We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town… On Manne’s Quarterly Essay #auspol #ausmedia

Finally!  Some time to write!

Adam Brereton wrote an exciting piece on New Matilda about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay: ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation’.  I must admit that I was going to skip this edition of QE, because I rarely find Manne capable of pushing beyond assertion into analysis.

But Brereton made the whole thing sound like a delightful trainwreck:

‘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.’ [Source: Brereton, ‘How Manne Would Run The Oz’, New Matilda]

Be warned, gentle viewer!  Do not be seduced by Brereton’s siren-song, ‘Bad News’ is a difficult read.

It’s here that I have to pause: I’m conservative and happily reveal myself to be right-wing.  What could I possibly say which couldn’t be easily dismissed as: ‘Oh, Mark!  Of course you would say that “Bad News” is terrible and Manne is a dreadful essayist.  You’re one of those conservative, right-wing types who kick puppies, eat babies, and chide the Left for preferring ideological whining over substance.’

The problem you raise is a good one and would influence the way I write about Manne’s article.  Am I trying to convince people who disagree with me?  Am I trying to reassure people who agree with me?

Manne, very obviously and very clearly, never bothers to enjoy a similar pause.  The result is a wildly incoherent, sprawling mess of unanalysed assertions and contradictions.  But, of course, you expect me to say that.  I’m conservative.

So let’s try this a different way.  Imagine a person claims that we should privilege expert analysis and objective reason over uninformed opinion.   If that same person were to dismiss expert analysis and objective reason when it became rhetorically convenient to an argument, how should you respond?

Lo and behold, Manne argues that by rejecting Science and Reason, The Australian had ‘broken with the values lying at the very centre of the Enlightenment’ (p50).  Heavy stuff.  And as everybody knows, one certainly shouldn’t break with values lying at the very centre of the Enlightenment (cough, Isaiah Berlin… Nietzsche.. cough).

So when Manne asserts that The Australian is running a campaign against the Greens (‘The Greens: “They are hypocrites; they are bad for the nation; and they should be destroyed at the ballot box’), Robert Manne accepts the objective analysis conducted by Media Monitors and retracts his claim that The Australian is trying to destroy the Greens.

Oh, wait!  He totally doesn’t!

‘Mitchell hired an “independent firm,” [scare quotes Manne’s] Media Monitors, to prove the question of anti-Greens bias at the Australian.  Media Monitors found the Australian‘s coverage of the Greens only “slightly unfavourable.”  I conducted my own study. [Emphasis mine]  I found that in the month following the election the paper published fifty articles on the Greens that were hostile and one that was friendly. [Source: Manne, ‘Bad News’, Quarterly Essay, p101]

Manne cites his own ‘studies’ routinely throughout the book.  Surprise: they all confirm Manne’s opinions.  They all consist of downloading all the articles which mention a term, then ‘categorising’ them according to Manne’s opinion.  Enlightenment values!

Worse, there were times when Manne’s argument was so strained and tortured that the position he was denouncing became significantly more persuasive.  Like many things, I really don’t know how to form an opinion about the Iraq war.  I don’t think I have enough information.  I don’t even think I have the right language in which to discuss the issue.  But Manne has strong opinions.  In one of the early chapters, he outlines the argument of the war-mongers: ‘When we fought in Kuwait back in the ’90s, Saddam had biological and chemical weapons; Saddam has gone rogue and wouldn’t be deterred from attacking Israel or Kuwait by the superior force of the US; there is a good chance that Saddam would assist terrorist networks to attack the West; ergo, we should remove Saddam.’  Manne, at no point, gives a convincing rebuttal of any of that.  He wears a strangely positivist hat when he suggests that, because invading forces couldn’t find the weapons, the weapons never existed.

I repeat: I have no idea which answer is best when it comes to the Iraq war, but by assuming a sackful of rhetorical points uncritically, Manne manages to make the case for the Iraq war all the more persuasive.

He finds himself in similar problems when discussing Media Watch.  I think Media Watch was brilliant in the days of David Marr.  Marr is an ideologue.  Marr sometimes makes errors in his reasoning.  But, of all things, Marr makes serious arguments which demand serious consideration from those of us on the Right.

But when Manne presents his argument that The Australian ran an orchestrated campaign against Media Watch (and, in particular, against Marr), Manne somehow makes The Australian seem justified and sane.  Manne appears to suggest that, when a newspaper is criticised by Media Watch, the newspaper should consider itself chastened by the authorities and cease its sinful ways.  The Australian‘s crime, apparently, was to run four (yes, a whole four!  That’s like nearly a billion) articles stating that Media Watch erred in a story which criticised it.

Worse, it made Media Watch smell a little bit rotten: apparently, Janet Albrechtsen didn’t get the job on Media Watch because she was ‘wooden’ — a fact divulged by the candidate who got the job, David Marr.  So much for confidentiality.

Manne appears to assume that his audience already agrees that The Australian is the worse thing since arsenic bread and that they are looking to him to provide rhetorical points to bolster their claims.  Thus, his language when describing opponents becomes unabashedly negative.  Ian Plimer isn’t a scientist: he’s an ‘arch climate-change denialist’ (p49; but was earlier acknowledged as a geologist on p42 after a complaint that debate was hijacked by ‘non-scientists’).  Similarly, on p52, Bob Carter is a ‘denialist geologist’.  The scientific credentials of Bob Brown, Tim Flannery, and Al Gore are never mentioned.  After the quote by David Marr reveals why Albrechtsen didn’t get the Media Watch gig, Manne has some lovely things to say about the merit of her appointment to the ABC Board:

‘Shortly after Marr’s retirement, as it happened, Janet Albrechtsen was appointed by the Howard government to the ABC Board.  In cultural struggles of this kind it is certainly valuable to have friends in high places.’ [Ibid. p31]

Because conservative women can’t be appointed to things based on merit, right?  Nah, it was totally culture wars.

Worse, Manne takes no time to work out precisely who his subject is: part of the essay feels like it’s about Chris Mitchell (in the style of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Rudd); then it slides to being about the paper generally; then it’s about the Murdoch media empire.  ‘Slide’ is definitely the correct word to describe Manne’s style: after a brief introduction, we start on the issue of Keith Windschuttle’s attack on Indigenous history.  There’s no sense of where the discussion is going, but we somehow slide to a fruitless discussion about The Australian trying to… something.  Conduct a debate about Indigenous history privileging the side of denialists?  Maybe, but at no point does Manne go down my line of arguing that this sort of rubbish doesn’t belong in public discussion.  Instead he leaves the section with:

[Chris Mitchell] gave [Noel] Pearson his national voice but was also crucial in the making of Keith Windschuttle, the writer and editor most responsible for the return of old racial attitudes which the nation, since the time of Stanner and Rowley, had struggled to transcend.  [Ibid., p14]

Confusingly, Manne takes another crack at The Australian and its treatment of Indigenous issues in another convoluted mess of a chapter later on.  The result is two very confused and confusing pieces which don’t set out clearly the charges against The Australian, but slide around in innuendo and insinuation.

The essay is painful to read.  There is beauty neither in the language nor in the thoughts they struggle to convey.  It is impoverished of ideas and insight: nothing is said which isn’t already believed by critics of Murdoch.  The result in an essay which can be easily dismissed with: ‘Yes, Robert.  Of course you would say that.  You’re an ideologue.’

But the awfulness of the essay goes beyond that: at times, there are moments when you sincerely believe that the essay is going to tackle something interesting.  Manne references Murdoch’s statements about climate change: giving the Earth the benefit of the doubt.  Manne asserts that Murdoch’s papers say whatever Murdoch wants them to say, so why is there a massive gap between the views of Murdoch and his press?  Manne won’t say.  Further, what is the role of the newspaper?  Is it to provide a list of facts which constitute the news, or is it to cultivate a public conversation?  Are Fairfax and the ABC biased?  Manne never says.

What Manne’s essay does confirm, at least for me, is that we’re not having a discussion about the media in Australia: we’re having a discussion about Murdoch.

Totally off the topic: I totally thought the lyric in Fashion was ‘We are the bourgeois and we’re coming to town’.  Turns out I was incorrect.  There must be something Rorschachy going on…  I’m seeing the political struggle in nonsensical lyrics.  Please send help.