The Conversation has long struggled with a basic philosophical point: what is the difference between academic opinion and the opinion of academics? Prior to the pandemic, there were significant lapses in judgement on this theme. A person whose sole academic credential was that they were currently studying a juris doctor degree was published for their (negative) views on Israel. Here, there’s no criticism of the person for having these views–it’s just that it’s not clear how they were informed, scholarly views. There were also problems with publishing articles by academics that had utterly nothing to do with their scholarly expertise (particularly the opinions of Jane Caro). During the pandemic, these issues were beefed up to eleven. The Conversation attracted international criticism for publishing an article by a professor from the University of South Australia that radically miscalculated the current spread of C19. The problem was a basic one: none of the editors had the ability to fact-check the article and relied on the espoused expertise of the author. Further problems were caused by publishing people who were notorious liars (one even claims to be a professor when he is not) about their credentials and who had undeclared commercial interests in their ‘scholarly’ opinion.
At the base of these problems are my view about the role of academics in public debate: how do we help the public to have reasonable, sensible differences of opinion? The Conversation, on the other hand, errs much more in favour of academics pushing their own view to the exclusion of reasonable alternatives.
This is where we get to Denis Muller’s recent piece about News Corp.
If Dr Muller had written about an individual, the article would best be described as a hit piece. Its central argument–if it can be called an argument–is that the Herald Sun (a News Corp paper) is publishing aggressive commentary about the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, because its founding editors ‘long worked as collaborating propagandists for the Herald and Weekly Times, of which Keith Murdoch was managing director, and its associated mining interests in Broken Hill and Port Pirie’. It is an absolutely absurd article.
Dr Muller asserts–without any evidence–that News Corp is merely a propaganda outfit whose interests sometimes aligns with the public. Bafflingly–so baffling that we might wonder how he got a PhD in media ethics–Dr Muller draws attention to Hedley Thomas’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Lynette Dawson as an example of public-interest journalism at its best. Here’s how Fullerton J described it:
I am in no doubt that the adverse publicity in this case, or more accurately, the unrestrained and uncensored public commentary about the applicant’s guilt, is the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process which this Court has had to consider in deciding whether to take the extraordinary step of permanently staying a criminal prosecution.
Bathurst CJ summarised the object of the podcast as to ‘incite prejudice against the accused in a sensationalist fashion with a view to convincing listeners of his guilt and the need for him to be prosecuted’.
Dr Muller somehow–somehow–thinks that this was Australian public-interest journalism at its best.
The article never moves beyond assertions of Dr Muller’s opinion. This is a problem when Dr Muller’s opinions (as evidenced by his praise for a podcast that interfered with the administration of justice) are clearly garbage.
Dr Muller draws attention to the ‘African Gangs’ beat-up ahead of the last election. The Herald Sun ran stories about the rise of criminal activity from African gangs in Melbourne, despite the clear lack of evidence that the problem existed. Dr Muller, however, missed that The Age also ran the story. In a reflective piece on the role of race, politics, and the media, The Age‘s Chris Vedelago and Royce Millar wrote that ‘no media outlet was immune – The Age included’. Of course, they say that News Corp was leading the drive, but at least they recognise what Dr Muller does not: that this was a media-wide problem.
Dr Muller then goes on to criticise recent stories in the Herald Sun that are critical of Daniel Andrews. The Herald Sun reheated stories from several years ago to criticise the Premier, and ran unhinged stories about how the Premier injured himself on some stairs.
This week, The Age made the decision to publish materials related to a currently private investigation of the Independent Broad-Based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) that suggests that the Premier, Daniel Andrews, acted corruptly. Regardless of what we think about the allegations (and there is a lot of partisan exceptionalism on display in the public rhetoric about when we will tolerate corrupt behaviour), the key point is that it is a clear assault on the rule of law that the allegations were published in the newspaper. The Age is not a News Corp publication, so we should wonder if Dr Muller has an explanation for their behaviour based on the corporate dealings of its founders, Walter Powell and John and Henry Cooke.
So we are not dealing with a scholarly opinion based on facts in Dr Muller’s article, but a very partisan opinion based on conspiracy theories about News Corp.
On the one hand, should we care? The Conversation markets itself as an outlet for scholarly writing, but maybe we should be more critical of its approach and think of it more in terms of opinion pieces for people employed by universities. But, on the other, there is something uncomfortable about publishing the opinion of an academic that criticises individuals working outside of academia who simply don’t have a right of reply on the same forum. Sure, in this case, Dr Muller has penned opinions about the biggest, meanest kid on the block who has very little difficulty in punching back. But The Conversation has published opinion pieces that criticised students, for example, who didn’t have a right of reply.
And so this is the puzzle. Given that Dr Muller’s article would be failed by any competent assessor for its lack of critical reasoning, should The Conversation have published it? If The Conversation is going to market itself as a platform for scholarly communication, are ordinary readers misled by articles like that of Dr Muller’s which are not scholarly? And, further, how should we ensure that audiences are better equipped to distinguish academic opinion from the mere opinions of academics?