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The Oz loses it

June 14th, 2007

Following the collapse of its delusionist position on climate change, and the manifest failure of the war in Iraq it pushed hard, and with contempt for anyone who warned of the likely results, The Australian had a lot of ground to make up if it was to regain its status as a credible participant in Australian public debate. A straightforward admission of error, unlikely as it ever was, would probably have been the most effective way of achieving this goal. The more traditional route, safe enough in the days before Internet archives would be to change tack and simply forget about past mistakes. It seemed, a week or so ago, that the Oz would go that way.

Instead we’ve had a series of increasingly bizarre editorials, in which the national daily reads as if it is on the losing side in a blogospheric flamewar. The editorial on Saturday (the headline Editorial: Reality bites the psychotic Left gives the drift) made no sense until Clive Hamilton gave the backstory in New Matilda, showing how the Oz did its best to squelch Clive’s justified criticism in Scorcher. The Oz has come back with even sillier responses, such as today’s odd little snark (end of the page)

Although the Oz has been happy to personalise this dispute, demonising Clive and dragging in the usual suspects like Robert Manne for good measure, I’d rather not do so. Quite a few people I’ve generally respected at the Oz have gone way over the top in relation to both global warming and Iraq. My attempts to warn some of them that the paper was in danger of discrediting itself fell on deaf ears.

The problem appears to be institutional rather than individual. On these and other issues, the whole culture of The Australian has become insulate itself from reality in the same way as the US right. Now that reality is rudely obtruding itself, the reaction has been thoroughly counterproductive.

Given the inevitable parochialism of the Sydney and Melbourne Fairfax papers, the narrow focus of the Fin and the poor quality of papers elsewhere, Australia needs a high-quality national daily. The Australian went a fair way towards meeting this need in the past, admittedly with a clearly rightwing orientation. But the last few years have been disastrous, and it’s hard to see how the paper can recover now without a radical shakeup.

More from Tim Dunlop inside the news.com.au tent at blogocracy.

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  1. Paulkelly
    June 14th, 2007 at 17:51 | #1

    Murdoch’s recent disowning of some of his Sydney papers’ behaviour show that the Oz ones have mutated into creatures worse than oveseas – or at least American – counterparts.

    I think Tommy Switzer writes their childish, clunky ‘the left’ editorial stuff.

  2. dk.au
    June 14th, 2007 at 18:01 | #2

    The Oz had ‘it’ on climate change in the roughly same sense that teleshrubby had Iraq by declaring victory on an aircraft carrier (eg. from last January).

  3. jquiggin
    June 14th, 2007 at 20:43 | #3

    My dealings with Switzer (extensive when he was at the Fin, and more limited at the Oz) have always been quite positive. And I think it’s a mistake to single him out. Alan Wood, Michael Stutchbury and your namesake PK have followed the straight delusionist line, conspiracy theories, hockey sticks and all. While I often disagree with all of them, I would in the past have always regarded them as people to be taken seriously.

    I conclude that it’s not any one person but the institution as a whole that has problems here.

  4. June 14th, 2007 at 20:47 | #4

    There are very few (perhaps none) of the Australian’s regular political op-edders who have not descended to the level of predictable, conservative-bu-numbers slaying of leftist strawmen. Of course, the newspaper has one token ‘lefty’, so it must be ‘fair and balanced’.
    As Melbourne reader, I suspect the Oz is even more brazenly propagandist than the Herald Sun these days. At least the latter paper has been giving Lindsay Tanner a regular column, to partly counterbalance the drivel of Bolt and Arndt.

  5. June 14th, 2007 at 22:22 | #5

    moved to Weekend reflections

  6. mugwump
    June 14th, 2007 at 22:44 | #6

    OT, but why does anyone with half a brain listen to Clive Hamilton?

    Since it’s OT and not very useful, I’ve deleted the rest of this rant. Post in one of the open threads if you want

  7. Paulkelly
    June 15th, 2007 at 09:51 | #7

    John, was more an observation about Switzer, that those sorts of editorials have his fingerprints on them. The fact that they get a run, that he or whoever is given a brief to pen such third rate dross, is the bigger issue.

    Robert Manne in Crikey yesterday noted that at the same time they were smirking in the editorial about him appearing in their letters pages (and so no-one’s gagging him etc) they, unbeknownst to him, deleted from his letter a reference to a ludicrous, triumphalist editorial in 2003 after Saddam’s statue had fallen.

    What they cut out was ““On the invasion of Iraq [The Australian] argued that the performance of the anti-war left had been a disgrace. ‘Remember the bloody campaign in which we were going to get bogged down … It is not love but being a left-wing intellectual that means you never have to say you’re sorry.’â€?.

    (That 2003 editorial had all the hallmarks not of Switzer but the dreadful Imre Salusinszky.)

    They also chopped and changed something Manne had written to make it appear he supported suicide bombers who kill civilians.

    There is a sick culture at that paper.

  8. June 15th, 2007 at 10:57 | #8

    paul kelly’s ‘sick culture’ might describe the ‘oz’ as well as any two words, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum- the larger oz remains in an evolutionary dead end of baboon troop politics. parliamentary culture creates the people who read and respond to monkey-hooting, stick-throwing op-ed writing.

  9. June 15th, 2007 at 17:47 | #9

    You see things John from the prism of your own ideology. I agree that the Australian has been strident and foolish in its opposition to climate change and in seeking to identify defects in the Labor Party in the leadup to the election.

    But from my ideological prism the Age in Melbourne is equally as strident in its consistent negative attacks on the government and its conspiratorial reasoning over the motives driving John Howard.

    A friend and I have coffee each morning and compare the two newspapers. They are at polar extremes in terms of the angle they put on the news. Robert Manne et al (and particularly the female journalists) at the Age are no less dreadful than those at the Australian in presenting a totally biased view of Australian politics.

    Moreover, both papers have a predictability about the slant of their news and current affairs stories that reduces their credibility. It also reduces their interest – a viewpoint that surprises you is often something attractive.

    This is an ‘aint it awful’ comment. I don’t have a clue what to suggest but I do just want to make the point that the disintegration in quality in the Australian media is not only a problem in one part of the media.

  10. Paulkelly
    June 15th, 2007 at 18:09 | #10

    But hc, this post is largely about actual editorials, that is the leaders, and the way they “go” individuals: misquoting, ridiculing, snickering. I

    don’t think I’ve read an Age editorial in years, but I doubt there is any comparison.

  11. jquiggin
    June 15th, 2007 at 18:36 | #11

    As PK says, it’s not a question of bias or slant. The Australian has been biased to the right for decades, just as the Age has been biased to the left. But I can’t imagine the Age running an editorial in which the government is described as psychotic. This was, quite literally how the Oz editorial headlined its attack.

  12. Jill Rush
    June 15th, 2007 at 22:14 | #12

    My reaction to the psychotic label was to apply it to the writer. It wasn’t one of the balanced editorials one expects.

    The editor sets the tone of the paper and whilst there did appear to be some pulling back from the polemic a few weeks ago it didn’t last long.

    I have wondered if the Australian is following a line to enrage people in order to get better online circulation as its advertising revenue is down as advertsisers realise it is expensive with a low circulation.

    It is the only paper in the country which has made such a point of labelling and denigrating. For instance Janet Albrechtsen has held western feminists responsible for the oppression of women in the middle east on several occasions. Why it is the fault of western feminists that women in the middle east are oppressed rather than those men who hold powerful positions but don’t make any fuss has never been made clear.

    No wonder the staff and editors at the Australian wished to silence Clive Hamilton through labelling him as part of the psychotic left. He comes across as a reasonable writer who presents evidence for his opinions. The Australians own writers don’t bother too much with the facts and only use isolated information out of context in order to draw a moral lesson about the evils of the left or other hated group.The Editor of the Australian clearly hadn’t read the book Silencing Dissent or deliberately misinterpreted it. Clive Hamilton’s piece makes this point very well.

    The readership of the Australian may be solid but the writing is by and large boring and predictable. Christopher Pearson writes about the need to obey the Pope, that any women who has an opinion is a bad person and anyone in the Labor Party as evil. Kevin Donnelly wants vouchers for schools and to stop children feeling good about themselves by learning early in life who are the winners and who are the losers and if they are bored in class too bad.

    This was a paper which had challenging and interesting writers. The current editor is responsible for the content as writers will not continue to write in a particular style unless that is what the editor expects. The paper has stopped quality writing during his tenure.

  13. Paulkelly
    June 16th, 2007 at 09:23 | #13

    Organs such as the Oz like to carry on about what they see as “most modernism”, and how it is corrupting our schools and institutions etc. But you describe place the rise of the ignoramus as serious commentator/editorial writer as a triumph of this “post-modernism”.

    Janet Albrechsten personifies the ignoramus as expert on everything. She knows nothing about anything except some particular area of the law, yet she holds forth with strong opinions on every topic under the sun. Like Andrew Bolt at the Hun(who, being a trained journo, has no excuse) the evidence largely comes from like-minded blogs, and like him she gets caught out with dodgy material from time to time.

    The placement of proudly ignorant sticking it up the “non-expert”, just operating on gut-feeling and good old Aussie common sense, in the country’s one national broadsheet has a “post-modern” feel about it.

    It’s kind of post-modern, anti-establishment and “way cool”. Sort of like Big Brother.

  14. Paulkelly
    June 16th, 2007 at 09:23 | #14

    I meant “post modernism” of course. How annoying.

  15. Paulkelly
    June 16th, 2007 at 09:25 | #15

    2nd line should read “But you could describe …” [even more annoying.]

  16. Paulkelly
    June 16th, 2007 at 15:25 | #16

    Elaborating a little. You’ve got an absolute nong occupying front and centre of the most prestigious op-ed space in the country, giving forthright opinions on all the important isses of the day – war in Iraq; global warming; Palestine; immigration; Islam; culture wars; terrorism and so on – none of which she has the foggiest idea about. She reads nothing but like-minded blog sites.

    I can almost hear Catherine Lumby celebrating this as “radically democratic”, taking power away from the “experts” and putting it back in the hands of the masses.

    The Oz is postmodern!

  17. jstrocch
    June 18th, 2007 at 05:37 | #17

    Paulkelly Says: June 16th, 2007 at 9:23 am

    Organs such as the Oz like to carry on about what they see as “most modernism�, and how it is corrupting our schools and institutions

    Paulkelly Says: June 16th, 2007 at 9:23 am

    I meant “post modernism� of course. How annoying.

    Actually, I like “most-modernism” better!

  18. jstrocch
    June 18th, 2007 at 06:01 | #18

    Paulkelly Says: June 16th, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    You’ve got an absolute nong occupying front and centre of the most prestigious op-ed space in the country, giving forthright opinions on all the important isses of the day – war in Iraq; global warming; Palestine; immigration; Islam; culture wars; terrorism and so on – none of which she has the foggiest idea about. She reads nothing but like-minded blog sites.

    Sure, JA is a bit of a blow-hard. But she is not alone.

    The Left and Right op-edders on all major metros do not seem terribly interested in evidentiary controls to their ideological rants. (Pr Q excluded of course). Thats what makes opening the op-ed page on the broadsheets a ground-hog day experience.

    JA;s Right wing line is no more biased than the Left-wing stuff being pumped out by the op-edders on the SMH and AGE, day-in and day-out. I mean, Catherine Deveny, Tracee [!] Hutchinson, that Lebanese bloke, David Marr…

    Do they really believe that the Howard govt is the usher of a new dark age in democracy? I feel embarassed for old-fashioned left-wingers when I read the tripe that that lot crank-out in the name of “the Left”.

    But the AUstralian goes one step further by flat out contradicting on bleeding obvious facts (union bogeys, Iraq boostering, climate change denialism in particular). They have the right to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

    Interesting to see if the Australian political commentariat have been indulging in similar head-in-the-sandism over Howard’s dizzying slump in the polls. They cant seem to believe that its real – I have trouble myself given the betting market movements – but if the polls turn out to be predictive then a lot of Howard-hugging pundits will have no place to hide.

    Ferr crissake, Howard’s govt is generally a moderate Centre-Rightist: NESB loving, battler-bribing and Near-North defending.

    It throws the occasional ideological sop to the barking-mad foaming-at-the mouth Ultra-Rightists. So what? A little bit of the beast does and should lurk in each and every one of us. Just in case.

  19. derrida derider
    June 18th, 2007 at 09:34 | #19

    Jack speaks sense (and speaks it concisely, too – thanks Jack).

    The real joke, of course, is that we are about to replace a centre-right coalition with an ever-so-slightly more centrist centre-right labor party. The major advantage of which, IMO, is that they are likely to be a bit less devious and have fewer incompetent spear-carriers in their ministry. The major disadvantage is that they’ll be at least as beholden to sectional interests as the current lot – just different interests (I really worry about their industry policy).

    But you’d never realise this from the press pundits.

  20. Paulkelly
    June 18th, 2007 at 11:29 | #20

    Emeritus Professor Strocchi,

    I don’t think those others set themselves up as experts on everything under the sun.

    David Marr may carry on, but I suspect he at least reads the odd book. He does a bit of research. Janet just reads Andrew Bolt’s blog and associated links.

  21. Razor
    June 18th, 2007 at 17:33 | #21

    dd said “The major advantage of which, IMO, is that they are likely to be a bit less devious and have fewer incompetent spear-carriers in their ministry.”

    You are kidding, right??? Witness the Blair Government in the UK on which the potential Rudd governmnet will be modelled – Spin Kings extraordinaire!!! Let alone the behaviour of the state ALP Governments. Just because you don’t like how the politics are being played by your opposing team doesn’t mean your side (Rudd) is going to be any better. Anecdotal evidence is that Rudd is a Spin Control Freak and his staff threaten journalists.

  22. Paulkelly
    June 18th, 2007 at 17:43 | #22

    Razer is correct. It’s the natural evolution of this thing we call, for want of a better word, “democracy”. A career bureaucrat is not likely to run an open, low spin regime.

    However, one would hope they don’t play the man quite so nastily as Abbott, Heffo et al.

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