Important, but…

The Monthly is the new magazine on the block. Modelling itself on the New Yorker, the Melbourne-based publication is a noble attempt at producing high-quality, essay style articles on issues of the day. Its success rate is decidedly mixed, not least due to its insistence on commissioning the “old guard” of Australian publishing, from Robert Manne to Helen Garner, Kerryn Goldsworthy to Linda Jaivin. Thus far, the choice of writers has been fairly conventional.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. It’s a new magazine, the editors want to establish a name for the publication and they simply need to do this by hiring big names. Maybe. The quality of the writing is not in question – generally speaking – and neither is the attractive layout. I want to see a brave new magazine that is unafraid to challenge Australia’s underlying assumptions and those of our media elite. I’m not giving up yet. To do this, editors need to commission articles that are unpredictable, controversial, edgy and young. The signs are not wholly convincing. Where, for example, is the inclusion of online writers and bloggers, voices of today rather than yesterday?

This month features a cover article by Robert Manne on the Iraq war. Titled “Murdoch’s War”, it tells the compelling story of the media owner, the Australian’s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt. Manne systematically dissects the Australian’s support for the war, its ability to bypass facts on WMD, Iraq nationalism and US foreign policy and constantly move the goalposts when previously claimed justifications no longer exist.

Manne says reading Bolt’s columns is akin to “being trapped in a small room with an angry, indignant, simple-minded man who believes the best way of convincing you that he is right, yet again, is to ridicule and shout.” Sheridan’s “journalism” is dismissed as the “kind of uncritical enthusiasm one might expect from a teenager in love.” The Melbourne academic convincingly argues his case, dismissing the numerous factual errors, assumptions, articles of faith and outright lies told by the Murdoch press to convince a wary public that the Iraq war was essential to democracy and freedom. The Murdoch press is shameless, deceitful, devious and unethical, but then, what’s new?

Manne dismisses the Fairfax press as “no longer playing the kind of balancing role they once did. Now run by a board of corporation investors, they have almost altogether forgotten the tradition of fierce independence that still produces the best family-owned quality newspapers in the US: the New York Times and The Washington Post.”

Come again? Let me get this straight. Manne slams the Murdoch press and praises two American papers that, without a doubt, contributed a barrage of mis-information and propaganda before the Iraq war. Is Manne unaware of this? It’s hardly possible. Does Manne think that the actions of Times journalist Judith Miller – perhaps the person most responsible for channelling false WMD claims through Ahmed Chalabi – are less responsible than the Murdoch press? If so, he’s delusional.

Manne’s censure of the Fairfax press is warranted. They have indeed become a shadow of their former self, preferring to follow rather than lead and positioning themselves as the media company best suited to pursue the new lifestyle agenda of the 21st century. Brave stuff, indeed. But by simply highlighting the Murdoch press – easy targets and thoroughly predictable – Manne has missed a golden opportunity. His slavish praise of the American media shows a disturbing sign of cultural cringe. Of course, certain American outlets have behaved admirably over the last years, but the Post and Times are not two of these publications.

Black Inc Books is soon releasing a book on the media, edited by Manne, called “Do Not Disturb”. Let’s hope his power of analysis improves.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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