Navigating the disconnect between Manne and The Australian

Between academic Robert Manne and our esteemed national broadsheet The Australian, a battle is – or was – underway. It began three weeks ago when an extract from Manne’s Quarterly Essay appeared in The Age, followed by the publication’s release shortly afterwards. Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation argues that The Australian is no longer a paper that reports accurately and comments on current events, but that has ‘turned itself into a player in national politics’.

The Australian brought out the big guns in response, with 8000 words of criticism on Manne’s essay – and on the man himself – in just one issue of the paper. The Australian has since decided that there endeth the debate, as upstart’s Matt Smith noted following the absence of the paper’s representative at the Wheeler Centre debate last week. Perhaps The Australian has realised their folly in giving so much attention to Manne’s ‘silly essay’, as editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell described it.

With the word length of a novella at his disposal in Bad News, Manne takes a different approach to the issue than many commentators who are restricted to shorter forms of commentary. He methodically investigates several of The Australian’s coverage areas in order to support an argument of media bias that to some seems quite obvious, but that to The Australian is an accusation quite without merit. It is refreshing to see the various coverage issues dissected carefully and supported with relevant examples, instead of being skimmed over as shorter pieces often necessitate.

While the slanging match died down sooner than I expected, each side has scored their major punches and given an air of ‘my word against yours’ to the battle. Few readers have the time to trawl back through years of broadsheets, as Manne has done, to see whose argument is supported by evidence in the form of The Australian’s coverage of particular issues. But what one can do is read both sides of the argument with a healthy critical eye.

Of course, as readers and critics we bring our own perspective to the debate, one that can cloud the manner of criticism we offer. Let me outline the angle from which I approach this particular issue.

I grew up in Perth, where the local daily is the The West Australian, a tabloid format paper owned by Seven West Media and usually considered to have conservative leanings. Unlike many of my peers who were raised in Melbourne, The Australian was essential to my media diet throughout my late teens and adult life. While many Melbournites dismiss it and turn immediately to The Age, years of habit and a desire for a national focus mean that as a reader, my broadsheet loyalties still lie with The Australian.

My upbringing in what some easterners might see as the backwater of Perth has not stopped me from being able to engage critically with what I read. The Australian’s manner of depicting certain issues has rankled with me for some time.

This feeling came to a head during the 17-day period following the 2010 federal election, when The Australian consistently depicted the figures of the hung parliament in a way that favoured the Coalition. The most obviously misleading example of this was the inclusion in Coalition figures of Western Australian National Party MP Tony Crook, in spite of his explicit statement that the Coalition could not necessarily count on his support. Meanwhile, the seat held by Greens MP Adam Bandt was listed separately, in spite of Bandt having already indicated his support for a Labor government. With control of the parliament hinging on a few independents who were expected to make up their minds in a high pressure environment, this none-too-subtle shaping of the facts and prodding of public opinion was dishonest.

While Manne’s Quarterly Essay pursues issues that have been troubling me for some time, this does not mean that I embrace his arguments uncritically. In the section of the Quarterly Essay that considers the paper’s coverage of climate change, I was able to consider Manne’s argument in the light of my own experience as a reader. It is a topic that I have followed closely over the last few years.

On the other hand, I felt that Manne’s argument about Larissa Behrendt over an injudicious tweet was not developed convincingly, and that a great deal of his writing could have been clearer. I was also aware that I was not in a position to judge those criticisms of The Australian that relate to earlier this century, due to the fact that I was younger and less politically engaged at the time. For example, I take Manne’s argument over the Iraq war with a grain of salt, as I am aware that my own knowledge of the issue is insufficient to allow me to be appropriately critical. This exercise in critical thinking is essential to navigating the conflicting arguments of Manne and The Australian.

This brings me to the discourse of left-wing versus right-wing that is so dominant in political commentary. The constant labelling of public figures as one or the other implies a lack of critical thinking and unquestioning loyalty to a particular, limiting, ideological perspective. A large part of The Australian’s criticism of Manne is that he has swung from the right to the left, as though his loyalties miraculously shifted from one ‘side’ to the other. Manne’s apparent swing can be construed quite differently if this absurdly limiting spectrum is taken out of the picture: rather, his views can be seen to have evolved with time and experience, accompanied by a rare willingness to own and acknowledge this shift.

The Australian openly adopts a particular ideological point of view when it comes to political, social and economic issues. The problem is that the paper’s columnists often seem to neglect critical thinking – that essential tool which allows one to change one’s opinion as an issue evolves – preferring instead to delightedly adopt any piece of evidence that dovetails nicely with their predetermined ideas about how the world should work.

The reaction from The Australian’s commentators to Bad News is polarising, implying that one is either with Manne and against The Australian, or vice versa. The paper’s editor, Chris Mitchell, attributes ‘Green values’ to Manne, and since The Australian has in the past openly argued in support of the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box, one assumes that Manne’s ideas must be similarly destroyed.

This attitude is utterly unhelpful. The world does not split neatly into, on the one hand, Greens, leftists, latte-sipping inner city elites and humanities academics, and on the other, rational, hard-working, ‘real-world’ Australians. There is a complex range of views in our society, a range which the paper says it gives voice to in its op-ed pages even as its own rhetoric of left versus right continually denies this complexity.

On some issues, The Australian is capable of representing a variety of views. On others, such as on its own role in Australian political debate, the paper seems quite unwilling to engage critically or productively. Both Paul Kelly and Chris Mitchell have labelled Manne’s criticism as attack. This is another rhetorical bad habit, found on both ‘sides’ of the issue. There is a vast difference between critique and attack, and to blur the boundaries between the two does a disservice to public debate.

But of course, businesses and politicians are both adverse to considering their faults publicly. It seems ironic that we ask primary school students to self-evaluate, yet The Australian is unable to publicly do the same.

As I have said, I am a loyal reader of the paper. But in spite of this I do not trust much of what I read in its pages, both news and opinion, aware that there are often holes in the paper’s coverage or commentary. This makes me uncomfortable. Yes, debate is and should be uncomfortable, but not because our only national, general-interest broadsheet appears to be pushing its own point of view, with a frequent disregard for journalistic principles.

A shorter version of this piece also appears on upstart, and is available here.

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