Manne vs. free speech

Published in the Spectator Australia, 17 September 2011.

Why Robert Manne Dislikes the Oz

Robert Manne must be chuffed. He published a 20,000 word Quarterly Essay denouncing the political influence of Rupert Murdoch and his newspaper The Australian and, a week later, the Gillard government announces an inquiry into the news media, targeted very obviously at his subjects. Manne appears almost as influential as Fairfax journalist David Marr, who in June 2010 published a Quarterly Essay about Kevin Rudd’s defective personality. Within two and a half weeks, Rudd was Prime Minister no more.

Unfortunately for both writers, the truth is they are not that influential. Both are commentators rather than news makers. They invariably jump on bandwagons started by others. The move for Rudd to be replaced as leader was up and running well before Marr climbed aboard. Manne claims he decided to write his Quarterly Essay as long ago as September 2010, but, tellingly, he only got around to interviewing editor of The Australian Chris Mitchell in June 2011, just when Bob Brown began denouncing the Murdoch press as “hate media”.

Readers of the Quarterly Essay will be surprised to find the first of seven case studies Manne uses to analyse The Australian during Mitchell’s watch is called “The Making of Keith Windschuttle” and that he revives the now-exhausted debate from 2002-2003 over my book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Manne hates the book’s argument and the cachet Mitchell supposedly gave it. “Because of the decision taken by The Australian to host the Windschuttle debate,” he writes, “the character of the nation was subtly but significantly changed.” Manne offers this as first proof that News Ltd has become a dangerous case of power without responsibility.

I’m not sure about the character of the nation but I certainly did hope to influence its reputation. Until then, academic historians had convinced most of the nation’s opinion makers, including High Court judges William Deane, Mary Gaudron and Ronald Wilson, that the treatment of the Aborigines since 1788 had left the nation “a legacy of unutterable shame” as well as guilt for genocide. In 2000 I began to argue these charges were unsustainable. Some of the most prominent historians had corrupted their profession by exaggerating statistics, manipulating evidence and inventing incidents that never occurred.

The public debate that ensued certainly got a great deal of media attention but, unfortunately for Manne, The Australian and Chris Mitchell were not the chief culprits. In reality, The Australian came late to the debate and, even then, rather than unqualified support for my case, it gave equal time to my critics.

The editor who did most to host the debate was actually Paddy McGuinness of Quadrant Magazine, who gave me space for my initial 30,000-word study, serialised over three issues in late 2000. One of the first writers to respond was none other than Robert Manne, then a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. By publicizing my case in both newspapers, Manne did more than any other critic to give it the traction of publicity. At the same time, the sole contribution by The Australian was a small news story on an inside page written by one of the paper’s resident lefties, Mike Steketee.

In June 2001, I thought I had a pretty big story. Governor-General William Deane had usurped the Prime Minister’s role and apologized to the Aborigines for the 1915 Mistake Creek Massacre in the Kimberley. But Deane, who said eight Aborigines had been killed for stealing a cow, got his facts wrong. It was a killing of Aborigines by Aborigines in a dispute over a woman who had left one man for another. This was not an event for which the Governor-General of Australia should apologise.

However, my story was knocked back from the opinion page editors of both The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald. I then offered it to Tom Switzer at the Australian Financial Review, who decided to give it a good run. The fierce debate it provoked in the letters pages gained attention from other journalists, including Tony Jones on Lateline and Miranda Devine in the Sydney Morning Herald.

When my book was published in late 2002, the Fairfax press did more than any other to publicise it. In his column in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan reprised the Mistake Creek Massacre story, which I’d used in the introduction. This provoked William Deane into writing an opinion piece in response. For a new book, this was a publicist’s dream.

At the same time, Andrew Stevenson of the same paper pursued Henry Reynolds, who at first flatly denied my claim that his book Frontier changed the words of an 1830 despatch by Governor Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land, reversing its meaning. Reynolds unwittingly kept the story alive by refusing to take calls from Stevenson for six days. He finally relented and confessed what I said was true. Again, this was publicity money could not buy.

Soon after this, in December 2002, Manne entered the fray again by accusing me of plagiarizing the American anthropologist Robert Edgerton. The Age ran the story on its front page. The accusation was false — Edgerton himself publicly denied it a few days later — but it made the issue even more of a controversy, thanks again to Manne.

At the same time, The Australian gave the book a major review, a double-page spread in its weekend magazine. But it was hostile, accusing me of all kinds of right-wing political failings, not surprising since it was written by Henry Reynolds himself.

In 2003, the opinion pages of The Australian, now edited by Tom Switzer, did become a major site for the continuing debate, as Manne says. But he admits himself that both sides were given fairly even-handed treatment — ten opinion pieces by me and my defenders versus eight by my critics. Actually, on my count, Manne is wrong here too, but it’s not worth arguing about. Manne’s complaint is not whether his side or mine was treated fairly but the fact that my views got any coverage at all.

This is the same position Manne takes on climate change in his Quarterly Essay — no dispute is permissable. Everyone has to accept the orthodoxy; any media outlet that gives space to sceptics is not only morally evil but an enemy of the Enlightenment.

In this, as in his stand on Aboriginal history, Manne is an authoritarian who cannot tolerate free speech or open debate. Little wonder he does not like The Australian, its editors, its journalists, or any other free spirits in the media who dare to think for themselves. 

Source: Spectator Australia



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