Changing of the guard

Guy Rundle, Arena Issue 91:

Australian intellectual life changed when Murdoch — Rupe or Lachlan (remember Lachlan?) — sacked Paul Kelly as editor of the eponymous national broadsheet, and moved him sideways to be editor-at-large. Under Kelly’s editorship, the one-time left-liberal publication had moved to a position on the Centre-Right — hardly strident, but committed to framing issues in a certain way, and prioritising certain debates. It was pretty scrupulous in its attitude to the factuality of its news stories, hands off with regard to book reviews, and possessed of a sombre and considered opinion section featuring a series of regular columnists. It was also monumentally boring, a policy wonks newspaper, the op-ed pages featuring huge slabs of Alan Wood, Judith Sloan and their ilk, overwhelmingly focused on the topics that would form the substance of Kelly’s book, The End of Certainty.

The subsequent appointment of Chris Mitchell, notorious as Courier Mail editor for an obsessive and unbalanced campaign against the memory of Manning Clark, was a sign of what the paper was about to become — one which imported an American notion of the ”˜culture wars’ to Australian life and attempted to reshape debate in that fashion. Murdoch’s tabloids had already begun that process, but in those there was limited scope for anything more than passing swipes. The Australian offered the opportunity to frame the debate more explicitly. Prior to this, during the brief Downer follies leadership of the Liberal Party in 1994, John Howard had carefully laid out his comeback strategy by working up the then relatively new theme of political correctness, drawing in a section of Labor’s socially conservative working-class voters irritated by Paul Keating’s combination of historical revision — such as the Redfern speech — and unashamed celebration of excellence in the arts (and implicitly critical notion of an Australian complacency about cultural achievement). Howard took the PC theme all the way to the 1996 election, portraying it not as the enemy itself, but as the sort of thing that was wrong with the Keating Government. By the time he was joined by The Australian, and by columnists such as the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, who were more willing to draw ideas into their columns; political correctness had acquired a class base — the ”˜elites’.

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