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October 20th 2016 print

Tony Thomas

Their One-Sided Conversation

Drawing its sustenance on the public purse, the website has become quite an empire, with international outposts and an ever-expanding staff nominally pledged to present the latest in academic research. What visitors get is an overload of green-left waffle and censorship if they dare to disagree

conversation logoIn November, 2015, Islamist gunmen massacred 130 young Parisians. Academic authors at the taxpayer-supported The Conversation were quick off the mark with the site’s trademark ‘Academic rigor, journalistic flair’.Here’s a sample, from Folker Hanusch at Queensland University of Technology. It was headed: “Disproportionate coverage of Paris attacks is not just the media’s fault”.

He mounted a case straight from cloud-cuckoo land that the media ought to give equal treatment to death-dealing catastrophes no matter where they occur, e.g. in the African interior or Syria. He concluded that “journalists are not the only ones to blame for the disproportionate coverage” in Paris – audiences must “share the blame”. He suggested that if only the punters’ mindsets and empathies could be brought closer to the refined sensibilities of academics, “disproportionate” coverage of the Paris massacres could be corrected.

This patronizing PC bilge suggests why sensible people give academia a wide berth and news organisations staffed with journalism graduates are going down the gurgler. It also doesn’t say much for the nous of The Conversation’s editors. These are the same people who this month put  ludicrous captions on stock pics of military mayhem:

  • Aftermath of a bomb attack in 2014 in Jos, Nigeria by the militant group Boko Haram. Analysts have linked Boko Haram’s rise to climatic shifts and resource shortages.
  • Destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria, 2012. Climate scientists have identified the 2006-2010 drought in Syria as a factor in the civil uprising that began in 2011.

Andrew Jaspan, 64, co-founder and executive director of   The Conversation, was sent on forced leave last month, according to the Guardian, but not because of his site’s bizarre news treatments.

Two other factors were involved:

  • Letters of complaint to the board from some of Jaspan’s Australian and overseas editors about Jaspan’his style and strategy – a reprise of the Age staff revolt against Jaspan in early 2008
  • Top-level concern about Jaspan’s hell-for-leather expansion overseas, despite The Conversation’s shoe-string finances and dependence on taxpayers’ largesse.

As Jaspan put it with aplomb in his 2014 annual review, “Each year takes us by surprise. There’s no road map, and we are making our future as we go along.”

A few months later, the Abbott government declined to extend the Gillard government’s $1m a year grants (PM Gillard also provided a $1.5m startup grant). Abbott’s education minister, Christopher Pyne, said the previous funding was conditional on the site achieving viability by mid-2015. “It had a shelf-life of three years, at which time The Conversation is meant to be self-sustaining…They were given $3.5 million — in that time they’ve expanded to Africa, the United States and the UK, and I expect that they are in a position where they will be self-sustaining, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to expand overseas in the way they have.”

Jaspan claimed that  the target date “was never achievable and The Conversation told the government that last year.”  He put viability forward to at least 2017. He professed to be baffled why the conservative government was declining to fund green/left academics to undermine the conservative government on issues ranging from asylum-seeker policy to Muslim terror and continuance of coal mining.

Jaspan then had to resort to a crowd-funding appeal, which raised a remarkable $400,000 before Victoria’s Labor government came to the party in September, 2015, with $1m a year for a further three years.[1]

Relying on donations is not much of a business model, as Anne Summers, on a smaller scale,  painfully discovered with her free Anne Summers Reports e-zine.[2]

Jaspan’s booting came a bare month  after  Canberra University vice-chancellor/president/barrister Stephen Parker began work there as Director of Strategy, Development and Global.[3] I don’t  know whether this was coincidence (Jaspan was ‘thrilled’ to have long-time mate Parker on board). Or maybe Parker didn’t like what he found about Jaspan’s ambition for an empire on which the sun will never set (UK, US, France and Africa to date, Indonesia and Canada next prospects). Jaspan, without irony, described the France venture as a “great leap forward”. His current project is a sixth website, Global, with himself as editor-in-chief supervising six costly sages editing on international themes.

The chair of The Conversation is Robert Johansen, boss of Bendigo Bank.[4] Johansen hints that expansion overseas has been too rapid for a small start-up, saying growth had been “incredibly quick” into a “very large complicated international organization” creating a lot of “success issues” that  now need  review.

The Australian arm of  The Conversation has $5m revenue and costs about $3.8m a year, leaving a $1.2m surplus.  What happens to that surplus is unclear but Mark Day in The Australian last November said the US operation  costs $1.2m, “giving the entire enterprise an annual budget of $5m”. This doesn’t square with Jaspan’s oft-expressed statement that the offshore operations are self-funding, but there might be some other explanation.

Australian salaries last year totaled about $3.3m. The financial report shows “key management” on a total $525,000 pay. Assuming this covers Jaspan plus at least one other executive, their pay is nothing extraordinary.

Staff now total 34 in Australian operations, 20 in the UK, 14 in the US,  11 in Africa, 9 in France and 5 in Global, plus 8 in Global Technology for a total of 101. The board is 12 and editorial board 10. The UK operation has an editorial board of 21, plus 7 trustees, comfortably outnumbering staff.

The bulk of local funding is from subscriptions by the site’s 33 or so University members. Founding institutions such as Melbourne, Monash, UTS and UWA and CSIRO presumably pay premium dues.

In 2013-14, other big universities (e.g. ANU and Sydney),  were paying $100,000 a year each, mid-tiers (Curtin) $50,000 and the minor ones (Western Sydney, ACU, Wollongong, UNE etc) $25,000 each. Only half a dozen of Australia’s 39 universities have not subscribed to date; were t5hey to do so, Jaspan said he expected the site would gain an extra $300,000. On the other hand, some universities have signed on for just one-year terms and the board would be worried about insecurity of revenue.

The offshore operations are enjoying some sort of  royalty holiday while they establish themselves. However they clearly make demands on head office time and require a lot of coordination on style and technology. Jaspan was about to jet off again to the US when he felt the chairman’s tap on his shoulder.

Jaspan has a reputation as a master salesman and presenter, especially of himself. In the UK he clinched five editorships in ten years. Fired by the London Observer in 1996,[5] he started and edited the tiny Scottish paper Sunday Herald (38 staff; ranked 12th of 15 in Sunday circulation there, and unprofitable). A visitor to his office there noted that he had three clocks   showing Glasgow, Edinburgh and London times. But none of them   worked.’

Fairfax plucked him into the job of editor-in-chief of The Age in late 2004 (about 300 journalists on staff at the time). The announcement included a Jaspan homily about  his “long admir[ing] The Age‘s commitment to quality journalism and editorial independence”.

He lasted till August, 2008, four months after his  journalists passed a unanimous protest motion saying that he was harming their editorial independence through cosy, soft-reporting deals with external partners. Journos claimed the paper was “willing to court favour with vested interests.” One complaint alleged that Jaspan was taking orders from an external PR operative and then passing them on to journalists to implement. The hot spot was Earth Hour, co-founded as an unholy alliance  in 2007 by greensters WWF,  advertising/media agency Leo Burnett and Fairfax Media.[6]  Age reporters, for once rejecting global warming hyping, alleged they were being required to write tripe such as lauding Earth Hour’s “global ambassador”, fashion model and jet-setting emissions hypocrite Miranda Kerr. Thus:

“GREEN is, like, so hot right now, thanks to Australian model Miranda Kerr, who has been named Earth Hour’s ‘global ambassador’.

Kerr, a self-styled earth mother, who gave birth to her first son, Flynn, in January, and has an organic skin-care range and blog, has pledged to turn off the lights on Saturday, March 26 — whether she’s at her plush New York pad or her luxurious LA digs…”[7]

After Fairfax pushed Jaspan out, Jaspan cosied up with Melbourne University vice-chancellor and one-time SMH cadet Glyn Davis and they cooked up The Conversation in 2011 as a  playground for publication-hungry academics.  Media-savvy editors were recruited to massage academics’ expertise (real or imagined) into free,  re-publishable articles – “knowledge-based journalism” in Jaspan’s words.  To counter academics’ prolixity and obscurantism, the site’s readability is set at that of an educated 16-year-old (a step up from some tabloids with readability geared for those of even more tender years.  The arrangement pads academics’ publish-or-perish CVs with non-peer-reviewed citations, while marketing themselves and their universities to the media and public. Part of the appeal was that their words would not be misreported or sexed-up[8] by louche reporters.

Jaspan, while bloviating about the ‘diversity of voices and ideas’ at The Conversation, instead created a site whose political/sociological content is rigidly green-left. This is ironic given that Jaspan complains (incorrectly) that News Corp here “largely operates with one voice. Plurality of voice and choice is the problem in Australia.”

Speaking of diversity of voices, The Conversation is now formally and intricately entwined with their ABC. The love-in began a year ago with The Conversation purportedly fact-checking statements on QandA (followed by fact checks on election statements).[9] Last month the ABC  officially plugged itself into The Conversation’s daily output, ready to amplify and cross-promote the academics’ tergiversations.[10]

Note that both the ABC and The Conversation are using taxpayer funds to compete against commercial news operators. The Conversation is also pumping its output into the schools sector, where kids are already drenched with green/left propaganda from the likes of  Greenpeace.

Community Manager Cory Zanoni[11] does nearly all the final moderating of comments at The Conversation. He insists that comments aren’t removed just for disagreeing with an author. To remove dissenting comments “would be akin to removing a limb”, he claims. He has, however, formulated a specifically tough policy towards any sceptical comments about climate change, if in his view they are off-topic or deliberate misinformation. He encourages reader vigilantes to report “offending comments” for him to deal with.

He has a “community council” as intermediaries. They include Melbourne’s Professor Peter Christoff, who has called for legal bans and punitive fines against “denialists” such as Andrew Bolt, and QU’s smiter of “denialists” John Cook, he of the much-repeated 97%-of-scientists furphy. Others include Peter “It’s time literally to go green” Fisher and Brad Farrant, who frets about how “climate change will affect children’s development”.

As if further gatekeepers were needed, Zanoni last June appointed Ross Barrell (9864 comments contributed) to the council:  “I am deeply interested and concerned about global warming/climate change/ecology/environmental science and have little patience for those who embrace ignorance and value ideology over evidence.” An assistant is Amanda Barnes (3797 comments), who complains of “the disreputable behavior of this particular [conservative]  band of misfits in Canberra”.

Zanoni’s panel of reader/censors includes  SusanNolan (no information but 14,798 comments); “inveterate chatterer” Peter Ormonde (15,986 comments); and the honest Ron Bowden (1944 comments), self-describing as a “bewildered old fart living in ersatz paradise on the fruits of others’ labour.”

Despite The Conversation’s chest-beating about author’s full disclosure of conflicts, there have been lapses which management have refused to correct. One was a piece by Janine Little, of Deakin’s journalism school, defending then-PM Gillard over the Gillard/Bruce Wilson AWU affair. Little’s disclosure statement made no mention  that she was a union official, while she claimed she “does not work for any company or organisation that would benefit from this article.”[12]

Retired Associate Professor of History Les Louis (University of Canberra) says that the close relation of universities with The Conversation is a cosy arrangement that debases university intellectual traditions. “Speaking from long experience as an academic, I’m appalled by Jaspan’s vision of a global media project, ‘that turns Australia’s universities into a giant newsroom’,” Louis says. “The  site often publishes shoddy opinion pieces that have escaped peer review, and it censors critical responses. The academics include their essays in their CVs as ‘other articles’, ‘public outreach’ or similar vague headings.”

Louis says The Conversation pushes the politically correct view on issues like same sex marriage, Section 18C, discrimination, the ‘stolen generation’, indigenous recognition and global warming. “Universities aren’t fulfilling their traditional role to seek the truth where ever that leads, which often involves challenging conformity,” he says.

He instances an essay by Associate Professor Gwenda Tavan  last September dismissing the Pauline Hanson upsurge as paranoia from the right, thereby eschewing scholarly analysis. (Hanson’s support has since risen to 6% nationally  and 10% in Queensland). RMIT adjunct professor Gavin Moodie, who is on the site’s community council, censored critical responses, including Louis’ own response saying that Hanson’s then-600,000 supporters had genuine concern about Muslim immigration. Yet many of 260 comments on the piece were equally contentious but not censored. Tavan herself  made no response to any comment. This is emblematic of the debasement of academic standards at the site, Louis says.

Louis also says The Conversation floods the media market with free labor and content, while large numbers of commercial journalists are being sacked. Journalist Ben Eltham has complained that he gets paid as little as $150 for an online article.  “It’s a sometimes frustrating experience to watch a professor on $180,000 a year write an article for free for a website funded to the tune of millions by universities,” he says.

 A retired geologist/engineer Peter Lang submitted:

“It cannot be good for the country or for academia to have such Left ideological bias in our academic institutions. It would be very wise for politically impartial universities to not support The Conversation until it can demonstrate it is truly balanced and impartial.  I would also urge the remainder of our publicly funded universities to withdraw or reduce their level of funding until the Conversation cleans up its act.”

One commenter, uncensored by community standards moderators, analysed sceptics as ‘idiots’, corrupt and/or mentally ill. He weakened his argument slightly by confessing that he was legally deemed to have a mental illness himself!

The Conversation has run numerous essays attacking sceptic Chris Monckton (bracketing them under the header “Monckton Watch”) including one by  UWA PhD student Natalie Latter demanding that Notre Dame University cancel its invitation for Monckton to speak there.  Another essay headlined Monckton as “the chief troupier” – an ad hominem clearly at odds with the site’s own community standards. To its credit, The Conversation ran one essay by Wollongong’s Professor Brian Martin objecting to censorship of Monckton. But the site’s own censorship of comments sets a bad example.

It is a mystery what Jaspan’s role, if any, will be when Carlton’s Napoleon returns from his enforced leave on Elba. Perhaps he will arrive with a program to get The Conversation off the taxpayers’ teat and turn it into a  standard bearer for dispassionate intellectual inquiry in academe.

Tony Thomas’ book of essays, That’s Debatable, is available here.



[1] Gillard also gave tax-deductibility to  donations to The Conversation, the only media group to be so privileged.

[2] She folded it in June when her personal overdraft got to $180,000.

[3] Parker was also a tireless contributor of articles and videos to the site – 70 at last count.

[4] Bendigo Bank has adopted a cynical strategy of bankrolling green groups such as the Youth Climate Coalition, who reciprocate by bagging and picketing the Big Four for lending to planet-destroying fossil-fuel miners. Bendigo Bank does little corporate lending, and by policy, no lending to thermal coal or seam gas operators.

 

[5] He refers to newspaper board rooms, understandably, as “oak paneled killing rooms”.

[6] Fairfax is no longer an Earth Hour sponsor, replaced by more appropriate parties such as condom supplier Durex.

 

[7] This was not written satirically

[8] The Conversation itself has become a rather sexy place. Two recent illustrated entire essays, in March and  September, were on the virtues of the clitoris. The latter essay, by UNSW’s Darren Curnoe, concluded,  “I’d like to see a massive sculpture of the new 3D printed organ erected inside every science museum in the world!”

[9] The inaugural fact-check by the UK affiliate ruled that the BBC was indeed biased – but to the Right!

[10] Conservative broadcast Alan Jones was promptly fact-checked over his take on electricity pricing.  The Conversation hasn’t yet got around to fact-checking preposterous claims from Tim Flannery at the Climate Council.

[11]

Zanoni was appointed “Community Manager” last February to bring civility and curb rudeness    Zanoni’s own writings on his Conversation twitter account in February, two days before he published his ‘civility guidelines’,  were not that suitable-for-work. One tweet read, “If twitter cockspanked me I’d be – wait, I’m not   finishing that sentence.”

 

[12]  The Conversation: “We are transparent, with every author disclosing their expertise, funding, and conflicts of interest… If we discover a mistake has been made, we will correct it as soon as possible.”

Comments [3]

  1. Don A. Veitch says:

    A most excellent and timely expose, but this is the post-modern way of the world since mass political parties, trade unions and the Churches have died. The big players (right and left), don’t need ‘the people’ anymore. It is the new oligarchic way to massage the masses.
    In Australia it started under the Whitlam government with the Regional Councils for Social Development, social planners, the Clyde Cameron College. Half a billion dollars for mush-head ideas. This is the age of the think-tank, in the old days it was termed agit-prop from the Comintern. Everyone does it now including the right, their Trusts are all tax-deductible as ‘charitable’. So there mght be some justice in our cruel cruel worl. Here check out the Smorgons, Menzies institute, Sydney Institute. Overseas we have the Mount Pelerin Society, National Endowment for Democracy’s Republicans International, Soros, Koch Brothers, Rand Corporation, . . .it goes on forever!
    The ONLY mob left out is probably, Quadrant.

  2. EvilElvis says:

    One does get a sore neck reading these articles, the constant side to side shaking in a negative fashion…

    It would be interesting to know, outside of the traditional public service, how much tax payer money is flushed down the toilet on ‘media’ like this, advocacy and activists.

  3. Don A. Veitch says:

    Globally? Hundreds of billions!
    Nothing much is ‘real’ anymore, unless it is ‘think tanked.’ Who was it who said recently, ‘We create our own reality’? George Orwell got the political aspect of it in ’1984′, and we are 32 years on and more developed.
    We now live in a world of ‘human terrain mapping’, ‘cognitive infiltration’, etc, etc.
    The Comintern started it. Stasi (East German security), developed it. COINTELPRO perfected it . The Church Committee of Congress told us about it in the 1970s.
    Ad to that, Madison Avenue advertising, and you will soon realise that the human mind is the most mined, most targeted object on earth.