to reveal their sources, journalists are unlikely to get any sources, except those who flatter the powerful.

This was a blatant attack not just on freedom of speech, but on basic journalistic values.

Yet somehow, this has gone unnoticed. Not just unnoticed, but at the Murdoch Press, the running theme of commentators is figuring out how Professor Spurr is the real victim. One such commentator was Henry Ergas. As Jeff Sparrow noted, Ergas worried about the “gross invasion of Spurr’s privacy”, even as he supports the government freely perusing metadata.

Jonathan Holmes also made the point that Ergas eagerly seized on “climate-gate” – the illegal hacking and publishing of the emails of various climate scientists. In that case, Ergas didn’t care about emails being hacked. In this case – even though there is no evidence that emails were hacked – Ergas insists on the “likelihood” that the emails were “obtained illegally”.

Though most of the defenders of Professor Spurr have been published in the Murdoch press, not all of them work for Murdoch. Sadly, Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna fame, wrote a letter to the Australian defending Spurr. “Has Australia gone slightly mad”, he wondered? He claimed the racist epithets were “clearly jocular”, and this showed that “The new puritanism is alive, well and powerful.”

Let me just repeat: you can read many of the emails. If the emails contain any jokes, they do not appear to be of the form that “I am now making fun of people who hold the kinds of views I am expressing”. They simply express views in regards to women, Aboriginal people, Muslims, Chinese people, bogans, fat people, Sri Lankans… the list is long.

The context is also not of the variety where Spurr writes “I think the word ‘Abo’ is offensive and should not be used”. It’s not even of the variety where Professor Spurr takes a private, guilty pleasure in making shocking politically incorrect jokes. When Professor Spurr warns that one day “the Mussies and the chinky-poos” will “have taken over”, he’s expressing a substantive opinion that he’s not willing to express in public. The kinds of opinions that may influence his willingness to dismiss certain forms of literature.

The problem is not simply the words that Professor Spurr uses – it is the beliefs that underpin them. He didn’t use the word “Abo” when he complained about a human “rubbish tip”, and scornfully commented that “These are the people whose 'ancient wisdom', our V-C says, we should respect, and to whom we apologise on every possible occasion and whose rich culture we bow down before, confessing our wickedness in our mistreatment of them.” Those comments reflect values and beliefs. The sarcasm is not ironic, it is scornful. The scorn is not targeted at racists, it is targeted at Aboriginal people.

If Professor Spurr has changed his mind since writing that email about a year ago, terrific. But the email was clearly not an ironic joke: it expressed concrete, substantive opinions. It is not “puritanism” to find certain opinions repulsive. If it were, then Humphries would also be engaged in puritanism in complaining about what other people find repulsive.

Humphries’ letter goes on to describe outrage when he proposed banning the “f word” from an Adelaide festival. This is a “malignant brand of cultural fascism”. That is, he regards it as “cultural fascism” for people to object to him trying to prevent them saying certain things.

Humphries then defended the substance of Andrew Bolt’s columns which breached the Racial Discrimination Act. Humphries claimed that this was “for saying that the Aboriginal welfare services were sometimes exploited by faux Aborigines, even though we knew it was true”.

So, one more time for the dummies. The judgment observed:

By their pleadings both Mr Bolt and HWT have admitted that each of Ms Heiss, Ms Cole, Mr Clark, Dr Wayne Atkinson, Mr Graham Atkinson, Professor Behrendt, Ms Enoch, Mr McMillan and Ms Eatock are of Aboriginal descent; that since each was a child, at the times of publication of each of the Articles, and at present, each person did and does genuinely self-identify as an Aboriginal person and did and does have communal recognition as an Aboriginal person.

I don’t know what Mr Humphries thinks he knows is true. However, we know what the plaintiffs and Bolt agreed upon, and it is roughly the opposite of what Humphries claimed.

Which brings us to one of the more predictable defenders of Professor Spurr. Andrew Bolt, in a blog titled “In defence of Barry Spurr”, complains that “The country is going mad”.

Bolt cites another author in the Murdoch press defending Spurr, claiming that “None of the emails prove him guilty of any sin other than a sardonic sense of humour and childlike whimsicality — the common vices of a poet.” Another day, another defender in the Murdoch press – cited of course by Bolt.

Bolt called them “the new totalitarians”, before posting Brendan O’Neill’s comments on the subject. Bolt titled this “The new Salem: policing even our private thoughts”.

Now suppose that either of them cared about trivial things like freedom of speech, or having a free press that can perform basic journalistic duties. They might express some concern at Professor Spurr’s attempt to silence a small media outlet and its “attack on the federal government”. However… silence.

I agree that Professor Spurr shouldn’t be fired for his privately expressed opinions. I don’t even think he should have been fired from his post if he had expressed those views publicly. I don’t think he should have been suspended from his job.

However, it wasn’t New Matilda that did so, it was Sydney University.

I do think he is an inappropriate figure to determine the national school curriculum. But that is what New Matilda has long argued, and what its critics have studiously ignored. Yet if Professor Spurr’s legal threats and actions were successful, we couldn’t even discuss this issue.

For people who care about freedom of speech, this should be pretty straightforward. And as I wrote last week, the Murdoch press used to endlessly present its passionate concern for freedom of speech. It couldn’t complain enough about the terrible oppression of Andrew Bolt, how freedom of speech had died and so on. Now, it complains about “cultural fascism” – the “new totalitarians” hounding Professor Spurr for saying things that might “cause pinot gris to be spilled” at a dinner party.

One might think that the Murdoch press believed in defending politically incorrect speech, as a kind of free speech commitment, even if they didn’t do so in the case of blatant attacks on the media. But it doesn’t. Remember when Catherine Deveny was fired for joking on twitter that she hoped 11-year-old Bindi Irwin “gets laid”?  Remember when the Australian ran 15 stories in two weeks about Larissa Behrendt, because Behrendt wrote a rude tweet referencing Bess Price?

Some days, the driving value of the Murdoch press is freedom of speech. Other days, it’s outrage at offensive language. Other days, it’s defending the right of people to say offensive things that cultural fascists disapprove of. Some days, the right is concerned about “hate preachers”, on other days, they insist that hate preaching should not face criminal sanctions.

If all this sounds incoherent in terms of values, let us try to look at it in a different way. On some days, writers for the Murdoch press defend an eminent professor at one of Australia’s leading universities. On other days, they defend the conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. On other days, they defend perhaps the most prominent right-wing columnist in Australia.

In short, the Murdoch press comforts the powerful and afflicts the powerless. Chris Graham afflicts the powerful and comforts the afflicted.

He has made powerful enemies in his latest attack on the federal government. If the courts defend his freedom of speech, he will undoubtedly continue afflicting the federal government.

God knows he can’t leave that job in the hands of other media outlets.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.